Robin Abcarian Commentary, news and analysis

For Isla Vista victim's father, advocating stricter gun laws 'not a choice'

Nearly a year after the Isla Vista rampage, victim's father channels grief into working for stricter gun laws

You may not know the name Richard Martinez, but you certainly remember his howl of pain after his only child, Christopher Michaels-Martinez, was slain during a horrific night of violence in Isla Vista nearly a year ago.

Martinez, with his distinctive gray beard and dark hair, spoke in public the day after a mentally ill young man killed six people and injured 14 others before killing himself. His rage and grief were hard to watch, but impossible to ignore.

"Why did Chris die?" Martinez demanded, his voice husky with emotion. "Chris died because of craven, irresponsible politicians and the NRA. They talk about gun rights. What about Chris' right to live? When will this insanity stop? When will enough people say, 'Stop this madness'? Too many have died. We should say to ourselves, 'Not one more.'"

Sadly, predictably, there have been many, many more. In the last 12 months, it's estimated that guns have killed more than 30,000 Americans.

On Tuesday, I met Martinez here to talk about how Christopher's death has changed him, and how he hopes to spare other families the same kind of trauma.

A San Luis Obispo County public defender, Martinez has not stepped into the courtroom since his 20-year-old son died. Instead, he has thrown himself into advocacy, traveling the country to push for laws that keep guns off school campuses and away from convicted criminals, the mentally ill and domestic abusers.

"It's not a choice for me," he said. "This is the only way it's going to change."

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A month or so ago, Martinez joined the staff of Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit launched a year after Congress voted down common-sense gun regulations proposed in response to the brutal attack that killed 20 first-graders and six adults in Newtown, Conn.

Despite overwhelming public support, the Senate buckled to the gun lobby, refusing to ban certain kinds of military-style assault weapons, limit the size of magazines and expand background checks. "A pretty shameful day for Washington," President Obama said.

And yet, we know that a majority of Americans have tired of the National Rifle Assn.'s position that any restriction on guns is tantamount to incinerating the 2nd Amendment.

California, for instance, has a new law that would allow police or family members to ask a court to temporarily remove weapons from a person believed to be a threat. Washington voters resoundingly passed a measure for background checks, despite a gun lobby counter-measure placed on the ballot to sow confusion. Oregon just became the 18th state to require criminal background checks on all handgun sales.

"No other developed country in the world has the gun violence problem that we do," Martinez said. "In this country today, elementary schools have lockdown drills. No little kid in this country when I was growing up ever had to worry about being shot and killed in their school. I mean, what kind of country are we?"

We are the kind of country, unfortunately, where the NRA's histrionic chief executive blamed video games and violent movies for the carnage in Newtown, and suggested the answer to gun violence in schools is more guns in schools.

"The idea that more guns in public places is going to make us safer is ridiculous," Martinez said.

Only once during our conversation did Martinez lose his composure. We were talking about how grief sneaks up at unexpected moments. On Mother's Day, during a hike with his brother in Chico, he forgot for an instant that his son was dead, and imagined Chris walking behind him. His body shook with a sob.

"So," he said, recovering, "it comes and goes."

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On Monday night, Isla Vista was convulsed by violence once again.

Two men (one student and one alumnus) had been robbed and shot in their apartment by two men from outside the area. The victims, said Santa Barbara sheriff's deputies, may have known their assailants, who were affiliated with what deputies called a "criminal street gang."

Four miles away, Martinez had been checking into his hotel when he heard about the shooting. The news landed with a sickening thud.

"The worst kind of reminder that gun violence can happen at any time, at any place," he said, repeating a mantra that has come to define his life.

I noticed he wore a rainbow of rubber wrist bands on his right arm. Each had been given to him by the parent of a child murdered with a gun.

There was a band for Mary Karen Read, 19, slain during a mass shooting at Virginia Tech; a band for 17-year-old Jordan Davis of Jacksonville, Fla., murdered in the back seat of an SUV by a middle-aged man offended by the car's loud rap music. And so on.

After I left Martinez, I drove around Isla Vista. It's a pleasant, but densely populated student ghetto.

The only sign that something was not quite normal was the orange police tape in the 6500 block of Sabado Tarde Road, the same stretch where two survivors of last year's rampage were shot, the same stretch where a mentally ill young man plowed his car into a crowd in 2001, killing four.

At the I.V. Deli Mart, amid the lunchtime bustle, it was hard to imagine that a bullet had pierced a young man's heart as he ran inside for cover after hearing gun shots on the street. Five people had given Christopher Michaels-Martinez CPR. But they hadn't been able to save him.

Eventually, only a few people around here will have first-hand knowledge of the terrible events of May 23, 2014.

Memories are fleeting. But gun violence is forever.

Richard Martinez would like to remind you that if it happened to his child, it could just as easily happen to yours.

robin.abcarian@latimes.com

Twitter: @AbcarianLAT

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