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Arizona teen who brought AR-15 to school had ‘lightning link’ device to make the gun fully automatic, court docs say

The 15-year-old accused of bringing an AR-15 to his Phoenix high school last week also allegedly possessed a device that would allow the weapon to function as a fully automatic machine gun, according to court documents exclusively obtained by NBC News.

The boy allegedly brought the device — known as a “lightning link” — along with a disassembled AR-15 and ammunition to Bostrom High School on Friday, according to the probable cause statement. The AR-15 was disassembled into an upper and lower receiver, the two main parts of the gun, according to the probable cause statement.

“When combining the upper, lower receiver and lightning link together they create a prohibited weapon,” it says. An AR-15 is normally a semi-automatic weapon, but the addition of the lightning link would make it fully automatic, meaning it could fire continuously without the shooter having to repeatedly pull the trigger.

Bostrom High School in Phoenix, Arizona.
Bostrom High School in Phoenix. KPNX

The boy — who was arrested on four felony charges and remains in custody — denied he owned the AR-15 and told authorities “he was holding it for someone,” the probable cause statement says.

He told police that he received the firearm that same day while on school grounds and “denied knowing the rifle could function as a machine gun when the lightning link was inserted into the rifle,” according to the probable cause statement. 

Detained by the principal, live ammunition, incriminating Instagram messages

The court documents provide new details on the disturbing allegations against the boy, who NBC News is not naming because he is a minor.

Police were called to the Phoenix campus just after 12:45 p.m. on Friday, when they received reports from unidentified sources “that a student was possibly in possession of a firearm” and that officials placed the school on lockdown while they detained the student in the main office.

When police arrived shortly before 1 p.m., they found the boy in the main office speaking to the principal and vice principal, the probable cause document states. The boy allegedly swore at police and moved his hands towards his waistband, prompting officers to handcuff him and place him under arrest. 

Police allegedly found the lightning link in the boy’s backpack along with a lower receiver for the rifle with a fully loaded magazine, additional ammunition and firearm-related accessories, it states. The upper receiver was found concealed inside the boy’s sweatpants “with the barrel facing upwards towards the officers” and a live cartridge inside the chamber, according to the document. 

Following the boy’s arrest, police assembled the pieces of the AR-15 and found it “successfully test fired as a functioning firearm,” the probable cause statement says.

And after police obtained a search warrant for the boy’s laptop, they allegedly found Instagram messages between the boy and another minor negotiating the sale of a firearm, the probable cause statement says. It is unclear whether the other juvenile was also a student at the school, or whether they were discussing the firearm the boy allegedly brought to the school.

The boy denied the Instagram conversation and told police he was selling gloves, the statement says. There were no other juveniles detained in relation to the incident, according to Donna Rossi, director of communications for the Phoenix police.

He was arrested on charges including minor in possession of a firearm; manufacturing possessing or selling a deadly weapon; disorderly conduct with a weapon; and interfering with an educational institution, according to the juvenile arrest worksheet.

The detain order, filed in the juvenile department of Maricopa County Superior Court, states that the boy must remain detained and that the court found he is likely to harm himself or others, and that his “caretaker(s) are unable to control, supervise or parent the juvenile in a home environment, despite the caretaker’s best effort to do so,” and that “the juvenile requires stabilization and structure in an out-of-home placement setting.” 

The boy is required to appear in court with a parent on June 12 for a pre-trial conference, the document states. He made his first court appearance on Saturday, according to a spokesperson for the juvenile court.

It was not immediately clear how and when the boy in Phoenix allegedly obtained the gun, whether it was assembled or disassembled at the time he allegedly obtained it and whether the weapon was disassembled in order to allegedly be brought to the campus.

Rossi said the department’s specialized gun crime unit is working to trace the source of the weapon and ammunition, and that there is currently “no indication” that the weapon could be classified as a ghost gun, an untraceable weapon assembled by parts often bought online. 

Court documents also did not provide additional context about where or how the juvenile obtained the lightning link, a small piece of metal resembling a bent key that can be slipped into the trigger mechanism of the firearm to allow for continual firing by holding the trigger down. Though they have been regulated since 1986, law enforcement officials said there are other ways to mimic the device to skirt regulations.

An official with the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office previously said the office “does not comment on juvenile cases” and could not immediately be reached Thursday.

Representatives for the Phoenix Union High School District could not immediately be reached.

“As always, the safety and well-being of our staff, students, and visitors remains our top priority, and we will work with law enforcement as they continue to investigate,” an earlier statement from the district said.

Parents were ‘in shock,’ mom says

The boy’s mother, who asked not to be identified, told NBC News she and her husband “don’t know where he got the gun from.” She said her son has ADHD and described him as “a little guy, he’s easily influenced, he wants to fit in.” She said that she was not aware of the allegation that he possessed a device to make the weapon fully automatic.

The mother said that nobody in their immediate family owns guns and that her son has never expressed an interest in guns and does not have a criminal history, adding that she and her husband were “in shock” when they heard the allegations he was facing.

“It was your typical Friday morning, we were talking about vacationing for the summer,” she said.

“All of a sudden, later on in the afternoon, I get a call about him being taken by the police regarding a gun that he had on campus,” she said.

She added that her son does not have a lawyer and that he is allowed one phone call a day while in detention.

“We’re just going with the flow, so far so good,” she said.

The boy’s father could not immediately be reached Thursday afternoon.

It was not immediately clear whether the boy’s parents could face charges in connection with the incident. Rossi said that will be “part of the investigation.” The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office did not immediately respond to questions. 

Growing calls to regulate AR-15s 

The alleged incident also raises questions about how a minor could allegedly obtain a potentially lethal weapon that has become an increasing source of controversy — and death — in American life.

The AR-15 has been the weapon behind a dozen of the 21 deadliest mass shootings in the U.S. since 2006, including the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas that killed 60 people and the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, that killed 26.   

Arizona prohibits minors from buying or possessing a gun without written consent from a parent or guardian, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a nonprofit gun control advocacy group. The state does not ban adults from possessing semi-automatic rifles, but it does ban machine guns and bump stocks, according to the Giffords Law Center. It also bans firearms on school grounds, except by those authorized to carry them or for use in approved school programs.

An automatic weapon is defined as “any type of weapon that fires two or more rounds at the single pull of trigger,” said Rich Marianos, a retired assistant director of the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The 1934 National Firearms Act requires that anyone who owns a fully automatic weapon to register and pay an annual tax on it. Laws that have passed since further sought to regulate importation or manufacturing of these weapons as well as devices that could make them fully automatic.

The Phoenix incident came just days after an 18-year-old shooter in New Mexico used three weapons — including an AR-15 — to fatally shoot three elderly women: Shirley Voita, 79, Melody Ivie, 73 and her mother Gwendolyn Schofield, 97. The shooter was killed by police on Monday following his deadly rampage.

As mass shootings have increased, calls have intensified to place restrictions around sales of semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15, which was originally created for military use and is now copied by a variety of manufacturers under different names.

With their ability to fire bullets at a fast speed, AR-15s are known to inflict extensive damage to the human body and are more likely to be deadly than other firearms.

Washington state banned semi-automatic rifles last month, becoming the ninth state, along with Washington, D.C., to enact such a ban. President Joe Biden has called for a national semi-automatic weapons ban in light of the increase in mass killings. 

But so far, such a ban has failed to pass in Congress

“You’re staring down the barrel of a weapon of war — this isn’t a slingshot, this isn’t a pellet gun, this isn’t a knife,” Marianos, the former ATF assistant director said. “Where’s the accountability? There’s none.”