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At a little after 8am (1300 GMT), gunfire was heard coming from inside a building at the Washington Navy Yard that is used as the headquarters of the Naval Sea Systems Command Headquarters.
Witnesses said they saw an armed man open fire with an AR-15 assault rifle from a fourth floor atrium overlooking a cafeteria.
The shooter, who was later identified by the FBI as military contractor and former Navy reservist Aaron Alexis, killed 12 people before being shot dead by police.
Initial news reports indicated that there may have been as many as three armed men in the attack, but at press time officials said they had been able to determine that Alexis was a lone gunman. The motive, however, is still unknown.
Washington, DC Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier and Mayor Vincent C. Gray told the media that the seven identified victims ranged in age from 46 to 73 years old.
The families of the six other victims were in the process of being notified.
Calling the shooting a “horrific tragedy”, Gray told a press conference at 1am (0600 GMT) that there has been no evidence of terrorism “at this time” but said it was not ruled out. He said investigations into motive were still ongoing. An FBI official also confirmed that Alexis had a valid pass to enter the Naval grounds.
Meanwhile, US President Barack Obama condemned the attack as a “cowardly act” and pledged a thorough investigation.
“We still don’t know all the facts. But we do know that several people have been shot, and some have been killed. So we are confronting yet another mass shooting,” said Obama.
“We sent thoughts and prayers to all at the Navy Yard that have been touched by the tragedy,” he added.
The high casualty rate and the nature of the firearm used immediately prompted debate among lawmakers and in the media about gun control.