Vernon Howell’s arsenal includes hundreds of automatic weapons that he built by buying legal assault rifles and modifying them with parts bought at gun shows.

ATF spokesman Jack Killorin confirmed Sunday that there was nothing legally wrong with the way Howell got at least some of his weapons. Another source said Howell bought hundreds of legal AR-15 assault rifles, then converted them to automatic rifles with parts bought from gun show vendors.

Buying the guns and the parts apparently didn’t break the law, but using the parts to convert the guns to automatics did. Howell’s method left no trail of paperwork or records and made it virtually impossible for law enforcement agencies to track the weapons.

The AR-15s Howell bought are civilian versions of the military’s M-16 automatic rifle. The primary difference between the two is how fast they fire. Squeeze the trigger of an M-16 and it will fire 10 bullets a second until you let go or it runs out of bullets. Fire a shot with an AR-15 and you have to let go of the trigger before you can fire it again.

Converting an AR-15 to an automatic allows it to operate like an M-16.

One gun dealer said AR-15s can sell in the $800 range, and a gun expert said a shrewd bargainer could pay $200 for the parts necessary to convert one to automatic.

When agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms raided Howell’s Mount Carmel complex Feb. 28, they had a search warrant that would have permitted them to look for automatic weapons. When the agents piled out of cattle trailers and charged the complex, Howell and his followers unleashed a hail of gunfire, much of it from automatic weapons.

Four ATF agents died and 15 were wounded.

The ATF is investigating the sources of Howell’s guns and has confirmed that it has a Pensacola, Fla., investigation that is “specific to the Waco incident.” The investigation involves hundreds of guns.

A former Waco area gun dealer, who knew Howell, moved to Pensacola in January. Another gun dealer with knowledge of the transaction said Howell legally bought Colt AR-15 rifles from the dealer who moved to Pensacola.

Howell or someone helping him went to gun shows to guy the parts needed to convert the AR-15s to automatics, a knowledgeable source said. They would buy separate parts in batches from different dealers. Sources have said many of the guns Howell bought came from the Florida panhandle. Owners of gun stores near Pensacola said the ATF had told them not to discuss the former Waco area gun dealer or the investigation.

Several said, however, that all the gun sales they knew of were legal.

“There were no illegal sales to those individuals,” one said. “Any sales were legitimate. There’s no benefit to a licensed gun dealer to make illegal sales. You can lose your license.”

Another said that licensed gun dealers and those who fancy legal assault rifles are taking heat over the Mount Carmel incident.

“These rifles are no more vicious than any other gun,” he said. “They were originally intended for target shooting.

“They’re modern, black and evil-looking, so a lot of the paramilitary types like to buy them. Someone who knew what they were doing could create as much mayhem with a Winchester deer rifle.

“A gun is a gun is a gun, and it can hurt people.”

Read the Tribune-Herald's 7-part investigative series on the inner workings of the Branch Davidians. Hours after Part Two appeared in print, the ATF raided the group's compound.

Read the Tribune-Herald’s account of the ATF raid on the Branch Davidian compound on Feb. 28, 1993. Four ATF agents and six in the compound were killed in the gunfight.

Read the daily news accounts of the 51-day siege at the Branch Davidian compound near Elk, which began Feb. 28 and lasted until April.

Read the accounts of April 19 and beyond: FBI agents began inserting canisters of tear gas into the Branch Davidian compound in the early morning hours. By noon, it was on fire.