January 17, marks 30 years since a deeply troubled 26-year old man drove to Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, California, armed with a Chinese-made Norinco AK-47 assault rifle and a 9mm Taurus semi automatic handgun. First, he set his car on fire behind the school.
He then walked into the schoolyard where some 300 grade school students were playing during recess and opened fire with the assault rifle. In just three minutes, he fired off at least 105 rounds, killing five students and wounding some 33 more, in and a teacher.
After the carnage, he picked up his handgun and shot himself.
All five students killed were between the ages of six and nine, and were the children of Southeast Asian refugees. Their names were Oeun Lim (eight years old), Ram Chun (six years old), Sokhim An (six years old), Thuy Tran (six years old) and Rathanar Or (nine years old).
The Cleveland School shooting, also known as the Stockton Schoolyard shooting, was certainly not the first mass school shooting in America, nor did it claim the greatest number of lives. But, as the first mass school shooting in the age of 24-hour cable news, the Cleveland School massacre of 1989, stunned the nation as Americans saw images of the shooting and its aftermath in endless loop cycles. And as one Sacramento magazine writer observed in a retrospective article, America has "struggled ever since to reconcile the image of fallen kids with the power of its gun culture."
Julia Schardt and Judy Weldon were teachers at Cleveland School at the time of the incident, and were asked to help identify one of the students killed in the schoolyard. They, along with other fellow teachers, went on to found Cleveland School Remembers, now a chapter of the national Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
The Cleveland Elementary shooting ushered in the modern era of gun reform in America, including the nation's first assault weapons ban. Yet for most Americans this episode has somehow faded from memory in the wake of too many similar tragedies since then: Columbine, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Parkland.
The Cleveland School massacre shared many similarities with those more recent and more infamous shootings. So the questions remain:
- What have we learned as a nation in the 30 years since the Cleveland School shooting?
- Why is it still so easy for dangerous people to get their hands on dangerous weapons, including assault weapons intended only to kill as many people as possible, as quickly as possible?
- What progress has been made in American gun regulation, and what are the most important things we need to do to prevent mass school shootings in the future?
The Cleveland School shooter had a long history of alcohol and drug abuse, mental health issues, and repeated run-ins with law enforcement and arrests resulting from drug dealing, armed robbery (a felony), various gun violations, and other crimes.
He had received periodic mental health counseling, reporting to one mental health professional that he was “struggling to resist actions on thoughts which are destructive in nature.” He attempted suicide twice while in prison, and was deemed in one psychiatric assessment to be a danger to himself and others.
Despite this record, the shooter was able to legally purchase the AK-47 assault rifle and the 9mm pistol used in the Cleveland Elementary School shooting because he was never convicted of a felony (his one felony arrest had been plea bargained to a misdemeanor). State law in Oregon at the time, where he purchased the AK-47 at the Sandy (OR) Trading Post, allowed assault rifles to be sold with minimal paperwork and no waiting period. The handgun was purchased in a Stockton, CA pawn shop.
In the wake of the shooting, one immediate and unprecedented change happened: the state of California quickly passed the Roberti-Roos Assault Weapons Control Act of 1989 -- the nation’s first assault weapons ban -- named for its champions in the California legislature. The law made illegal the ownership and transfer of over fifty specific brands and models of semi-automatic firearms classified as assault weapons, including the model used by the Cleveland School shooter. The law was expanded 10 years later to restrict magazines that could hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition.
It would be another five years until the US Congress would pass a Federal Assault Weapons Ban, introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein on September 13, 1994 and signed into law by President Bill Clinton the same day.
Also on the national level the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act was passed in November 1993, requiring federally licensed gun dealers to run background checks on firearm purchasers through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) to see if they are a prohibited purchaser -- a felon, fugitive, domestic abuser, or dangerously mentally ill. Since the Brady law went into effect background checks have stopped more than 3 million gun sales to prohibited purchasers.
These measures have helped save countless lives and caused gun crimes to plummet. But it is undeniable that guns are still finding their way into dangerous hands, leaving our schools and communities vulnerable. Various sources put the number of mass school shootings from Cleveland Elementary School to the present at around 17 to 21 (the FBI formerly counted four or more fatalities in a single incident as a mass event; that baseline was subsequently lowered to three). A recent New York Times article, citing statistics from the Gun Violence Archive, counted at least 239 school shootings nationwide since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting alone. In those episodes, 438 people were shot, 138 of whom were killed.
So where have we failed?
The Federal Assault Weapons ban expired in 2004 in accordance with its sunset provisions. Sen. Feinstein, its original sponsor has re-introduced it, along with a ban on large capacity ammunition magazines, several times. The bill has unfortunately been blocked, in large part due to overwhelming Congressional opposition bought and paid for by the powerful gun lobby.
And dangerous loopholes in the background check system still permit the sale of millions of guns each year in “no questions asked” transactions, such as gun shows and internet sales. One in five guns now sold in America are done so without a Brady background check.
Other gaps include the “Charleston Loophole,” which allows licensed dealers to proceed with a gun sale after 3 business days even if the background check has not been completed. This enabled a young man with a criminal history to legally purchase the gun he used to kill nine people in the 2015 Charleston church massacre.
The 30th anniversary of the Cleveland School shooting however brings with it a new promise of hope. With the 116th Congress and new state legislatures taking office -- in large part with campaign promises to champion new laws to reduce gun violence -- we have an unprecedented opportunity to strengthen our existing gun laws and pass new common sense measures a vast majority of Americans are demanding.
Only days into the new session, members of the House and Senate introduced universal background check bills to require background checks on every gun transfer and sale, which will make it harder for dangerous people to get their hands on dangerous weapons. This was followed by the re-introduction of a new assault weapons ban by Sen. Feinstein and others. These bills have a far better chance of passing than they have in years.
Finally, some 14 states have passed Extreme Risk Prevention Order laws, and several other states and localities are now considering them as well. An ERPO provides a legal means to temporarily remove guns from those who pose a danger to themselves or others. It lets judges consider evidence from law enforcement officials, mental health professionals, family members and sometimes housemates and similar individuals, and then decide whether guns should be taken away temporarily from someone. ERPOs are among the most powerful and immediate tools we have to protect our schools and communities, and they should be implemented across the country.
In the current context of this uniquely American tragedy of school shootings, the phrase "thoughts and prayers” has become an expression of exasperation and anger, rather than comfort and compassion. As we remember the victims of the Cleveland School shooting 30 years ago, and victims of gun violence and suicide everywhere, we can indeed offer thoughts and prayers, but we will honor their memories far more by taking action. We know what to do. Let’s honor them by getting it done.