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On paper, the landmark law showed little positive effect in the years immediately following its passage. In keeping with the national trend, gun deaths in the state actually increased, ballooning to nearly 18 Californians per 100,000 killed by guns.
“We realized that we were in an epidemic,” says Garen Wintemute, a doctor at UC Davis Medical Center who specializes in the study and prevention of firearm violence as a public health risk. While mass shootings remained relatively anomalous nationwide, rates of gun homicides, suicides, accidents and other fatalities began to achieve levels that epidemiologists like Wintemute hadn’t seen outside statistics dating to the 1930s. “Those rates peaked in 1994 or so,” he adds, “at a time when it looked for all the world that firearms were going to overtake motor vehicles and come out as [the leading] cause of death from injury.”
In 1994, led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the United States Congress passed a national assault weapons ban rooted in California’s seminal 1989 law—with one key distinction: The “sunset provision” that would automatically lift the ban after a decade if not extended by Congress. Roos backed the clause then, and he says he’d make the same deal today. “You want to get that on the books,” he explains. “Pray for a permanency, pray for the hope of a new membership that is more aligned to your viewpoint. She made the right decision, and it was historic.”
That same April in the San Fernando Valley, David Roberti faced a special election. The 28-year Senate veteran was in the middle of a race for state treasurer when a recall petition backed by the NRA successfully made the rounds of his district. According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, Roberti spent $800,000—nearly half of his campaign funds—to defeat the recall effort. Roberti’s opponent in the Democratic primary, Phil Angelides, beat him in June by 11 percentage points.
When asked about his loss, Roberti hesitates. “Nothing’s going to come without a price,” he replies, his voice tense and stung with frustration. “So to that extent, yeah, it still sticks with me. But on the other hand, you run for office, and you want to accomplish something. After all is said and done, you’re not running to make money. You’re not running to be the most famous person in the world. You want to say, frankly, after it’s over, ‘Hey, we got something done.’ And we got something done. Can’t be taken away from me.”
The exile of a Sacramento power player like Roberti signified a new milestone in the post-Cleveland gun culture: The NRA was on the offensive.
Under the guidance of its new executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, the association’s leadership swiftly answered critics within its own ranks who saw its response to the raft of new gun laws as rudderless and soft. When a 1993 article in the New England Journal of Medicine linked keeping a gun in the home to an increased risk of homicide, the NRA lobbied to shutter the wing of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that funded the article’s research. Although that wing—the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control—stayed open, federal budget language three years later forbid any funds made available for the CDC’s efforts in injury prevention to “be used to advocate or promote gun control.” Researchers focusing on gun violence in streets, cities and schools nationwide couldn’t be sure which of their studies might next jeopardize their colleagues or the CDC itself.
“If you have an interest in preventing policy change and selling your product, and the research is your problem, stop the research,” Wintemute says. “It made perfect sense from their point of view. All of us at the time understood what was being done and why.”
Yet policy skirmishes in Washington, where the federal assault weapons ban had just taken effect for at least the next decade, could only go so far toward restoring the NRA’s member morale. In an infamous 1995 fundraising letter to the rank and file, LaPierre attacked the Clinton administration: “It doesn’t matter to them that the semi-auto ban gives jack-booted government thugs more power to take away our constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property, and even injure or kill us.” (The first President Bush, a longtime NRA member, left the group in protest.)
LaPierre apologized, but the inveterate Washington firebrand had set the tone for the conversation to come: The gun-control wave rippling out from Cleveland Elementary represented a different kind of epidemic for Second Amendment disciples. From recalling legislators to challenging researchers to inveighing against new laws, the NRA recognized and repurposed their adversaries’ potent life-or-death message. It wasn’t strictly for show when Hollywood icon and five-term NRA president Charlton Heston lifted a rifle over his head at the 2000 NRA convention, invoking the mantra that his foes could take the gun “from my cold, dead hands.” It was a summation of everything guns meant to anyone who’d seen or felt their astonishing power. For gun supporters and foes alike, survival itself was at stake.
It’s a warm September evening in Stockton, almost the end of summer, and the sun slowly sets behind the curving steeple of the Central United Methodist Church. Just before 7 p.m., Judy Weldon stands at the whiteboard in Room 6, writing in her impeccable teacher’s print: “Agenda. Sept. 17, 2013. Welcome. Introductions. Housekeeping. History. Letter to Governor.”
The letters are already written for anyone attending tonight’s inaugural public meeting of Cleveland School Remembers, a group of six former teachers who watched, listened and reacted as Purdy opened fire on their students. Running, they grasped and sheltered wounded kids. They strained for order and solace in the lockdown after Purdy’s suicide. They navigated around and eventually identified the lifeless bodies of children who’d fidgeted into the thrall of a lesson or a story just a few hours earlier. They stood and struggled to comprehend or even know anything. Brought out to identify one of the dead children, neither Weldon nor second-grade teacher Julie Schardt could be absolutely certain that the girl with the head wound was their student Oeun Lim. “It was such a surreal experience,” Schardt says. “I remember it was cold, and I remember her red shoes.”
Much else has faded about the Cleveland shooting since it seized the American imagination—since Time grimly proclaimed “ARMED AMERICA” in a cover story three weeks after the massacre and, later in 1989, Esquire painstakingly deconstructed the last days of Patrick Purdy. No less a pop cultural eminence than Michael Jackson invited himself to Stockton on Feb. 7 of that year, where his attempts to cheer up the Cleveland community only meant more emergency vehicles, more police, more helicopters and more campus bedlam that just recalled the panic that Jackson had sought to assuage in the first place. The sights and sounds and mediated tragedy of it all receded as life went on in Stockton. Only in the year since Sandy Hook has memory emerged for these teachers as the mixed blessing of the Cleveland massacre, where a long-simmering synthesis of trauma and fury over slaughtered grade-schoolers has been channeled into action after nearly 25 years.
The group officially came together in February as a response to the shooting in Newtown, but not until September would they finally meet publicly at the church. “Help Us Reduce Senseless Gun Violence,” reads the front of Cleveland School Remembers brochures stacked up on the room’s back counter, wedged between fliers outlining California’s pending firearms legislation. Free booklets entitled “A Citizen’s Guide to Lobbying” instruct readers how to lobby for bills in person and testify before committees. Letter campaigns are encouraged, which is in part how the teachers came to have their pre-drafted letters on the counter, a sheaf of photocopies addressed to Gov. Brown. “Support: LIFE Act Firearm Legislation,” it urges, citing four specific Senate bills awaiting attention from the governor. The letter attributes a 52 percent overall drop in California’s firearm mortality rate since 1990 to the gun laws enacted after the Cleveland shooting. “Nonetheless,” the correspondence continues, “almost 6,000 Californians are injured or killed by guns every single year, a number still unacceptably high. The measures contained in the LIFE Act are critical to closing loopholes and protecting our communities from gun violence.”
The audience is made up of 17 attendees including the teachers, who had hoped for a little bigger showing for their first gathering. But there’s a representative from San Joaquin Grassroots Action here to offer advocacy tips, and a delegate from the local Cambodian community association has dropped by with an offer to translate the Gov. Brown letter for his constituency. Another of the teachers, Adrienne Egeland, proposes collecting a list of gun-violence data and talking points to better engage with gun proponents. Weldon takes the floor, acknowledging mental illness, gangs, bullying and other frequent factors in gun violence before getting to their common denominator.