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The next day, also in Sacramento, Purdy bought a Browning 9mm pistol.
This cycle continued for more than two years. In April 1987, Purdy was arrested by an El Dorado County sheriff’s deputy while drunkenly shooting one of his guns in the forest. Purdy was later charged with vandalism, resisting arrest and assault on a police officer after kicking out the back windows of the deputy’s car in a rage. At the county jail in South Lake Tahoe, he attempted to cut his wrist with his fingernails and hang himself with a noose made from his T-shirt. One evaluator wrote that Purdy was “a risk, albeit ambiguous, to harm himself. He does however appear to be a greater risk to others. That is, he would probably hurt someone else before he hurt himself.” Another evaluation at Placerville’s Psychiatric Health Facility classified Purdy as “extremely dangerous” but competent to stand trial in May. Of the five misdemeanor charges he faced, Purdy was convicted of one: Discharging a firearm. He was sentenced to 45 days in jail and given three years probation.
On Aug. 28, 1987, in Stockton, Purdy bought an Ingram MAC-10 9mm pistol.
On April 8, 1988, he showed up to a Social Security disability evaluation drunk and strung out on cocaine.
On Aug. 3, 1988, while living with his aunt in Oregon and bouncing between welding jobs in Portland, he bought an AK-47 rifle— a Norinco 56S model, and his fifth gun purchase in just over four years.
On Dec. 12, 1988, after working short-lived jobs in Tennessee and Connecticut, Purdy bought five boxes of ammunition and ordered two magazines—one for 30 rounds, and a 75-round drum—for his AK-47. He picked the magazines up three days later, buying an additional four to six boxes of rounds for the Norinco.
On Dec. 28, 1988, back in California, Purdy bought a Taurus 9mm pistol, agreeing to a 15-day waiting period.
By 1989, Purdy had an attack in mind. Patrons at a bar in Stockton later told investigators that they’d seen Purdy stalking around in camouflage clothes shortly after New Year’s Day, bragging about his high-capacity AK-47 rifle and complaining about government benefits received by the Vietnamese.
“You’re going to read about me in the papers,” he had said, exiting the bar.
A witness claimed to have seen Purdy parked in his car—a white Chevrolet station wagon—at the rear of Cleveland Elementary School on Jan. 5. A janitor across town at Sierra Middle School said Purdy approached him in a classroom on Jan. 10, where he asked the janitor for a dollar before pacing on a private road just off campus.
On Jan. 13, when his waiting period finally elapsed, Purdy picked up his Taurus 9mm.
That night, he met his half-brother Albert Gulart Jr. in Purdy’s room—number 104— at the El Rancho Motel. Gulart, whom state investigators interviewed in February 1989, said they cleaned Purdy’s weapons, loaded ammunition magazines and talked about killing people.
“Let’s do it,” Purdy said. “You’re not ready,” Gulart replied. “You’re right,” Purdy said. "Fuck it. They're not worth it."
And yet on the morning of Jan. 17, Purdy stood clutching the Taurus on the playground at Cleveland Elementary. He’d dropped the AK-47 after expending 105 rounds—75 from the drum magazine, 30 more from the other clip—over roughly two minutes. No one heard him say anything as he fired at the students from 200 feet away. He paused only to move around the back side of a portable classroom structure, resituating himself with a more direct line of fire at the playground and main building. Purdy’s orange earplugs deflected the screaming and the clamor around him. He probably didn’t hear the pipe bomb that he lit when it exploded in his station wagon, or Engine 9 as it roared around Stadium Drive to find the car fully immolated, black smoke lunging at the heavens. There is no telling if he heard the helicopters circling overhead, or his mother’s voice, or his remaining heartbeats or even the blast of the 9mm pistol as he pulled its trigger, firing into his right temple.
Assembly Bill 357 was kind of a do-over for Mike Roos. In 1988, the Assembly Speaker pro tempore tried to apply the same 15-day waiting period already in effect for handgun sales to purchases of semiautomatic firearms. That effort failed in the Legislature, but it began a conversation between Roos, police chiefs and other law enforcement officials statewide about how to craft a law that might better regulate the over-the-counter proliferation of military-style weapons in California. After some revision, Roos’s new bill sought to prohibit the sale and manufacture of specific guns—mostly rifles, including all AK models, the Colt AR-15, the UZI, and the Bushmaster assault rifle—as well as ban ammunition magazines with a capacity larger than 10 rounds. Over in the Senate, meanwhile, president pro tempore David Roberti introduced a bill almost identical to Roos’s. The idea, Roos says, was to give the proposed laws two chances to survive the opposition of gun industry lobbyists who’d thwarted similar efforts in the past.
Roberti and Roos didn’t need two chances.
“The bill was actually in print, moving or scheduled for hearing,” Roos recalls. “Then, of course, this Stockton schoolyard tragedy only amplified the necessity and frankly accelerated the urgency.”
By April, the Roberti-Roos Assault Weapons Control Act of 1989 landed on the governor’s desk, where George Deukmejian’s signature made it the first extensive gun-control legislation passed in America. Shockwaves from the Stockton massacre headed east, where legislatures in Colorado, Texas, Florida and over 10 other states considered bills of their own to curb access to semiautomatic weapons and enhance background checks and other screenings for would-be gun buyers. On the federal level, even as newly inaugurated President George H.W. Bush publicly balked at any restrictions on the sale of semiautomatic rifles after Stockton, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms instituted an importation ban on those like the Chinese-made Norinco 56S rifle that Purdy bought in Sandy, Oregon—the AK-47 variety also name checked in the Roberti-Roos Act.
“It was the Cleveland School, probably because it was just all little kids, that highlighted it as nothing else had ever done,” Roberti says. “With their martyrdom, we were able to pass the legislation and give some footing to the pro-gun control people. In California, we never had that kind of footing vis-à-vis the gun lobby.”
The National Rifle Association temporarily moved its spokeswoman from Washington, D.C., to Sacramento and fought the anti-gun zeal with a marketing campaign evoking Purdy’s criminal history. “America had a place for Patrick Purdy,” said an NRA newspaper ad featuring a jail cell door. “But seven times the system set him free.” Certainly, the attorney general’s 1989 report on Purdy revealed numerous red flags, failings and oversights that foreshadowed his attack. Furthermore, with Purdy never having been convicted of a felony and with his mental-health history off-limits to the state, nothing in his public record would have prevented him from obtaining legal firearms in California even after Roberti-Roos became law.