Meanwhile, according to a 2009 report in the Stockton Record, just 227 of Cleveland’s 975 enrolled students came back on Jan. 18. Egeland’s only kindergartner that day was a little girl whose mother couldn’t figure out why her daughter was the lone child on the school bus.
“She had been absent the day before,” Egeland says, “and her mother hadn’t heard the news.”
* * *
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 Gov. Brown as he makes difficult choices.”
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 semi-automatic 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, like Stockton first responders Gary Gillis and Gigi Olson—nèe Nault, who married her Medi-Flight 2 partner Kim Olson in 1989—still 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?”
Max Whittaker is a photographer based in Sacramento, Calif. He is part of Prime Collective.
Update, Dec. 13, 2013: The headline on this article has been updated to clarify the Stockton shooting’s status as the first mass school shooting of this cycle.
This is an excerpt from “Trigger Effect,” an in-depth feature about the 1989 Stockton, Calif., school shooting and its lasting effects, from Sactown magazine’s December/January issue. Please read the complete story, by S.T. VanAirsdale, at Sactown’s website.