Anne Gonzales

State was flash point for rifle ban

Published: Sunday, Dec. 23, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1E
Last Modified: Monday, Dec. 31, 2012 - 10:14 am

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The call over the newsroom police scanner came in shortly before noon. A vehicle on fire. A shooter. An elementary school. We looked at each other quizzically.

It was Jan. 18, 1989, and I was a reporter at the Stockton Record, one of the few staffers at my desk at the lunch hour. I tumbled into a compact car with photo editor Dave Finch for a wild ride to Cleveland Elementary School.

As we screeched and weaved through traffic, dispatchers reported children getting shot. Finch kept declaring with a growing sense of dread, "This has to be a drill. This has to be a drill."

It was not a drill.

In a matter of minutes, a suicidal drifter named Patrick Purdy, armed with a Russian-style AK-47 rifle, raked the schoolyard with 106 bullets during lunch recess that day, killing five children and injuring 30 others before shooting himself in the head.

In the wake of carnage, Purdy left a nation in an uproar over the right to bear arms and whether that outweighed protecting the youngest and most vulnerable in our society. Purdy's actions spawned debates on mental illness and school security. And in an ironic quirk of serendipity, he raised cultural sensitivity for Southeast Asian refugees in Northern California.

Advocates on both sides of the gun control issue agree that the Stockton rampage was a flash point for dramatic measures to limit certain types of weapons. California soon passed the first assault weapons ban in the nation, which served as a model for a federal ban, and then adopted a universal background check for all gun sales in the state.

As we grapple with the painful images and accounts of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Connecticut, survivors and witnesses of the Stockton shooting are revisited by memories of their tragedy – one that predated Columbine High and Virginia Tech – its parallels to Sandy Hook and the aftermath of a day when innocence was shattered.

Finch and I abandoned the car several blocks from Cleveland Elementary and rushed to the unassuming school in a modest neighborhood. The first responders were already setting up a makeshift triage on the front lawn and were assessing and tending to small bodies laid out on blankets.

I was initially struck by two thoughts: the gentle coaxing of burly firefighters as they treated and soothed the young victims and the physical damage visited on tender flesh from an assault rifle.

Helicopters flew overhead; SWAT teams in camouflage swamped the playground; and mothers running onto school grounds had to be grabbed by two and three police officers and held back.

I saw a shy Asian girl tentatively standing at the fringes of the triage area, looking as if she didn't want to bother the busy medics. I asked her if she saw the shooter. She looked at me blankly.

I wondered if there was a language barrier, or if she was seriously injured, so I guided her to a firefighter. He asked her if she was hurt. She looked at us, hesitant and frightened. I told her it was OK, that the firefighter would help her. The girl turned around, lifted up her sweat shirt and bent over slightly.

Her upper thigh and buttock had been sprayed with shrapnel, or some material kicked up by bullets, leaving puncture wounds. I understood that she was not only scared and in pain, but ashamed at the location of her injury.

I walked away wordlessly, as she lay face down on a pallet. Behind me, I heard the kind, booming voice of the firefighter talking to her, and the rip of her jeans, until the sounds were swallowed up by the blur of the scene.

I felt powerless to find any words to comfort the girl. I was out of my element. I usually covered real estate and agriculture, and it would be two years before I became a mother. To imagine that midsized city newspaper reporters or photographers are somehow prepared for violent events is an overestimation of most of our credentials and a denial of our humanity.

Journalists weren't the only ones unfamiliar with the surreal scene at Cleveland Elementary.

Sovanna Koeurt, executive director of an Asian Pacific nonprofit in Stockton, said the image of young children at play being gunned down was unfamiliar to the nation.

"At that time, this was a big thing," Koeurt recalled last week. "Nothing like this ever happened in the U.S."

Koeurt was a 33-year-old mother of three boys attending Cleveland Elementary when Purdy snapped. She was at her home in the nearby Park Village complex, sewing costumes for an upcoming dance recital by Cambodian children, when she saw police cars and firetrucks at the school.

When she got there, her neighbors hurriedly drafted her as a translator. Many of the victims were Southeast Asian refugees living in her complex.

