by Dave Kopel
A shorter version of this article appeared in the Rocky Mountain News, Feb. 3, 1989. More by Kopel on so-called "assault weapons."
California, home of some of the strictest gun laws in the United States, has again become home to a gruesome mass murder. On January 17, a drifter named Patrick Purdy attacked a crowded school playground with a semi-automatic rifle and two pistols. After slaughtering five children and wounding many more, Purdy killed himself.
Horrified by the loss of innocent life, California and the nation are looking for ways to prevent future such tragedies. Unfortunately, the California legislature and Congress may avoid the difficult and expensive decisions necessary to control future Patrick Purdys, because the anti-gun lobby is offering the panacea of gun control. But the facts of the schoolyard massacre show that gun control not only failed to prevent the crime, but made it worse.
Last summer, Handgun Control pushed Congress to adopt a national 7 day waiting period for handgun purchases. Now they want a waiting period for the purchase of semi-automatic rifles. But California -- the state where Purdy legally bought his handguns -- already has a 15 day waiting period and background check, which did nothing to stop Purdy and his handguns. If the waiting period didn't stop Purdy from buying a handgun, why would it matter for any other gun?
The anti-gun lobby also plans to use the Stockton shooting to push for a California and national ban on semi-automatic "assault guns." (A semi-automatic fires only one bullet each time the trigger is squeezed, and automatically ejects the empty shell casing.)
San Jose Police Chief Joseph McNamara argues that citizens have no right to own military type rifles, like the one Purdy bought. But the Second Amendment of the Constitution guarantees the right to bear arms. The Amendment takes the view that the a large reserve of citizens who are familiar with arms (the "well-regulated militia") is "necessary to the security of a free state."
The view of the founders was vindicated in World War II, when the regular army and the national guard were sent into overseas. The Governors of Hawaii, Virginia, and Maryland called up the militia to take over the job of defending beaches and other critical areas against invasion or sabotage.
Thus, military type weapons are much closer to the heart of Constitution than are merely recreational guns, such as hunting rifles.
Moreover, most recreational guns can be just as deadly as the assault rifle Purdy used. Purdy fired 100 shots over a six minute period. Anyone with some practice in quickly reloading a simple non-automatic weapon, such as a bolt-action rifle, could have nearly duplicated Purdy's rate of fire. In addition, most regular hunting rifles are slightly more powerful than Purdy's gun, since they are designed to kill big game from a long distance.
The tragedy at Stockton wasn't caused by the particular model of gun that Patrick Purdy owned. The tragedy happened because Patrick Purdy was walking around the streets when he should have been in jail.
Purdy had a long police record for offenses such as robbery, receiving stolen property, and sale of illegal weapons. He even vandalized his mother's car when she refused to give him money to buy drugs. But instead of being sent to jail for his crimes, he always slipped through the cracks of the system, avoided a felony conviction, and wound up back on the street. (The same problem occurred in January 1981, when John Hinckley was caught trying to smuggle a gun onto a plane -- and was set free a few days later.)
In addition, Purdy, a mildly retarded alcoholic, had a record of mental disease for which he should have been committed and treated. In April 1987, he was arrested for firing a pistol at trees near Lake Tahoe. He told the sheriff's deputy that he had a duty of "overthrow the suppressor." After a suicide attempt in jail, he was described in mental health report as "a danger to himself and others."
If California reacts to the Stockton murders by strengthening its criminal justice and mental health systems -- so that people like Purdy are kept in jail or in mental institutions -- future tragedies will be less likely. But as long as criminals like Patrick Purdy are allowed to roam the streets, they will always know where to buy illegal weapons, regardless of the restrictions on legal gun sales.
A few years ago, Handgun Control got Congress to ban the purchase of any fully automatic weapon made after 1986. Yet today, even teenage gang members have little difficulty procuring automatic weapons. Why will the ban on semi-automatics work any better than the failed ban on automatics?
The homicides in the Stockton playground once more show that we cannot rely exclusively on the police for protection. In 1984, a maniac named James Huberty shot one victim after another at a McDonalds in San Ysidro, California. The police took so long to arrive that Huberty was able to slowly reload time after time. In Stockton, Purdy committed suicide well before the police even showed up. Had he kept shooting until the police stopped him, even more children would be dead.
Just suppose that at the playground or at the McDonalds, a passerby carrying a handgun had happened on the scene. If the McDonalds or the playground killers had been dodging hostile fire, they wouldn't have had the luxury of carefully shooting at the children.
Far-fetched? Certainly in California, where the anti-gun lobby has made it nearly impossible for citizens to carry guns, even if they have special safety training.
A few weeks before the McDonalds massacre, four Arab terrorists opened fire in a crowded Jerusalem cafe. They planned to liquidate everyone, and then flee before the police arrived.
But in Israel, the government distributes handguns and Uzi machine-guns to citizens. The Israelis in the cafe shot back, killed three terrorists, and captured the fourth. Only one Israeli was murdered by the terrorist attack.
The next day, the surviving terrorist indignantly told the press that he had not been informed that Israel civilians were armed.
Gun control costs no money, and offers legislatures a quick and easy way to "do something." But as the schoolyard massacre again illustrates, a legislature that decides to "do something" about gun control does nothing about crime control. The simplistic, ineffectual solutions offered by the anti-gun lobby distract us from the complex and costly work necessary to save the lives of our children: strengthening the ability of our criminal justice system, and of our citizens, to fight back against crime.