By Eric Tucker and Lolita C. Baldor
WASHINGTON — A military contractor launched an attack Monday morning inside a building at a U.S. Navy complex, spraying gunfire on office workers in the cafeteria and in the hall.
President Barack Obama said he was mourning "yet another mass shooting" and called it a "cowardly act." Despite a string of shootings during his presidency, Obama has been powerless to get gun control legislation passed amid a fierce backlash from conservative politicians and the gun industry lobby.
The Navy Yard attack was the deadliest shooting at a U.S.-based military installation since an Army psychiatrist killed 13 people and wounded 30 others in 2009 at Fort Hood in Texas.
The FBI took charge of the investigation at the Navy Yard and identified the gunman killed in the attack as 34-year-old Aaron Alexis of Texas. He died after a running gunbattle with police, investigators said. Authorities said he was working in information technology with a company that was a Defense Department contractor but it wasn't clear if he was assigned to the Navy Yard. As a contractor, he could have had a badge that might have gained him access to the base.
The Navy said Alexis was a full-time reservist from 2007 to early 2011 and worked in a fleet logistics support unit in Texas. It was not immediately clear why he left.
Officials said at least three people were critically wounded in the rampage, including a law enforcement officer. Hospital officials said all three were expected to recover.
Alexis had been arrested in Seattle in 2004 for shooting out the tires of a parked car in what he described as an anger-fueled "black out." Two construction workers told police that Aaron Alexis walked out of a home next door on May 6, 2004, pulled a pistol from his waistband and fired three shots into the rear tires of their parked car. Alexis later told police he thought the victims had "disrespected him." Court records show he was released on the condition he not have contact with any of the workers.
Investigators said they had not established a motive for the shooting rampage, which unfolded less than four miles (less than 7 kilometers) from the White House. As for whether it may have been a terrorist attack, Mayor Vincent Gray said: "We don't have any reason to think that at this stage."
The shooting led to tightened security at the Capitol and White House nearby, including shutting down the Senate while a possible remaining shooter was sought. City Police Chief Cathy Lanier announced the death toll and said people were being told to stay in their homes and out of the area.
Witnesses described a gunman firing down on a cafeteria from an upper floor and a gunman firing at people in a hallway on another floor. It wasn't clear whether the witnesses were describing the same gunman.
The shooting quickly reignited the debate over gun control in the United States, but it was far from certain what the impact would be.
The politics of gun control have only gotten tougher since December's shooting at Connecticut's Sandy Hook Elementary School. That shooting, which killed 20 first-graders and six staffers, spurred Obama to propose stricter firearms laws.
White House spokesman Jay Carney on Monday reiterated the Obama's commitment to strengthening gun laws, including expanding background checks to sales online and at gun shows.
Gun owners, aided by their advocates at the National Rifle Association, the country's largest gun lobby, have successfully fought Obama's legislation, even though polls show broad support for tougher gun laws.
About 3,000 people work at the Naval Sea Systems Command headquarters, which builds, buys and maintains the Navy's ships and submarines and combat systems.
Todd Brundidge said he and other co-workers encountered a gunman in a hallway on the third floor. The gunman was wearing all blue, he said.
"He just turned and started firing," Brundidge said.
Terrie Durham added, "He aimed high and missed. He said nothing. As soon as I realized he was shooting, we just said, `Get out of the building.'"
Rick Mason said a gunman was shooting from a fourth-floor overlook in the hallway outside his office. He said the gunman was aiming down at people in the building's cafeteria. Mason said he could hear the shots but could not see a gunman.
Mason said there are multiple levels of security to reach his office. That "makes me think it might have been someone who works here," he said.
Patricia Ward said she was in the cafeteria.
"It was three gunshots straight in a row _ pop, pop, pop. Three seconds later, it was pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, so it was like about a total of seven gunshots, and we just started running," Ward told reporters.
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Copyright 2013 Associated Press