"All of the parents were panicking, crying," Koeurt said. "They grabbed my shirt, and pushed me to the podium. They handed me a list with names of kids who were injured and went to the hospital. They waited for me to read.

"All eyes look at me, thousands of eyes were looking at me," Koeurt said. "All I could think was, I didn't see the names of my kids. I was so lucky."

She stayed with the parents of the dead children after they were notified. I remember them being corralled into a classroom at Cleveland. I heard a mother's primal wail. It seemed like it would never end.

Koeurt pointed out the similarities between Sandy Hook and Cleveland. The four little girls and one boy shot to death in Stockton that day ranged in age from 6 to 9 years old, and troubled young men who unleashed vicious attacks.

"When I see the scenery (at Sandy Hook), it makes me cry, even though my kids are OK," Koeurt said. "There are still scars there. It haunts us."

Koeurt's son was good friends with Rathanar Or, the 9-year-old boy killed at Cleveland Elementary. Her son couldn't understand his friend's death and had trouble sleeping. She took him for counseling to deal with the loss.

I interviewed Or's family at their home the day after the shooting. The boy's parents were too upset to speak, but Rathanar's older sister was happy to show me his room, his school pictures, his toys. She told me funny stories about Rathanar that made her giggle. She kept referring to her little brother in the present tense.

"After the shooting, reporters from around the world came here and asked us questions," Koeurt said. "Newspaper reporters tried to learn about our culture. At that time, no one knew about us. We had no services at all, no sources for help. We came together as a community and said we cannot live like this."

In 1993, the families formed a nonprofit housing association and bought the complex, renovated the apartments, adding a community center, with children's and teen activities and tutoring. The association paid off the loan in 2010, said Koeurt, who leads the nonprofit.

"In spite of the shooting, we have many good stories, many good things happening," Koeurt said.

Dianne Barth-Feist, a Stockton Unified School District spokeswoman, said the 1989 shooting changed the way officials looked at school security. Within a few months, the district installed fences and locked gates around schools, and other California schools followed suit.

New schools in California are now architecturally designed with security in mind, including fencing and check-in points. Since the Cleveland school shooting, school districts now have frequent disaster drills, posted evacuation routes and lockdowns.

School police forces have also grown since the shooting, Barth-Feist said.

But the most visible and visceral of the impacts of Stockton's shooting was in the national outrage and defense of gun possession.

"The shooting at the Stockton school certainly was the catalyst for, basically, an attack on Second Amendment rights, as a cover for creating safety for California," said Sam Paredes, executive director of Gun Owners of California.

The massacre catapulted gun control legislation through the Legislature, the Roberti-Roos Assault Weapons Control Act, which outlawed 50 specific brands and models of firearms, most of them rifles, including the AK-47. The state also passed a law requiring background checks on buyers in all gun sales transactions. Checks used to be conducted only on commercial sales of weapons.

"After Stockton, the state Legislature didn't waste any time," said Amanda Wilcox, of the state chapter of Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. "(Legislators) didn't just talk, they took action right away."

That same year, then-President George H.W. Bush signed an executive order banning importation of assault weapons. Later, a federal ban on assault weapons was passed in 1994, modeled on the California law. It expired in 2004.

Wilcox said gun control activists will now push for a nationwide universal background check. That would require a check of a buyer's mental health and criminal record before commercial or private sales in all states.

Paredes pointed out that Stockton's rampage swung harsh attention on guns, but didn't deal with the really hard issues of mental health. In fact, he said the term "assault weapon" was coined by the Legislature as a way of demonizing military-style guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens.

"As opposed to evaluating what created a monster like Patrick Purdy, or the man in Connecticut, they spawned this whole political assault weapon movement," Paredes said. "Starting from Stockton, it should have been painfully obvious, the limits have been woefully ineffective and have done nothing to stop massacres."

As the funeral processions began their march through Newtown, Conn., federal gun regulation has returned to the national stage, and some of us hope the five crooked smiles of the Stockton schoolyard massacre will be remembered as a starting block of a real and purposeful nationwide discussion.

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