Slaughter in A School Yard

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The gunman drove his Chevrolet station wagon to the rear of Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, Calif. He stepped out, carrying a Chinese-made semiautomatic AK-47 rifle loaded with 75 bullets. Carved into the AK-47's stock were disconnected words: "freedom," "victory," "Hezbollah." He wore a flak jacket under a camouflage shirt jacket that bore other words, one misspelled: "PLO," "Libya," "death to the Great Satin." He had placed plugs in his ears to dull the sounds of what he was about to do. Patrick Purdy, 26, a drifter with guerrilla-warfare fantasies, had returned to the % school he attended 16 years earlier for a final, cowardly assault.

Purdy set his station wagon afire with a gasoline-filled beer bottle. Then the man described in a 1987 police report as suffering from "mild mental retardation" walked toward the school yard. At least 300 pupils, mostly kindergartners through third-graders, were enjoying their lunchtime recess. Impassively, Purdy squeezed the trigger of his rifle, then reloaded, raking the yard with at least 106 bullets. As children screamed in pain and fear, Purdy placed a 9-mm pistol to his head and killed himself. When the four- minute assault was over, five children, ages 6 to 9, were dead. One teacher and 29 pupils were wounded. Those killed were all Southeast Asians, from war-refugee groups that make up 71% of the school's enrollment.

Why did Purdy gun down a yard full of children? "He just hated everybody," said Stockton Police Captain Dennis Perry. The more significant question: Why could Purdy, an alcoholic who had been arrested for such offenses as selling weapons and attempted robbery, walk into a gun shop in Sandy, Ore., and leave with an AK-47 under his arm? The easy availability of weapons like this, which have no purpose other than killing human beings, can all too readily turn the delusions of sick gunmen into tragic nightmares.