TODAY'S FOCUS: Outgunned Cops Seek Tougher Gun Control Law
Jan. 09, 1986
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Joe Tamarit and Manuel Martinez, two San Jose, Calif., cops armed with six- shot revolvers, faced a policeman's nightmare when a motel guest fired at them with an Uzi assault rifle made for war.
Martinez was rescued by a SWAT team, but Tamarit crawled away with bullets in the stomach and shoulder - and a determination that military-style weapons be taken out of the public's hands.
Tamarit's views - those of a policeman who almost died because he was outgunned - may be an important part of any new gun control debate in Congress this year.
A coalition of police organizations, coordinated by the research-oriented Police Foundation, is pushing for enactment of a stronger gun control law - and opposing a Senate-passed bill that would end a ban on interstate firearms sales. Opposing them is the 3.1 million-member National Rifle Association.
''Guns don't kill people, criminals do,'' says a popular NRA slogan.
''Guns kill people,'' Tamarit disagreed, in a telephone interview after a recent midnight patrol shift. ''The NRA is missing the point. We're not talking about your regular hunting rifle.''
A comprehensive gun control bill before the House Judiciary Committee includes a provision to prohibit the public from possessing machine guns. It was introduced by the committee chairman, Peter W. Rodino Jr., D-N.J.; and Rep. William J. Hughes, D-N.J., chairman of the panel's subcommittee on crime.
''Either you're going to do it (outlaw military-type guns) or the U.S. is going to look like Beirut, with police officers walking around with these weapons slung over their shoulders,'' said San Jose police chief Joseph D. McNamara. ''Police are going to demand equal firepower.''
Hughes admits that many members of Congress simply want the gun control issue ''to go away.'' He promised to hold more hearings and try to move the bill through his subcommittee this spring.
He said, however, that he hasn't decided what to do about semi-automatics.
Long glorified in internecine mobster battles, automatics (one trigger pull, continued firing) and semi-automatics (one pull for each bullet) are fast becoming weapons of choice for drug traffickers and mentally unstable people, according to federal and local police officials.
''It's a national epidemic,'' said Rep. Robert G. Torricelli, D-N.J., who urged that ''laws catch up with new realities of law enforcement.''
Congress responded to new realities a half-century ago with the 1934 National Firearms Act, aimed at controlling mob warfare. Automatic weapons - including those converted from semi-automatics - must be registered with the Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Unconverted semi-automatics are excluded.
But the 118,000 automatics registered - following payment of a $200 fee and a background check - are not the guns used in crimes, ATF says.
Criminals' weapons often are bought legally as ''semis'' and converted illegally to automatics without the required ATF approval - ''like souping up a car,'' said Michael Huckaby, the ATF assistant agent-in-charge in Miami.
And while ATF requires registration of conversion parts that turn a ''semi'' into a fully automatic, it has not yet regulated growing numbers of partial conversion kits that only need a few extra parts to change the weapon.
Tamarit was shot Oct. 29, 1984, after responding to a call from a night hotel manager, who complained of a guest using a credit card that was reported stolen. The guest, with Tamarit and Martinez following behind, led the officers to his fourth-floor room so he could produce identification.
Suddenly, the man bolted inside, and started firing his unconverted, semi- automatic Uzi made in Israel. Martinez, already through the door, took cover in the bathroom and returned fire with his revolver. Tamarit, in the doorway, was shot in the stomach.
''I tumbled over as the door was closing. He fired through the door and I got hit in the shoulder. He sprayed the doorway. I was able to radio 'Code 30, officer down.' I tried to kick the door and almost blacked out,'' Tamarit recalled.
Martinez was rescued by a SWAT team. Tamarit crawled to a service elevator and rode down to the lobby. The gunman, although hit twice by Martinez, held police at bay for several hours before surrendering.
The suspect, who later pleaded guilty to assault with a deadly weapon, bought the gun, extra clips, and a gun case that looks like a briefcase, with a credit card taken from his father, Tamarit said. Several days earlier, he had tried to use his own credit card in the same store, but the sale didn't go through.
NRA spokesman Dave Warner said, ''What is needed is not laws to control law-abiding citizens, but to punish people who misuse any gun in a crime. We've been a leading advocate for mandatory penalties for use of a gun during a crime.''
Warner said there's more talk of automatic weapons now ''because the media is talking about these things. They saw it on Miami Vice, they read about it in Newsweek and saw television news shows'' about firing ranges which feature automatic weapons.
''There is a problem, but we don't know if it's as big as it's made out to be,'' he said.
Warner added that semi-automatics can include numerous weapons, including ''your everyday hunting rifle.''
Police officials counter with their own experiences, ranging from near disasters to actual slaughter.
In Albuquerque, N.M. this past New Year's Eve, a mentally ill person ran through a neighborhood shooting off a machine gun, said Gilbert Gallegos, the city's deputy chief and also chairman of the national Fraternal Order of Police legislative committee. No one was injured.
But in Oakland, N.J. last Aug. 4, automatic weapons fire disrupted a picnic attended by more than 3,000 people. When the shooting ended, three people had died and more than 20 were wounded.
''It looked like a slaughter,'' said Oakland's acting chief, Joseph Eilert, who arrived 10 minutes later. ''I see no need for civilians to have automatic weapons. It seems these people have better equipment than we have and it's more readily available. They don't have to go through bidding and purchasing.
''It could happen on any given Sunday in any given town.''