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Tale of a Gun 

Following one semiautomatic from manufacture to mayhem

Wednesday, May 6 1998
Between the efforts of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and state Rep. Don Perata of Oakland, the Bay Area is leading a nationwide charge toward gun control that has the National Rifle Association and other gun proponents going downright ballistic.

Perata is sponsoring state gun control legislation that has cycled throughout both chambers of the Statehouse without passing, and is now under negotiation with the governor. Feinstein is drafting national legislation that would ban the import of high-capacity ammunition clips for semiautomatic weapons.

Both actions are attempts to heal old wounds.
Back in 1989, California passed the Roberti-Roos Weapons Control Act, which banned specific guns by make and model. But it didn't take long for gun manufacturers to begin making "copycat" models that were essentially identical to those on the banned list, with the exception of having different names and/or model numbers. Under the law, the attorney general could go to court to add weapons to the banned list and combat copycatters. But in March, a state appeals court invalidated provisions of the law that allowed the list of taboo weapons to be expanded.

A similar loophole arose on the federal level. A 1994 law authored by Feinstein banned the domestic manufacture and sale of 19 specific models of assault rifles and the future manufacture and sale of ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 rounds. But a "grandfather clause" allowed the sale of such magazines manufactured before the ban was enacted, as well as those made in another country.

Memorable, murderous rampages -- including the 1993 shootings at 101 California and the recent schoolyard slaughter in Arkansas -- have fueled the gun control debate. Yet, they are rare, high-profile incidents, not the routine murder on city streets that gun control purportedly aims to reduce.

What follows is the step-by-step progress, from birth to death, of an American-made, semiauto-matic rifle used in one of the most violent (but largely unpublicized) crime sprees in recent Bay Area history. The rifle -- a .223-caliber Ruger Mini-14 -- is not on the list of weapons banned by current state or federal law.

Perata's gun control bill has been a pingpong ball, moving to the state Senate, where the definition of assault rifles was amended, and then back to the Assembly, where those amendments were narrowly defeated. Supporters are now negotiating with Gov. Pete Wilson's office over what type of gun control bill he might sign into law. If Perata's gun control bill, which bans assault rifles based on generic characteristics, is passed in its original form, the modified Mini-14 will be outlawed. But there is no guarantee Wilson will sign gun control legislation this year.

Feinstein is now creating a bill that would ban the sale of all ammunition magazines holding more than 10 rounds. The NRA's strength on Capitol Hill, however, is legendary; the prospects for Feinstein's legislation are dim.

Last month, President Clinton issued an executive order that bans the import of 58 military-style assault weapons, saying that because those guns accept high-capacity, detachable ammunition clips, they cannot be meant solely for sporting uses. The president's administrative action promises a showdown in Congress, where some Republicans have already vowed to hold up major budget items, including disaster relief, until Clinton lifts the ban.

1) Born in Connecticut
Strum, Ruger & Co. Inc. began making guns in a building near the Southport, Conn., railroad station in 1949. The company's first gun was an auto-loading target pistol, which sold for $37.50. It was designed by William Ruger, who had configured guns for the United States government until 1940, when he sold the design for a machine gun and used the proceeds to branch out on his own.

Fellow gun collector Alex Strum invested $50,000 to help start the company. It has been profitable every year since, and by 1960 was the most profitable company in the history of the industry. Strum, Ruger went public in 1969 and began trading on the New York Stock Exchange in 1990. The price of the company's stock has more than quadrupled since. Its motto: "Arms Makers for Responsible Sportsmen."

Ruger's line grew from pistols to include revolvers and rifles. In 1969, the company began making double-action .38 and .357 Magnum revolvers for law enforcement. In 1973, Ruger invented its single-action revolvers utilizing automatic safety features. The same year, Strum, Ruger & Co. introduced the Mini-14 sporting carbine.

And sometime in the late 1980s, Ruger made one particular Mini-14, semiautomatic rifle that would fall into the hands of a few of the Bay Area's most violent criminals.

2) The Distributor
Ruger sold a Mini-14 to the Microsite Co., a well-known, medium-size firearms distributor in Belmont.

3) The Retailer
Microsite Co. sold the same Mini-14 to Led by Lead Co. in San Pablo, a registered firearms dealer.

4) The Buyer
Richmond resident Thomas Kilgore III purchased two identical Mini-14 rifles from Led by Lead on July 5, 1990. Kilgore completed a firearms transaction record, passed federal firearm purchase requirements at the time, and left with the two weapons in one transaction. Though he never reported the theft, Kilgore would later tell authorities that the guns were stolen.

5) Marvin Gets Fired Up
From December 1990 through January 1991, notorious drug dealer Marvin "One-Eyed" Johnson (police reports do not say how he lost the eye) and his chief lieutenant, Willie "Red" McClure, led a violent rampage through Richmond. They bombed three homes, committed seven drive-by shootings, killed one person, and severely injured several more, including one man who was shot four times. Witnesses would later testify that Johnson wanted to "take back Richmond" from competitors he believed were infringing on his drug profits. A criminal investigation led by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms turned up several weapons used in the shooting spree. Among those weapons was one of the Ruger Mini-14s purchased by Thomas Kilgore III.

