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Today, Koeurt interprets for Lim when people come around to ask about his loss. He says he was mad the first few times reporters and other interrogators visited, usually on the cusp of one milestone anniversary or another. Eventually, though, as he heard of new school shootings—new slain children, new grieving families—Lim felt a gradual release.
“Everybody is in the same boat,” he says. “I want to tell the other families that they shouldn’t mourn so much and be so sad, because it’s not only you or your family that lost your child. There are a lot of people you can see on TV—that other people killed their kids. We mourn for the kids, but they also mourn for the kids. I know that you have sorrow and loss, but if anything, we have the same feelings.”
For Ing and Lim, there is solace in moving on. There is no choice. For other Cleveland families, there is no solace. The killing of 6-year-old Ram Chun devastated her father Keut Chun, another Khmer Rouge survivor for whom the death of his oldest daughter proved too ruinous to bear. Koeurt mentions Chun’s inexorable slide into alcoholism. A 1990 Sacramento Bee report on the first anniversary of the shooting chronicles his suicidal thoughts and chronic depression; a 2009 Record report cites his death in 1998 from kidney and liver disease.
The family’s tragedy later found a staggering reversal at the very place Ram Chun died: Her older brother Rann now teaches second grade at Cleveland Elementary School.
Through a school district spokeswoman, Rann Chun declined to be interviewed for this article. His former Cleveland teacher Judy Weldon recalls a conversation they had as peers four years ago, when he said that he blamed himself for his sister’s death. He was supposed to be her protector, Rann told her—he was supposed to be her big brother.
“What he should have done was talked to me about it [earlier],” Weldon says, “because he didn’t remember being in lockdown. I said to him, ‘We can’t go outside the door. The door is locked, because they don’t know if some other bad people are out there.’ He did not remember that part, and the whole time, he blamed himself. He actually shared this in the teacher’s room one day after school. It was in passing almost. And the two of us are standing there in tears, and he’s not believing that. He should have been able to go down and help her. I said, ‘Rann, you are the person...’ ”
“ ‘You are the person in my class that kept asking me ... You asked me over and over again to let you go and find her. And I couldn’t. I couldn’t do it because I couldn’t open the door. You were [being] responsible. You were the big brother.’ ”
Tears catch Weldon’s breath.
“So even this many years later,” she finally says, “we’re just finding out some of these things. He carried this all of these years—not knowing, thinking that he was to blame when he wasn’t.”
It’s dusk at the State Capitol on Oct. 10, 2013, where candles and voices tremble on the west steps. Inside the Capitol, a stack of new firearms bills await Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature. Outside, gun-control advocates hold a vigil. The organizers intend to read the names of those Californians killed by guns since the Newtown massacre. That tally stood at 1,128 names when the event was conceived in early October; as the congregants gather a little more than a week later, the number has risen to 1,143.
Cleveland School Remembers is here. Julie Schardt talks on-camera with local television news reporters. Judy Weldon introduces herself before the reading of the names. She reminds the small crowd of the shots fired in Stockton on Jan. 17, 1989. “We know what bullets do to human bodies,” Weldon says. “We’ve used our hands as tourniquets to stop the flow of blood. We’ve identified dead children as they lay on the cold pavement of the playground. Tonight, we are here to support Governor Brown as he makes difficult choices.”
One hundred feet away, a lone protestor quietly faces the luminaria. His left hand raises a black flag emblazoned “DON’T TREAD ON ME.” His right hand cups a placard warning against government tyranny. He identifies himself as “Cougar”—30 years old, ex-military, a responsible gun owner. He hasn’t heard about the Cleveland School shooting or the laws that it sparked, but since witnessing the flood of proposed gun restrictions in California after Sandy Hook, he estimates he has been to at least 40 gun-related assemblies in and around Sacramento. “Our legislators have been using out-of-state incidents like Colorado and Connecticut as a way to push California legislation,” he says. “And that makes no sense at all. They constantly bring up Newtown, when Newtown laws actually worked. The kid went and tried to get a gun legally, [declined] a background check, wasn’t able to get one. So what’s he do? He kills his mom, steals her guns, and uses those guns. That’s not a law-abiding citizen at all. I’m law-abiding.”
The next day, Brown signed 11 of the bills into law, adding to the list of regulations that give California the nation’s most far-reaching gun policies. The new laws include a ban on lead ammunition and a mandate giving psychotherapists one day to notify police of patients who make violent threats toward “a reasonably identifiable victim or victims.” (Existing law already prohibited such patients from purchasing firearms within six months after a reported threat—if or when the threat is reported at all.) But Brown vetoed seven others, most notably SB 374—Senate president pro tempore Darrell Steinberg’s controversial legislation that would ban semiautomatic rifles with detachable magazines like the kinds used in mass shootings from Stockton to Newtown. In his veto message to the Senate, Brown cited the negative implications for hunters, firearms trainers, collectors and other gun enthusiasts. “I don’t believe that this bill’s blanket ban on semiautomatic rifles would reduce criminal activity or enhance public safety enough to warrant this infringement on gun owners’ rights,” wrote the governor, a gun owner himself.
The vetoes further reflect the entrenchments of America’s protracted gun-rights battle—a schism that runs deeper and deeper through those who were present at Cleveland School in 1989. Some, like the teachers and Sovanna Koeurt, don’t understand the purpose of semiautomatic weapons beyond killing. “They say it’s because of the game—hunting game,” Koeurt protests. “But how can you kill the deer with a rifle that’s 30 at a time? You’re not going to have meat to eat!”
On the other side, shooting victim Robby Young is now Officer Rob Young, a policeman in the Bay Area who has actively lobbied against new gun laws. He traveled to Washington, D.C., last February to speak in support of a bill that would repeal “gun-free zones” around American schools; a few months later, Young visited the State Capitol to testify against SB 374. He acknowledges the perceived irony of a shooting victim advocating against gun control. He also argues that for those threatened by an active shooter, every second counts. “Why not have somebody on campus that’s armed [and] can hopefully neutralize this threat and stop this threat before we get there?” asks Young, the father of a 6-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son. “By all means, if the cops get there, let us handle the situation. But why not have some security personnel, or administrator, or a teacher that’s able to carry a gun? We trust these people with our kids’ lives anyway.”
Brandon Smith, now 34, is a paramedic for a private ambulance company in Stockton. He credits his time spent in the hospital as a Cleveland victim with igniting an interest in doctors and nurses. By the time he was 12, he’d resolved to become a medic. He speaks to few people about being shot 25 years ago or about the arsenal he has acquired as an adult. “In fact,” he says, “I own the very gun I was shot with—an AK-47.”
Smith explains how the rifle complies with all state and federal laws—domestically manufactured, 10-round detachable magazine with a modified manual release—and that he doesn’t see anything macabre or strange about buying it. It’s simply the gun he likes to fire off at the shooting range. “It’s not like only crazy people are going to like that gun, or people who want to kill others are going to be attracted to that gun,” he says. “It’s just a firearm.” Others still, like Stockton first responders Gary Gillis and Gigi Olson—nèe Nault, who married her Medi-Flight 2 partner Kim Olson in 1989— emphasize preventing the abuse that leads to mental illness. “I’m very pro-gun,” Olson says. “I just could sit here and hate [Patrick Purdy] for what he did, but there’s an ugliness that was in his life.” Gillis himself admits exasperation with the fierce tenor of the gun debate, as well as sadness at the resignation that always follows the hype around every school shooting since Cleveland. “These people feel secure dropping their kids off at school,” he says. “What’s it going to take for them to know tomorrow it’s going to be your school? Or someone you know?”