On a Tuesday morning in January 1989, a 24-year-old drifter with a history of run-ins with the law took a semi-automatic rifle and unloaded 106 rounds on a school playground in Stockton, California, killing five children and wounding 29 others, as well as one teacher.
The Cleveland Elementary School shooting, as it became known, was an early flashpoint in the gun control debate both because of the weapon used — a Chinese-made Norinco Type 56 AKM-type semi-automatic rifle, a variant of the Soviet AK-47 — and the age of the victims. It led directly to the California legislature seeking first to define, and the to ban such assault-style weapons, and subsequently to the Federal Assault Weapons Ban that took effect in 1994 and ended in 2004 under a sunset provision.
The perpetrator was Patrick Purdy, who was born in Tacoma Washington and settled in Stockton as a child with his mother — he actually attended Cleveland Elementary from kindergarten to second grade. After striking his mother in the face at the age of 13, Purdy was briefly homeless in San Francisco, and then went to live with his father in Lodi, where he got into drugs and alcohol at Lodi High School. Purdy's father was killed in an auto accident just before Purdy's 16th birthday in 1981, which sent him briefly into the foster system. Purdy racked up arrests for prostitution, drug dealing, and possessing an illegal weapon during his teenage years, and he was jailed in 1987 at age 21 for firing a semi-automatic weapon — he had been found carrying a white-supremacist text at the time.
He later attempted suicide twice while in custody, and was found to have intellectual disabilities. Nonetheless, he was able to purchase the AK-47-style rifle at a trading post in Sandy, Oregon while he was living there with a relative in the summer of 1988.
When he arrived at the schoolyard on January 17, he was wearing a military flak jacket labeled with "PLO", "Libya", and "death to the Great Satin [sic]". He had also inscribed the words "freedom", "victory", "Earthman", and "Hezbollah" into his gun.
After spraying the playground with bullets, Purdy took a pistol to his own head and took his own life.
The overwhelming majority of the victims, including all five children who died, were of Vietnamese and Cambodian descent — part of a community that resettled in Stockton as refugees after the Vietnam War. Police familiar with Purdy said he had complained about immigrants who took jobs from "native-born Americans," and others who knew him said he was constantly full of anger and frustration about his own life.
In the aftermath of the massacre, gun control advocates took up the story as reason for tighter legislation nationwide. Time Magazine later wrote a story asking, "Why could Purdy, an alcoholic who had been arrested for such offenses as selling weapons and attempted robbery, walk into a gun shop in Sandy, Oregon, and leave with an AK-47 under his arm?"
As the New York Times reported the day after the shooting, "Under Federal law, the purchase of a fully automatic rifle requires a 4- to 6-month background check by the authorities. But a semiautomatic rifle can be bought over the counter by completing a standard form stating that the applicant has no criminal record, among other requirements." The paper also noted there had been "a number of shootings in schools across the country in the past year."
The California legislature would that year pass the Roberti-Roos Assault Weapons Control Act of 1989, which banned the ownership and transfer of over fifty brands and models of automatic and semi-automatic assault weapons. The law has been amended and supplemented by later legislation banning high-capacity magazines and other weapon types.
Under the 30-year-old law, 19-year-old Santino Legan would not have been able to purchase the weapon he used on Sunday in California. But living as he did just over the Nevada state line, there was nothing to stop him from purchasing the weapon there and transporting it to his parents' home in Gilroy — apparently intending to commit mass murder.
Studies have found that despite not stopping all mass shootings or lowering the firearm homicide rate, the Federal Assault Weapons Ban had the effect of decreasing mass shootings for the ten years in which it was in effect. The Wikipedia page for the federal ban cites dozens of studies likely posted there by gun enthusiasts and NRA members discussing how it did not largely impact overall homicides.
In 2014, the two second grade teachers at Cleveland Elementary, now retired, marked the 25th anniversary of the shooting with the Mercury-News. "This just doesn’t ever go away. I think that’s something the outside world just doesn’t get,” said former teacher Judy Weldon. “Yes, we all grow and move on and change. But we never, ever forget."
Photo: Stockton Unified School District