Gunman kills two in US mall shooting

COLUMBIA, United States - A gunman carrying homemade explosives shot dead two people at a popular shopping mall near Washington on Saturday before killing himself, US police said.

Investigators were grappling for a motive but said that they had "tentatively identified" the gunman, who had "a large amount of ammunition" still on and around him when officers found his body in a store alongside the two victims at the upscale Columbia Mall in Maryland.

"Because of concerns about any other weapons he may have or explosives, we are approaching this with an abundance of caution," Howard County Police Chief Bill McMahon said.

"We're getting assistance from some of our federal partners and making sure there are no explosives on the body of the deceased."

Police later tweeted that a search of the gunman's bag turned up two crude devices "that appeared to be attempt at making explosives. Both disabled."

They did not immediately reveal the identity of the gunman - who they said appeared to have killed himself with a shotgun - and special units continued to comb the mall late into the night.

First responders were alerted to mid-morning gunfire at the mall, a favorite weekend spot for young families about 45 minutes outside downtown Washington, by an emergency police call indicating shots had been fired inside the two-story shopping center.

Badly shaken shoppers described how they fled in panic or cowered in store doorways. Some made frantic calls to loved ones, as the United States reeled from the latest in a slew of gun-related rampages.

"#HoCoPolice responded to 911 call in less than 2 minutes. Found victims and suspect dead from gunshots upon arrival," the Howard County Police Department tweeted.

Police identified the victims as Brianna Benlolo, 21, of College Park, Maryland, and Tyler Johnson, 25, of Ellicott City, Maryland. Both were employees of skateboard store Zumiez.

NBC television spoke to one man who said he was in phone contact with his daughter, who was taking shelter in a Bank of America branch inside the shopping center, along with dozens of others.

The young woman described a chaotic scene as shoppers were told to evacuate or quickly take shelter.

"People were panicking," her father said.

Howard County General Hospital said all five injured shooting victims have been treated and released. One had suffered a gunshot wound to a foot.

"The other four were either medical conditions or twisted ankles, things like that as people were moving away from a very, very chaotic and dangerous situation," McMahon said.

The mall of about 200 stores, which has an indoor carousel and play area, is a favored weekend destination for young and old alike.

Many people living in Columbia, a planned community replete with parks and good schools, work in either Washington or Baltimore.

The Baltimore Sun newspaper said shoppers reported hearing gunfire before fleeing the mall, home to several department stores such as Lord & Taylor, Macy's and Nordstrom.

An employee at one of the stores described the mayhem as shots resonated through the mall.

"In today's world that we live in, when you hear gunshots, you run. There's nothing else to do," he told CNN.

The most notorious shooting in recent US history took place in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012, when a young gunman entered an elementary school and opened fire. In 10 minutes, the 20-year-old shot and killed 26 people before taking his own life.

The Newtown attack briefly reignited the US gun control debate, triggered every time there is a major shooting, although attempts to pass tougher laws have made little headway in the US Congress.