6) The Wrong Jacket
Johnson, McClure, and another associate went to a home on Second Street, where they believed a rival drug dealer was on the porch. In fact, the man was Maurice Gallon, who had the misfortune of wearing a jacket similar to that of the intended victim. Johnson shot Gallon at least four times, while McClure fired at another man who fled around the back of the house. Witnesses remembered McClure using a gun that fit the description of the Mini-14.

7) Making Graves
Johnson, McClure, and four others followed James "Sonny" Graves, who they thought was a rival drug dealer, to Johnny's Diner at 19th and Virginia streets. Johnson shot and killed Graves. Meanwhile, the group opened fire in the parking lot of the diner with several guns, including the Mini-14, shooting numerous bystanders along the way. A government witness testified that the Mini-14 jammed during the shootout. It seems that the shooters were not following the manufacturer's recommended usage -- when cradled close to the torso, as automatic weapons are often held in the movies, the chambering mechanism of the Mini-14 tends to catch the shooter's clothing, jamming the gun.

8) The Molotov Cocktail, and a Shot
Johnson and McClure were in a group responsible for throwing two Molotov cocktails (bottles filled with flammable liquid, usually gasoline, and topped with a rag that is set afire) into the window of a home on Ninth Street. The firebombers apparently believed the home to be a rival drug dealer's. When the Molotov cocktails failed to explode, Johnson and McClure began shooting in front of the house.

9) Auto Motive
Later in the evening, the group opened fire on an unoccupied black Chevrolet parked in North Richmond. A witness later testified that Johnson and McClure believed they had seen the car several times and speculated that someone might have been following them. Again, McClure used the Mini-14; again, it jammed. Two others shot at the car before McClure finally got back in the game, shooting a few rounds up one side of the car and down the other.

10) Idle Play
Johnson, McClure, and an associate went to a home on Dante Avenue in Oakland, where they believed another associate, who had participated in or witnessed their earlier escapades, was hiding out. They sent a neighborhood kid to the door to see if the associate was at home. But the associate recognized the play, realized that Johnson and McClure might not have his best interests at heart, and called police. Johnson, McClure, and two other men were arrested at the scene. Police found the Ruger Mini-14 born in Southport, Conn., in the trunk of a car idling across the street.

11) Casing the Scenes
The metal parts of any two guns are never exactly alike; the machining process creates minor imperfections that differ, barrel to barrel and firing pin to firing pin. When a shell or a bullet moves through a gun, then, it is scratched and marked uniquely; only one gun could leave precisely those markings. Experts at the criminalistics laboratory for the Contra Costa County Sheriff's Office in Martinez examined the Ruger Mini-14 found in the car on Dante Avenue, along with shell casings found at various sites in the Johnson and McClure crime spree. Under a high-powered microscope, criminalist Kenneth Fujii found that tool marks on cartridge cases recovered at the crime scenes matched markings on shells test-fired from the seized Mini-14. This was one of the guns used in the spree.

12) Court and Spark
The prosecution of Marvin "One-Eyed" Johnson was a tense affair. Pretrial, there were several assassination attempts on witnesses and several firebombings of their relatives' homes; Johnson was implicated in ordering some of the attacks from jail. He went to trial in September 1993, in front of an anonymous jury and held under the tightest courtroom security in San Francisco in two decades. Based on both eyewitness testimony and ballistic evidence, a jury found Johnson guilty of the use of firearms and destructive devices during drug trafficking crimes and crimes of violence. He was sentenced to life without parole and now lives in a federal penitentiary in Allenwood, Pa. McClure pleaded guilty to using a destructive device during and in relation to a crime of violence. He was sentenced to a minimum of 30 years in prison and now lives in a federal penitentiary in Lompoc, Calif. The U.S. Court of Appeals, 9th Circuit, upheld the convictions. In July 1997, McClure filed another legal challenge, which is pending.

13) Death of an Assault Rifle
The Ruger Mini-14 assault rifle used in the crime spree of Marvin "One-Eyed" Johnson and Willie "Red" McClure ended its life in a commercial smelter somewhere in the Bay Area. It was not alone. About three times a year, the Oakland Police Department takes 600 to 800 guns to a smelter at an undisclosed location. Officers stand guard and watch as each one is destroyed.

Vital Statistics: The Ruger Mini-14
Caliber: .223 -- a small rifle round, and one of the most popular. Because it travels at high speed, the .223 does a great deal of damage when it hits the human body and can pierce a standard-model bulletproof vest.

Length (overall): 37 1/8 inches

Barrel: 18.5 inches

Weight: Approximately 6.75 pounds
Options: Detachable magazine modified to fire 30 rounds in less than 10 seconds. Folding stock and pistol grip allow it to be held at midtorso, with the magazine in the middle of the gun. In this case, the overall dimension is about a quarter of an inch over the legal minimum length of a rifle.

Suggested retail price: $516-569

Manufacturer's comments: "The Ruger Mini-14 combines the powerful .223 cartridge with a light, compact, and durable firearm that is particularly useful around the ranch or farm.

About The Author

Lisa Davis


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