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Volokh Conspiracy

The History of the 'Assault Weapon' Hoax. Part 1: The Crime that Started it All

A 1989 shooting at a Cal. schoolyard began the national "assault weapon" issue. It was a consequence of law enforcement failure.


The "assault weapon" controversy first became a national issue in January 1989, when a career criminal murdered five children at school playground in Stockton, California. The failures of law enforcement before and during that crime—and the media and political failures thereafter—were similar to those related to the recent murders in Parkland, Florida. These failures are part of the reason why school shootings, and other mass attacks, persist in the United States today.

This article is the first in a series detailing the "assault weapon" hoax from 1989 to the present.

The Stockton perpetrator, had whose name I won't repeat, had a difficult start in life. His parents split when he was two years old, after the father threated to shoot the mother. Like the vast majority of mass shooters, he grew up without a responsible and consistent man in his life. The mother threw him out of the house for good at age 13, after he hit her in the face.

The danger signs started early. Before he turned 18, he had been arrested 10 times. When he was 14, a mental health evaluation concluded: "if his acting out is not contained now, he will develop into a highly deceptive sociopathic character and be practically untreatable."

As an adult, he continued to accumulate multiple arrests, none of which led to more than a few weeks in prison. Among his prior crimes included being an accomplice to the armed robbery of a gas station, as well as receipt of stolen property, and possession of illegal weapons. He even vandalized his mother's car when she refused to give him money to buy drugs. Always, he slipped through the cracks of the system. His felony arrests turned into misdemeanors and he wound up back on the street.

When he was 20, doctors determined that he was mildly retarded, and had a personality disorder caused by his longstanding alcohol and drug abuse. This entitled him to Social Security Disability benefits.

He bought several handguns over the years, all in compliance with California's 15 day waiting period.

In April 1987, he was arrested while drunk and firing a pistol in Eldorado National Forest, near Lake Tahoe. He told a sheriff's deputy that he had a duty to "overthrow the suppressor." Resisting arrest, he assaulted a law enforcement officer and kicked out the back window of the police cruiser. In his possession was a book about Aryan Nations, a racist and anti-Jewish organization.

After that arrest, he twice attempted suicide in jail, and so mental health evaluations were conducted. He revealed that he thought about committing a mass murder with a gun or a bomb. One evaluation found him to be "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." A separate evaluation called him "extremely dangerous." The mental health report concluded that he was "a danger to himself and others." Although he had been charged with five misdemeanors for the Eldorado events, all but one of them were dropped, and he served 45 days in jail.

On January 17, 1989, he attacked the playground at Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, California, which had attended for several years as a child. By 1989, the school was predominantly Southeast Asian children. He hated Asian immigrants, apparently blaming them for his own difficulties in holding gainful employment. He hated a lot of people. On his rifle and jacket he had written "Hezbollah," "PLO," "Libya," and "death to the Great Satin" [sic].

The criminal brought two guns. One was a 9mm pistol, with which he later committed suicide. He did the killing with a semiautomatic rifle, an AKM-56S. (135 Cong. Rec. S1870, Feb. 28, 1989.)

In a period of about two to five minutes (reports vary), he fired around 105 shots. He hit 37 people, including one adult; five children were killed. The police arrived five minutes after he had begun shooting. By that point, he had killed himself.

The Stockton murderer could have been stopped before he started if the government had enforced existing criminal laws or had used existing laws to commit and provide mental health treatment for a plainly disturbed and imminently dangerous individual. The same has been true for many subsequent mass killers. In an article for the Howard Law Journal, Clayton Cramer and I detail other notorious homicides, including mass shootings, that could have been prevented if existing laws had been used to commit and treat people who were well-known to be severely and dangerously mentally ill.

A decade after Stockton, the law enforcement system failed again at Columbine High School. The year before Columbine, in the spring of 1998, the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office had prepared an affidavit to ask for a search warrant for the home of one of the criminals. The affidavit was based on his published death threats on the Internet, and on the discovery—in a park a mile and half from his home—of bombs like the ones that he bragged about making. The fact of the never-executed search was unknown to the public until two years after Columbine, when Sixty Minutes II uncovered the affidavit by using Colorado's Open Record Act. Why the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office dropped the matter remains a mystery. The Office admitted in court that it had shredded many of its Columbine documents.

The pattern set by Stockton was repeated at Parkland High School, but even worse. There too, the criminal openly identified himself as an incipient mass murderer. The Stockton criminal's various felonies at least had led to arrests and misdemeanor convictions, but the Parkland criminal's open-and-shut felonies—such as explicit violent threats against the school—never even resulted in an arrest.

Part of the problem was apparently that the Broward Sheriff, and the school administration, were diligently implementing the Obama administration's demand to shut down the "school to prison pipeline" by not arresting students. This was a reasonable policy for students who committed crimes such as truancy or possession of alcohol on school grounds. But it was not reasonable for the Parkland criminal's assault and death threats. The criminal should have been put in a pipeline from school to prison. Instead, the Broward Sheriff and the school ended up running a school to graveyard pipeline.

At Stockton, police did not confront the active shooter because they were still in transit to the scene. At Parkland—as at Columbine—the law enforcement officers were already on-scene and did not enter the building to attempt to stop the on-going murders.

The next article in the series will examine the rifle the Stockton criminal used, and the misinformation that was spread about it. Future articles, will examine more of the past and present media inaccuracy about so-called "assault weapons," the many libels against law-abiding gun owners, and media coverage that has the effect of inciting copycats. And of course the 1989 and 2018 stories of presidents who imagined that they could find political advantage by breaking their campaign promises and betraying the people who elected them.