In 1992, two AT&T craftsmen in Georgia were chatting at work when the subject of guns came up. One of them, George Hill Jr., said he liked to use SKS rifles, an Eastern bloc predecessor of the AK-47 that had been redesigned for civilian use and was popular in the U.S. for backyard “plinking.” The other man, a collector named Charles Durham, said he’d like to own a gun like that. “I can get you one,” Hill remembers telling him, reports the Newark Star-Ledger.
Some 16 years later, a 19-year-old hospital orderly accidentally fired a single shot through his ceiling with the 40-inch-long semiautomatic Norinco SKS rifle that had been last registered to Durham. The rifle’s 7.62 mm round exploded through the floor of the apartment above, where 15-year-old Bukhari Washington, a promising high school student, was sleeping. It tore through his mattress and struck him in the back of the head, killing him instantly. The shooting jolted the public, and it raised a painful, unanswered question: How does a young man with a steady job and no criminal record get his hands on a military-style rifle outfitted with a 30-round clip? Because the SKS was sold so long ago, authorities will probably never be able to trace its path to Newark. The alleged shooter told detectives he’d found the gun in an abandoned apartment in a public housing complex. He said he was trying to unload it when it went off. “That gun could have been sold multiple times and there’s no trail of paperwork to follow,” said Michael Mohr, an agent in the New Jersey office of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.