Jeff Jardine

State’s first successful assault weapon ban had strong Valley tie

In 1990, a gun-owning, duck-hunting federal court judge from Modesto dismissed a lawsuit by the National Rifle Association that claimed the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment overrode a state’s rights to make its own gun laws.

Indeed, the Roberti-Roos Assault Weapons Control Act of 1989 survived to become law, making it illegal to import, manufacture, sell or advertise more than 50 models of semiautomatic rifles, pistols and shotguns.

The law, the gun lobby claimed, represented a knee-jerk political reaction to the January 1989 shooting by Patrick Purdy, who used a semiautomatic assault weapon to kill five children, wound 25 other people and then kill himself on the Cleveland Elementary School campus in Stockton. Gov. George Deukmejian, a Republican and normally a gun-control opponent, signed it into law. Both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, also Republicans, signed legislation involving assault gun restrictions during their respective times in the White House.

The NRA wanted the Roberti-Roos act thrown out. California Attorney General John Van de Kamp wanted the petition dismissed.

U.S. District Judge and Modesto resident Edward Dean Price ruled against the NRA and for the state.

“We conclude that the Constitution has left the question of gun control to the several states,” Price wrote in his decision on Sept. 10, 1990. “There are no federal constitutional provisions that have been offended by this (state) act.”

Katherine Conrotto of Modesto is awfully proud of him for that. Price, who died in 1997, was her father.

“It was never political with him,” she said. “He just went by the book.”

She is reminded of her dad’s decision every time a mass shooting occurs, and there have been far too many of them. They invariably involve killers who use assault rifles that are easy to get in most states. The reminders are painfully fresh:

A sniper who killed five Dallas police officers and wounded seven officers and two civilians Thursday night.

The nightclub shooting in Orlando last month that claimed 49 lives.

The terrorist attack in San Bernardino in September that left 14 people dead and 22 others injured. So many other tragic shooting incidents in recent decades, as well.

As with the Cleveland Elementary shooting, the San Bernardino tragedy spurred new legislation that Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law July 1. It adds further assault weapon restrictions along with how ammunition can be sold. Similarly, the NRA contested the law and no doubt will continue to do so through the courts. The state has 27 years of assault weapon restrictions that have survived the challenges, though. Price’s ruling from 1990 made its mark. Yet he never spoke about the case or his role in it, Conrotto said.

“After he became a judge, he and my mom kept the home in Modesto and had a condo in Fresno (where the court is situated),” she said. “When they were in Modesto on the weekends, they were totally relaxed. He didn’t talk about (the court) much.”

“Judges aren’t supposed to talk about their cases,” said Robert Crabtree, a former law partner of Price’s from 1968 until President Jimmy Carter appointed Price, who practiced law in Modesto for three decades, to the federal court in 1979.

Price could be blunt to the point of intimidating some of the attorneys who brought cases before him. In one court session, when an unprepared lawyer asked if he could speak on a motion, Price responded, “You can at 4:30 this afternoon, as soon as I leave.”

He did chat at length with Bee court reporter Rosalie Reed in 1983, talking mostly in general terms about some of the cases that came before him. Some were highly controversial. Price refused to halt the filling of New Melones Reservoir in 1982. In 1988, he denied Joseph Gallo one-third ownership of the winery that brothers Ernest and Julio Gallo had built into the world’s largest. And a racketeering case involving the violent Nuestra Familia gang in 1982 caused court officials to assign around-the-clock guards to protect Price and his wife, also named Katherine, for nine months as the trial proceeded.

“I had two marshals, my wife had one and two watched our living quarters,” he told The Bee’s Reed. “Different guards were assigned every three weeks.”

“They had him wear a bulletproof vest when he was in the courtroom or driving around town,” Conrotto said.

They had been through it before, she said. The 1990 assault weapons case decision brought death threats, she said.

“Our listed phone number was a magnet for, to put it charitably, gun ‘enthusiasts’ from as far away as New York,” she said. “I remember Dad telling me, ‘Americans sure like their guns.’ 

So did the judge. He owned shotguns and packed a concealed firearm, she said.

“Dad knew about guns,” Conrotto said. “He was always extremely careful.”

One shotgun stayed in a corner of the hall closet at all times. Her dad, she reiterated, liked guns.

“But he loved the law,” she said.