June 19, 1995 in Nation/World

Fairchild: One Year Later Carnage Fuels Gun Debate Moves To Restrict Weapons Rise, Fall As Massacres Occur, Are Forgotten

By The Spokesman-Review

As debate over the nation’s gun laws lurches from one tragedy to the next, the Fairchild Air Force Base massacre is growing dim in America’s collective memory.

Dean Mellberg’s rampage last June 20 played a key role in the passage of restrictions on semiautomatic military-style assault weapons.

Yet, as gun-rights supporters gain support for lifting the ban, those killings have been eclipsed by the Oklahoma City bomb.

“That’s what drives the debate - one high-profile event after another,” said Kristen Rand of the Violence Policy Center, a Washington, D.C., group. “It takes something really horrific; each one has to outdo the last.”

Mellberg’s spree, in which he killed four and wounded 22 with a MAK-90 rifle before being shot dead, still provides ammunition to both sides in the assault weapons debate.

Some say the deranged airman proved the point that people are the problem, not guns. Others argue he showed exactly why guns with such fearsome firepower should be banned by proving how much damage one man with one gun can do.

Victims disagree

Even Mellberg’s victims are divided on whether the guns should be banned.

“Weapons don’t kill people,” said Tech. Sgt. Patrick Deaton, shot in the shoulder while waiting for a prescription at the Fairchild hospital. “What we need to do is change the hearts of people.”

But J Zucchetto, father of two children wounded by Mellberg, said the nation must realize that some guns are more deadly than others and they should be restricted. “With a different kind of gun, my kids may still have got shot, but 20 other people may not have,” he said.

Zucchetto takes care to stress he’s “not one of these people who think all guns should be outlawed.” But last fall, he and his sister, Leisa Kosanke, joined the assault weapons debate when the Fairchild tragedy was helping shape federal law.

A few days after the massacre, then-Speaker of the House Tom Foley announced he would vote for a limited ban on assault weapons.

In carefully measured tones, he described how Americans’ rights to own guns for sport and self-protection never should be infringed upon. But assault weapons are so lethal, he said, that the government must restrict factories from making them and gun dealers from selling them.

The Spokane Democrat’s support of the ban turned a longtime contributor, the National Rifle Association, into a determined foe. The group mounted a $50,000 campaign to unseat him, with television commercials featuring actor Charlton Heston.

Jumping into the debate

Watching those commercials, Zucchetto and Kosanke went from being numbed by tragedy to angry over rhetoric. In October, during the height of the congressional campaign, they held a news conference to praise Foley and the ban.

Foley lost to Republican George Nethercutt. Some analysts said Eastern Washington’s energized gun-rights advocates made the difference in the close race. Guncontrol groups maintain it was the Republican tide, not the ban on assault weapons, that swamped the speaker.

Now in office, Nethercutt frequently is asked his stand on assault weapons. He continues to criticize the ban but has not made its repeal a top priority.

“If you’re a law-abiding citizen and you want to own an assault weapon, I don’t have a problem with that,” Nethercutt said recently.

“I was very surprised that it turned into such a hot political issue,” Kosanke said recently.

If Congress wants to repeal the ban, she would like to testify about the damage one assault weapon can do to a family. She says she sees bits of truth in both sides’ arguments - individuals have a right to own guns, but the public has an even greater right to feel safe.

A reason for assault weapons

Gun-rights advocates say public safety is the very reason to lift the ban. But their definition of “public safety” includes the right of individual citizens to defend themselves against an unjust government.

“It’s in the best interests of keeping people alive to have these weapons available,” said Aaron Zelman, director of Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership. “These are the ideal weapon for citizens to possess to use against government agents coming to murder them.”

When Zelman talks about such guns, he prefers the term “semiautomatic military-pattern firearms.” “Language is important. ‘Assault weapon’ is a direct translation of a Nazi term,” he said.

His group, based in Milwaukee, contends all genocide in the 20th century was preceded by gun-control laws that left targeted minorities defenseless against government.

But Zucchetto dismisses such arguments as paranoia.

“They’re feeding on the hysteria of the public,” he said. “We have to draw the line somewhere. It’s like a speed limit on the freeway.”

Anyone who buys an assault weapon first should obtain a license, pay a fee, attend a special training course and take a test, he suggested.

That may have deterred Mellberg, who had belowaverage intelligence, was unable to get his driver’s license and didn’t know how to operate the weapon he had bought. After he bought the 75-round drum clip, a store clerk showed him how to mount and operate it.

Case highlights loopholes

The Mellberg case highlights loopholes in the current ban, both sides say.

If the law had been in effect last June, it would not have prevented the 20-year-old airman from buying the gun from the seller. The ban restricts only newly made guns. Mellberg’s MAK-90 was about a year old.

Nothing in Mellberg’s background would disqualify him from buying the gun. Persons dishonorably discharged from the military and those who have been committed for mental problems cannot legally buy guns, but the former airman was neither.

Mark Hess, shot in the leg by Mellberg, said the Air Force’s poor handling of an incompetent and mentally ill airman is to blame for the massacre, not the gun he used.

The sight of such weapons still is unsettling to Hess, who served 18 years in the Air Force. But he says he doubts the ban will prevent massacres because the guns are so commonplace.

More than 1 million assault weapons are in circulation in the United States, gun-control groups estimate. The law doesn’t restrict private sales, and Mellberg easily could have bought a similar rifle from a private owner if something in his background had blocked the sale by Spokane gun dealer Mike Carroll.

Even now, MAK-90s and other assault weapons are advertised regularly in the classified section of The Spokesman-Review. Some are touted as “pre-ban.”

“There’s really not much you can do about those,” acknowledged Jeffrey Muchnick of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, of Washington, D.C.

Gun-control groups would like to close some loopholes in the assault weapons law, while gun-rights groups want to lift the ban. But both concede there is little chance of any major change in the assault weapons ban this year.

Republicans in Congress say they will try to repeal the ban later this year. President Clinton has promised to veto any attempt to repeal the ban, and neither side believes that veto can be overridden.

That means the debate is likely to continue - between intermittent tragedies - through the next election and into a new Congress.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos

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