Newtown Shooting Aftermath

12.21.12

Another Massacre’s Gun Law Lesson, From Stockton, Calif., Survivors

A gunman on a 1989 schoolyard rampage shocked the nation and Congress into action. Then legislators poked holes in the assault-weapons ban—and betrayed the victims.

Let’s not betray the murdered children of Sandy Hook Elementary School the way we betrayed the murdered children of Cleveland Elementary School two decades ago.

Cleveland Elementary being the school in Stockton, Calif., where another demented former student returned with an assault rifle and murderous intent.

Patrick Purdy fired more than 100 rounds into the recess yard that day in 1989, killing five youngsters and wounding 27 others and a teacher before taking his own life. He might have killed even more than were killed at Sandy Hook, but kids dashing around in a playground are harder to hit than those huddled in a corner.

The murder of four little girls and a little boy, ages 6 to 8, was still enough to rouse Congress to action, or rather to what seemed like action. The eventual result, after five years of wrangling and appeasement, was the Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994.

The purported intent was to ban all semi-automatic weapons—handguns as well as rifles—but the bill had so many qualifiers and loopholes that it did next to nothing.

Firearms manufacturers simply found easy ways around the ban by marketing “compliant” weapons. The strategy was equally successful in getting around bans that individual states such as Connecticut instituted after the federal ban expired in 2004, thanks to a provision slipped in at the last minute.

The “compliant” guns marketed by Smith & Wesson include the rifle James Holmes used to kill 12 and wound 58 in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater. Bushmaster’s “state compliant” line includes the weapon the Washington, D.C., sniper used to kill 13 innocents. Adam Lanza used another “compliant” Bushmaster to murder 20 children and six adults in Sandy Hook.

Lanza was able to make his compliant rifle all the more murderous because the Connecticut assault-weapon ban lacks the one provision of the expired federal version that was actually effective: a prohibition against magazines holding more than 10 rounds.

Video screenshot

Adam Lanza, the shooter in the Newton massacre, showed some warning signs before he carried out the shooting, including trying to purchase guns.

Had Lanza not been able to obtain 30-round magazines as easy a loaf of bread, there might well be fewer funerals for children in Newtown. Who knows, maybe he would have needed to reload just as those six kids in the brave Victoria Soto’s class ran past him trying to escape. Maybe some or all of them would have made it.

Last year,  Connecticut State Sen. Gary LeBeau of East Hartford sponsored Senate Bill 1094, titled An Act Banning Large Capacity Ammunition Magazines, which would have prohibited magazines holding more than 10 rounds. He had been inspired to draft the legislation after a good friend of  his son-in-law became one of eight killed in a mass shooting at a Hartford beer distributor in 2010. Further impetus came with the mass shooting in Arizona that left Rep. Gabby Giffords grievously wounded and six others dead.

But those massacres inspired few of LeBeau’s fellow legislators to join him in braving the gun lobby. Even people who had supported such measures in the past held back. He demonstrated actual political courage in going ahead.

“I didn’t have many allies,” LeBeau says. “People for the last couple of years have been hiding on this issue.”

The supporters of the bill included several inner-city mayors as well at the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association. The National Rifle Association, along with the National Sports Shooting Foundation of Newtown, led the opposition. A big crowd of “gun rights” types showed up to testify at a hearing before the Judiciary Committee, which stretched into 12 hours as one purportedly sane person after another testified to their right to fire more than 10 bullets at a time.

Ram’s best friend, Shannon Lopez, survived and can remember being in the playground when the shooting erupted, a 7-year-old in the midst of a world suddenly made incomprehensible.

“Just a knee-jerk reaction to a tragedy,” Jake McGuigan of the NSSF said of the bill.

Another opponent, Brian Vacanore, testified, “Just like someone who golfs, would you try to limit the size of their clubs or the number of clubs they can carry at one time?”

The legislators were also bombarded with thousands of anti-ban emails. The bill never even came to a vote, thanks to the cowardice of some of the same politicians who are now extolling the bravery of the teachers at Sandy Hook.

On Tuesday, the legislators met in joint session for a memorial for the murdered children, whose names were read aloud by Msgr. Bob Weiss of St. Rose of Lima Church in Newtown. LeBeau had already refiled his bill. A measure of how much things had changed came when the state senate minority leader, John McKinney, asked to be a co-sponsor.

McKinney’s district includes Sandy Hook. LeBeau immediately asked an aide to pull back the bill and resubmitted it with McKinney’s name and his own equally prominent. The measure seems all but certain to become law when the legislature returns to business in January. There is also an excellent chance for broader gun-control legislation that would make the talk at the memorial more than just words.

In the meantime, maybe the president and Congress will do something real about guns, something to make up for the betrayal of those kids murdered at the Cleveland school as well to honor the kids murdered at Sandy Hook.

The horror of the 1989 shooting came rushing back to the survivors and their parents when they saw the images from Sandy Hook. A Cleveland mother named Sovanna Koeurt says, “I was crying when I see the picture of kids hanging onto each other. I know what is like.”

Koeurt told me she still has the sheet of paper that an official handed her when she ran up to the Cleveland school after the gunfire. Many of the kids at that massacre were Cambodian and the official asked her to read the names of the dead aloud to the panicked parents who were waiting for news.

She first checked if her two sons were on the list and saw they were not. Even as she swelled with immense relief, she faced the crushing prospect of giving the other parents the worst news they would ever hear.

“Ram Chun … Raphana Or … Thuy Tran … Oeun Lim … Sokhim An.”

One of her clearest persisting memories is of when she saw 6-year-old Sokhim’s body. The child was always making drawings and in her enthusiasm earlier in the day she had managed to get some Magic Marker on her hand.

“The little girl loved coloring with the marker,” Koeurt recalls.

The brother of the murdered 8-year-old Ram Chun would grow up to return to the school as a third-grade teacher. Ram’s best friend, Shannon Lopez, survived and can remember being in the playground when the shooting erupted, a 7-year-old in the midst of a world suddenly made incomprehensible.

“It sounded like fireworks,” she recalls. “At that age you don’t really know what it is. You just see everybody screaming and running.”

The reports from Sandy Hook struck her more deeply than the other mass shootings because the murdered kids were first graders, just like she had been. She wishes she could tell the families of the survivors that their children can get through it, that the counseling she received beginning the very next day was hugely helpful and the love of her family invaluable.

“Family support is the biggest thing,” she reports.

She is now a newly married 30-year-old with a job she loves as a student financial-aid adviser. She bubbles with energy and good cheer as if she were also living for her best friend Ram and the other four on that list.

“You either allow it to envelop you to the point you can’t move or you just realize that some things make you a stronger person if you can make it through,” she says.

Lopez has in her voice a continued determination not to let the gunman prevail, to become an ever better person in the face of evil, to make only more of her life.

 “It’s a part of me, who I became,” she says.

And that is what our leaders need to do, make these horrors part of who we become by changing who we are, by making ourselves better, by at last finally doing something real to lessen the chance of it happening again.

By not betraying murdered kids.