An 88-year-old gunman with a violent anti-Semitic past opened fire with a rifle inside the crowded US Holocaust Memorial Museum, killing a black security guard before being shot by other officers.
White supremacist James von Brunn was in a critical condition today, leaving behind a sprawling investigation and expressions of shock from the Israeli government and a prominent Muslim organisation.
Washington police chief Cathy Lanier said the gunman was “engaged by security guards immediately after entering the door” yesterday with a rifle.
“The second he stepped into the building he began firing,” she said.
The museum was crowded with schoolchildren and other tourists at the time of the attack.
Police sources said von Brunn’s car was found near the Washington museum and tested for explosives.
When von Brunn was captured he possessed a list he had made of politicians in the US Congress, according to another law enforcement officer. The purpose of the list was not immediately clear.
The dead guard was 39-year-old Stephen Johns, who had worked at the museum for six years. Director Sara Bloomfield said he “died heroically in the line of duty”.
At the White House, just streets away from the museum, President Barack Obama said: “This outrageous act reminds us that we must remain vigilant against anti-Semitism and prejudice in all its forms.
“No American institution is more important to this effort than the Holocaust Museum and no act of violence will diminish our determination to honour those who were lost by building a more peaceful and tolerant world.”
Israeli information and diaspora minister Yuli Edelstein said the shooting was “further proof that anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial have not passed from the world”.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a prominent American Muslim organisation, said in a statement: “We condemn this apparent bias-motivated attack and stand with the Jewish community and with Americans of all faiths in repudiating the kind of hatred and intolerance that can lead to such disturbing incidents.”
Von Brunn, of Annapolis, Maryland, has a racist, anti-Semitic website and wrote a book called Kill The Best Gentiles, alleging a Jewish “conspiracy to destroy the white gene pool”.
In 1983, he was convicted of attempting to kidnap members of the Federal Reserve Board and served more than six years in prison.
Writings attributed to von Brunn on the internet say the Holocaust was a hoax.
“At Auschwitz the ’Holocaust’ myth became reality, and Germany, cultural gem of the West, became a pariah among world nations,” it says.
The museum, which opened in 1993 and has drawn nearly 30 million visitors, houses exhibits and records relating to the Holocaust of more than a half a century ago in which more than six million Jews died at the hands of Nazis.
Its website says the museum “teaches millions of people each year about the dangers of unchecked hatred and the need to prevent genocide”.
Ashley Camp, 14, on a field trip with more than 40 other pupils, said she heard two or three gunshots. Soon after, she recalled, a security guard ordered the group to run to the exit.
“We had to sprint as fast as we could out the door,” she said. “I thought it was the movie (part of a museum exhibit), but then everyone started screaming and running.”
The attack was the third in a recent wave of shootings that appeared to have political or ethnic underpinnings.
US Army private William Long, 23, was shot dead outside a recruiting office earlier this month in Arkansas and a fellow soldier was wounded. The suspect, a Muslim convert, said he considered the killing justified because of the US military presence in the Middle East.
Late last month, abortion provider Dr George Tiller was gunned down in his Kansas church.