National response needed to protect children from gun violence

December 16, 2012

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Louis Freedberg

When will we ever learn?

Almost a quarter century ago, California experienced the horror of an elementary school massacre when five children were killed at Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton.

In that traumatic January 1989 event, barely remembered except among those whose lives were directly touched by the tragedy, Patrick Purdy, a so-called “drifter” with a long criminal record and a history of mental disturbance, entered the school grounds during recess and shot to death five children from Southeast Asian refugee families – Rathanar Or, 9; Ram Chun, 8; Sokhim An, 6; Oeun Lim, 8; and Thuy Tran, 6 – injured 29 others, and then killed himself.

Sound familiar?

The shootings triggered the usual outpouring of outrage – and the California Legislature actually responded. It passed the Roberti-Roos Assault Weapons Control Act of 1989, the first state-level law to ban the possession, sale and manufacture of a long list of assault weapons in California. It was signed into law by Republican Governor George Deukmejian.

Over the years, California has passed numerous other bills, and today it is the only state to get a 4-star rating for its gun control laws from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

Not surprisingly, the Roberti-Roos bill was challenged in court, resulting in a set of prohibitions that are exceedingly complex to follow, as a review of the California Department of Justice’s webpage shows, raising questions about its effectiveness. (For details on the Roberti-Roos legislation, go here.)

The DOJ site declares that as a result of the legislation “AK and AR-15 series weapons are unlawful for sale after August 16, 2000, even if their assault weapon characteristics are removed.”

Yet an online ad for a Sacramento gun shop with the chillingly coincidental name Newtown Firearms describes itself as ” Sacramento’s premiere AR-15 and tactical semi auto rifle dealer.” It shows that things are not as clear cut as state authorities claim. “If you are trying to buy an AR-15 in California, you have come to the right place,” the gun shop tells prospective customers. (In fact, the Internet is filled with sites like this one providing advice on how to get around California’s ban on the weapon.)

And despite California’s top ranking for its gun control laws, the state’s experience underscores the limited potential of states to protect children – and adults – from the deadly impact of firearms. Just this year, another deadly attack in an education institution occurred in Oakland when a former student at a small Korean Christian university killed seven people and injured three more.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 138 children under the age of 18 were murdered in California in 2010, the last year for which figures have been compiled. Fourteen of those homicides were of children under the age of 12. Those figures don’t include the many more wounded as a result of intentional gunfire – or the 11,078 people of all ages killed nationally in 2010 by assailants wielding guns.

It is also notable that when it comes to efforts to regulate weaponry, Connecticut is not far behind California. Ranked 5th in the nation, it is one of only four states to get a 3-star rating from the Brady Center. Yet the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre took place there – in a school that had rigorous security measures in place, probably more than in most schools. As of this writing, reports say that Adam Lanza carried out his killings with weapons, including an AR-15 rifle, which appear to have been purchased legally – just as those used in the Stockton killings were in 1989.

Clearly what is needed is a national response, not a piecemeal state-by-state approach. Whatever is done has to go far beyond just reinstatement of the long-expired federal assault weapons ban that California Senator Dianne Feinstein is championing, although that would be a good start.

President Obama’s emotional speech in Newtown last night could well signal the start of a serious attempt to regulate weapons that can take the lives of 20 first graders in minutes. “We can’t tolerate this anymore,” he said. “The tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change.”

With two young children of his own, and ensconced in the White House for a second term, Obama must now make this a central cause of his presidency. So far, he has fallen terribly short on the issue.

Getting a 60-vote majority in the Senate, and majority support in the House of Representatives, for any meaningful reforms will be extraordinarily difficult. Teachers, PTAs and all others who work in our schools will have to come together to push Congress to approve legislation that creates safer environments for our children – and people of all ages.

“No single law, no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society, but that can’t be an excuse for inaction,” President Obama said last night. “Surely we can do better than this.”

Surely we can. Whether we will is another question altogether.

Louis Freedberg is executive director of EdSource.

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