A man walked down Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House yesterday afternoon, pulled a semiautomatic rifle from under his knee-length coat and fired 20 to 30 rounds through the north fence before two bystanders grabbed the gun and tackled him.
Secret Service agents arrived moments later to arrest the gunman, who was identified as Francisco Martin Duran, 26, of Colorado Springs. They identified the weapon as a Chinese-made SKS, a rifle on which President Clinton recently imposed an import ban.
Clinton, just back from a trip to the Middle East, heard the crack of gunfire while he was watching a football game upstairs, White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta said, and was unhurt. At least three bullets struck the mansion, including one near the front door and another near the family residence. At least five bullets hit the West Wing press room, one shattering a window and the others striking the outer wall. There were no injuries.
Horrified passersby screamed and ran across Pennsylvania Avenue as the gunman, initially unchallenged, fired round after round from the assault weapon, which he carried with a strap over his shoulder. Some witnesses said it appeared that he was going to reload before two passersby stopped him.
Walking a baby in a stroller, Robert Haines, who identified himself as an independent candidate for president, grabbed the weapon as another man, who has not been identified, wrestled the gunman to the ground, witnesses said. Secret Service agents then swarmed the White House grounds and the area outside the fence.
Secret Service spokesman Dave Adams said Duran was charged early today with willfully damaging federal property and with possessing a firearm after having been convicted of a felony. He said Duran had been convicted of a federal assault charge in 1991, apparently while in the Army.
The shooting raised fresh questions about the Secret Service's ability to protect the president, six weeks after a man crashed the plane he was flying onto the South Lawn. After that incident, the Secret Service promised tighter security of the president's home.
Panetta said he has asked that the Secret Service investigation of yesterday's accident to be combined with the Sept. 12 plane crash. Richard Griffin, an assistant Secret Service director, said the Secret Service responded appropriately.
Asked why agents were not the first to get to the gunman, Griffin said they had to be sure the shooting was not a diversion to distract them from some further attack. Agents had to check elsewhere before they could concentrate on the gunman, he said.
Griffin noted that the Secret Service has long advocated closing off Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House as an added security measure. Panetta said he could not say whether administration officials would accept that recommendation, saying there is a "fine balance" between the president's security and the public's right to have access to the home of the chief executive.
Griffin said Clinton was not in danger and that the gunman appeared to be acting alone. "I would not characterize this as an assassination attempt. No way," Griffin said. A senior administration official said the gunman appeared "deranged" and that his comments to agents were "strange and rambling."
One law enforcement source said Duran was carrying a note the source characterized as a "semi-suicide note," which suggested that he wished to be killed in some sort of confrontation.
President Bush banned the import of some assault weapons, but the SKS was exempted. The market soon became flooded with the weapons, which could be bought for as low as $90, according to an aide to Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.). Earlier this year, Clinton banned the SKS when he extended most-favored-nation status to China.
The bystander who grabbed the gun, Haines, lives on Capitol Hill. He said last night that about half an hour before the shooting, the gunman stopped him on the street and asked questions about immigration policy. After the shooting, Haines said, the man began running toward the Treasury Department next door to the White House. Haines and the other bystander went after him.
"I tried to pull the gun away from him so he wouldn't shoot anyone else," Haines said. "We held him down, and then the Secret Service swarmed over the fence."
After the shooting, Secret Service agents cordoned off 17th Street NW between C and D streets, where they said the suspected gunman had parked a dark gray Chevy S10 pickup truck with a camper top and Colorado license plates.
At least half a dozen bumper stickers covered the truck. One read: "I just got a gun for my wife. It's the best trade I ever made." Another said, "Fire Butch Reno." Another said, "Those who beat their guns into plows will plow for those who don't."
Authorities in Colorado Springs said Duran's wife, Ingrid, reported him missing Oct. 1. According to the report she filed, Duran told her he was "off to buy some items he needed for target practice," said Sgt. Dean Kelsey, a spokesman for the El Paso County, Colo., sheriff's department.
"That was the last she ever saw or heard from him," said Kelsey, who added that Duran served in the Army from 1987 to 1991 and was employed at the Broadmoor hotel in Colorado Springs, but that he did not know in what capacity. Neighbors described Duran to the Associated Press as an upholsterer and said he wore camouflage clothing day and night. Kelsey said the missing person report listed no mental, physical or emotional problems for Duran and said county records showed no arrests.
The gun was purchased Sept. 13 in Colorado Springs, a law enforcement source said. Duran was taken for questioning to a Secret Service field office, where he asked for a lawyer, according to Special Agent Tim Cahill. "He's not saying anything anyway," Cahill told the Associated Press.
Pennsylvania Avenue was blocked off for several hours; crowds gathered to listen as witnesses told reporters what happened. Agents patrolled the grounds with dogs and stood on the roof scanning the area through binoculars.
"This shows there's always a potential for attack regardless of how much security they have. That's frightening," said Ana McCarthy, of South Orange, N.J.
"Were these people taking a long coffee break?" asked witness Claudio D'Agostino, a first-time visitor to Washington from San Diego who expressed concern that bystanders made the initial tackle.
Milton Klein, of Manhattan, said he was standing about 20 feet away from the gunman. Klein, his wife Norma, daughter Cindy Maron, and friend Mark Sofia were taking their first walk in front of the White House.
"It sounded like firecrackers," Klein said, a description repeated by several of the estimated 25 people in front of the mansion. "We couldn't believe it. I started to run across the street with my wife. The gun was aimed right through the fence."
As she ran screaming across the street, Norma Klein said she thought to herself, "I hope he doesn't turn around and start shooting at people."
Milton Klein and another witness said they saw about six people on the White House grounds walking near the press room. Several reporters were working inside.
Hillary Rodham Clinton is in California and Chelsea Clinton was away from the mansion, authorities said.
Peter Morris, a Cable News Network cameraman, said the CNN crew ran outside after several rounds were fired toward their cameras, which they keep on the north lawn for live TV shots. Morris said he began taking pictures of Secret Service agents rushing to the north side of the White House, with their weapons drawn.
"Initially there were five or six," Morris said. "Within 30 seconds, there were 30 or 40. It was confusion in the sense that no one knew what had happened exactly."
Secret Service officials said they did not know why the gunman would shoot at the White House. They said reports indicated that Duran had no history of trouble with the agency.
The president said last night that the gunman was caught because "ordinary citizens standing there did their duty." He said he hoped it would be "an example for others around the country."
The president spoke at a dinner at an annual conference of the National Italian American Foundation, Reuter reported. He told the guests "I also want you to know the Secret Service did its usual magnificent job. ... I was listening to a football game and ... they were up there within a minute."
Jokingly he said it was "nice to be back in the safety and security of the White House after going to the Middle East."
The president also said, according to AP, that the incident endorses the new crime bill, with its ban on assault weapons.
Across from the White House, Regina Reznick, a Polish immigrant from Chicago making her first trip here, worried about the shooting.
"This is the place that represents freedom," she said. "I'm afraid this is going to make the White House more isolated than it is now."
Staff writers Anna Borgman, Scott Bowles, Ruth Marcus, Robert O'Harrow Jr., Avis Thomas-Lester, Pierre Thomas and Martin Weil contributed to this report.