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April 16, 2013
Dan Morain: Different paths taken after school shootings

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(April 16)

Rob Young says the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre inspired him to get involved in the gun issue. Judy Weldon felt the same urge. They moved in very different directions.

Young and Weldon are bound by the horrible events at Cleveland Elementary School on Jan. 17, 1989. Young was a first-grader when a gunman opened fire onto the playground with an AK-47, killing five children and wounding 29 others. Young was shot in the foot and chest. Weldon was a second-grade teacher, who had Young in her class the following year.

"Robbie was a great little kid. He was adorable. Very personable," said Weldon, who remained at Cleveland Elementary for 25 years, until her retirement last year.

She is one of 10 Cleveland Elementary schoolteachers who for the most part had remained quiet until Dec. 14, 2012, when they no longer could. They speak out now because they know what Sandy Hook teachers are going through.

"We were a young staff. We had young children of our own. Dealing with the stress all day long was tough," Weldon told me by phone. "We're involved now because we're retired. We can look back and speak with less raw emotion."

Ever since the Newtown shooting, the teachers, banded together in Cleveland School Shooting Survivors, have been teaching members of Congress about the impact of gun violence, talking to them, and regularly gathering in one another's homes to write them letters advocating gun restrictions.

"You love your kids. I will always love Robbie," Weldon said. "He comes from a different direction."

On Tuesday, Young diverged further from his teachers by appearing before the California Legislature, telling lawmakers how he survived, grew up, became a cop - and opposes virtually all gun restrictions.

Young started the day by urging an Assembly committee to approve a Republican-backed bill to lift restrictions on concealed carry permits for noncriminals. The Democratic-controlled committee killed it.

Later in the day, Young testified against Democrats' bills, including a measure by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg to extend California's assault weapons restrictions - first approved after the Stockton shooting - by banning semi-automatic rifles that accept detachable magazines. The Democrats' bills passed.

After he testified, Young told me he long has been a Second Amendment advocate and "never blamed the weapon" that Patrick Purdy wielded that day.

"The last thing I want is for that to happen again," Young said, referring to the schoolyard shooting. "But there is not a law on the books to prevent that from happening. Criminals will always find a way."

Urged by his wife, Jennifer, and a friend, he decided after the Sandy Hook massacre to become an out-front Second Amendment advocate. On Young's behalf, the friend contacted Gun Owners of America, a pro-gun organization that built a reputation by being more extreme than the National Rifle Association.

Larry Pratt, the head of Gun Owners of America, called him the next day and paid his expenses to come to Washington, where he spent a day and a half lobbying Congress.

On Tuesday, Sam Paredes, the Sacramento lobbyist for Gun Owners of California, led Young around the Capitol. Paredes is the son-in-law of former California state Sen. H.L. Richardson, "Wild Bill," a shrew politician and direct mail innovator who founded the Gun Owners groups.

"It's huge to have him on our side," Paredes said. "He was a victim of the tragedy that started it all."

California gun politics turned after the Stockton schoolyard shooting, for the better. Then-Gov. George Deukmejian signed an assault weapons prohibition into law. Ever since, California lawmakers have added more restrictions. For many reasons, probably including gun restrictions, violent crime has fallen in California by 63 percent since its peak in 1992.

In Congress, however, consensus doesn't exist. Gun laws remain as they were. Chances of significant change seem slim again this year, which angers Young's former teachers.

"You expect the people you vote for to make new laws to stop this from happening, and they don't," Weldon said.

Young echoes the Gun Owners' line that Second Amendment rights are inviolate. The Bay Area cop told me he could think of only one gun restriction that he supports - a ban on armor-piercing "cop-killer" bullets. He thinks the law making a school a gun-free zone ought to be repealed.

Could he imagine any one of the Cleveland Elementary School teachers he calls "near and dear" pulling out a gun, firing and hitting a gunman without harming a kid?

"If they were properly trained and armed, yes," he said. The retired Cleveland Elementary School teachers have much work to do.

Follow Dan Morain on Twitter @DanielMorain.

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