John Markell, 58, the proprietor of Roanoke Firearms, about 30 miles away from the Virginia Tech campus, says that his employees perceived Seung-Hui Cho as "about as clean-cut a kid as you'd want to see" when he showed up at the shop in early March.
"It was a very unremarkable sale," Markell said Tuesday.
Markell said Cho didn't give the slightest hint that he was capable of mayhem. The salesman who sold Cho the Glock 19 9mm semi-automatic compact pistol barely remembers him, according to Markell, who was not at the store when Cho shopped for his murder weapon. The salesman did recall, said Markell, that Cho browsed for awhile, then picked out a Glock 19, which was not an unusual choice. This Austrian-made pistol is popular among competition shooters. A slightly larger version of the Glock sidearm is the favored service weapon of most U.S. police and sheriff's departments.
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Nothing else about Cho raised flags, Markell said: either he was an excellent actor, or he had not yet made a decision to hunt down and kill as many people as he could. "I honestly do not think it was on his mind to shoot all those people on the day he bought that gun," Markell said. "Nobody waits five weeks. Something had to set him off. I guess the loss of his girlfriend perhaps. But whatever it was, he just snapped."
According to Markell, Cho sailed through the background check. He presented three forms of identification a Virginia driver's license, checks imprinted with the same address and a U.S. immigration document proving that he was a permanent resident of the U.S. He used his own credit card for the gun, which retailed for $535.
Markell said the salesman ran an instant background check through the Virginia State police computer system, which also checks federal records. He added that he and his salesmen look for odd behavior. "You can't believe how much we screen people," he said. "We look to see people that are coming in to buy guns. Somebody that ducks behind a stand and starts whispering to somebody else he's with, we're not likely to deal with him."
It took only a few minutes for Cho to leave the store with his Glock-19.
It was not until late Monday afternoon that Markell learned that his store had sold Cho the weapon largely responsible for the largest mass murder in U.S. history. That's when three agents of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms showed up at his weathered store, which shares premises with a pawn shop and a beauty parlor in this out-of-the-way corner of Southwestern Virginia.
One of the salesmen manning the store at the time called Markell, who was at his home doing bookwork. Markell drove to the store in five minutes and was shown a receipt for the Glock, which, the agents informed him, had killed many of those who had died at Virginia Tech that morning. The receipt, the agents said, had been in one of Cho's pockets, perhaps the pocket of his backpack, and had been discovered when his corpse was searched.
Markell said he was thunderstruck. Like most people in this area, he has ties to Virginia Tech: his daughter graduated from the school in 1997 with a major in psychology. Markell, a former Cox Cable worker, said that he opened the shop eight years ago, to support his hobby, competition shooting, and since then has sold more than 16,000 guns. Up to yesterday, only four had turned up in homicides and two in suicides, he said.
"You can't imagine," he says. "It was bad enough to watch the carnage. I didn't know I was involved until yesterday evening. I feel the same thing would still have happened if he'd bought it somewhere else. I'm positive he did not buy that gun with all this in mind. You just don't buy a gun like that and then wait five weeks.... I don't believe I'm responsible, but at the same time I feel terrible that he used one of our guns."
Markell said the agents told him that Cho had filed off the serial number that is stamped into the weapon in three places. Filing serial numbers off guns doesn't obliterate them, however they are deeply impressed into the steel and can be raised with an acid bath. But the agents didn't have to send the guns to the lab to find their origin, because they found the receipt.
"The serial number is on the barrel, on the slide and on the bottom of the frame," Markell said. "That's quite a bit of work for anybody to do. Why anybody would go to that much trouble, because it had to take a long time, and then keep the receipt in his pocket?"
At the ATF agents' request, Markell pulled his records and quickly found his own copy of the receipt for the Glock 19. He also saw that Cho had bought a $10 box of 50 9-mm practice rounds, commonly know as full metal jacket rounds because they don't expand on contact like hollow-point rounds. These are sold for target shooting.
The Glock 19 is sold with two magazines, each capable of holding 15 rounds, double-stacked to make a compact clip not much bigger than a harmonica. Judging by the number of fatalities and wounded most of whom reportedly were shot more than once Cho may have fired a hundred or more rounds. Loading magazines is a slow business, so Markell figures that Cho must have acquired several more magazines and more ammunition from some other source.
At the agents' insistence, Markell went back through his books but found no record that his store was the source of the smaller Walther P-22 handgun that Cho also used in the shootings. The agents concluded the Walther (which sells for about $300), came from some other vendor.
As it turned out, the Glock 19 was perfect for Cho's deadly purpose. The gun is just 6.85 inches long and 5 inches wide, according to a Glock website, and thus easily concealed. A vest with several pockets can hold a number of compact 15-round magazines that fit a Glock 19. Cho surely knew that in cold weather a mass murderer could carry an arsenal on his back and in his pockets, and there would be no way to detect him, short of metal detectors at every entrance to every classroom building and dorm.