Military-style guns on the rise here

  • SCOTT NORTH and WARREN CORNWALL / Herald Writers
  • Saturday, December 16, 2000 9:00pm
  • Local NewsLocal news

By SCOTT NORTH and WARREN CORNWALL

Herald Writers

Sonny Thompson brought his son from California to Washington nearly a decade ago, hoping to find a safer place for the boy to reach adulthood.

Instead, the 18-year-old was shot to death with a military-style semiautomatic rifle, a type of firearm that is banned by California’s weapons laws, some of the strictest in the nation.

Prosecutors say that on May 30, Dennis Cramm, then 17, grabbed an SKS owned by his father, Dale Cramm, 44, and repeatedly fired it into a car that was carrying Jason Thompson and his good friend Jesse Stoner. The bullets began flying after a fistfight at the Cramm home escalated into a gunbattle, with shots fired by both sides. Dennis Cramm’s attorney maintains his client acted in self-defense. He’s scheduled to go on trial in February, charged with two counts of first-degree murder.

Stoner and Thompson were among the many unarmed bystanders outside the house that night. The rifle allegedly used by Dennis Cramm was outfitted with a bayonet and a multiround, banana-style magazine. It was one of five similar weapons in the home, according to court papers.

While such firepower may sound exotic, that’s not the case in Snohomish County, or throughout the country.

The high-powered SKS has become a common find for local police, sometimes in large stashes of weapons, according to a Herald analysis of firearms seizures.

It’s also the most common rifle that falls into police hands when they encounter suspects younger than 24, according to federal officials. Almost all of the people involved in the Cramm case were in that age range.

The SKS, manufactured by North China Industries (Norinco), has been barred from importation into the United States since 1994. But its low cost makes it a popular weapon, and it remains legal to own in most states. California, however, bars people from owning the guns.

The weapon’s proliferation concerns federal law enforcement officials, partly because it is powerful enough to pierce body armor worn by police, according to a study of guns and youths recently released by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

"When you’re talking about a military rifle, there is an additional concern," said ATF spokesman John D’Angelo.

A Herald computer analysis of more than 5,300 firearms seized since 1994 by Snohomish County’s largest police departments shows that the SKS and other military-style weapons are common here.

While pistols are by far the most common firearm encountered by police, the SKS is the second most common rifle. It shows up about as often as popular hunting rifles, including bolt-action designs from Remington and lever-action models made by Winchester.

The Snohomish County data comes from information compiled at the regional evidence room, which is used by the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, the Everett Police Department, the Snohomish Regional Narcotics Task Force and several smaller agencies.

The results mirror national data compiled by the ATF, which maintains a database of guns police confiscated and then attempted to trace to their origins. Of nearly 860,000 firearms traced by the ATF, the second most common rifle checked since 1993 was the SKS and similar models produced by Norinco. Indeed, there were nearly as many SKS weapons traced as Glock semiautomatic pistols.

"They’ve been imported by the tens of thousands into the United States, and they are relatively inexpensive," D’Angelo said said of the SKS weapons.

Police said they were surprised by the roughly one dozen firearms found at Dale Cramm’s house on May 30. But the local data shows that cases involving multiple numbers of firearms are common, with more than three dozen seizures of 10 or more weapons occurring in the past six years. The SKS is the third most common firearm found among those weapon stockpiles, the data shows.

The regional drug task force has handled some of the biggest hauls, finding more than 20 guns in three different cases. Each involved people who officials say were trafficking in marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine.

"It’s an everyday thing for us," Snohomish County Sheriff Rick Bart said. "When we go on a search warrant for drugs, we are going to find guns."

Drug dealers stockpile weapons because stolen guns often are traded for drugs, and the dealers also "are arming themselves against other crooks," said Lt. Ron Perniciaro, who helps lead the drug task force.

Military-style weapons with bayonets and high-capacity magazines are popular with drug dealers because they are intimidating, Perniciaro said.

"There’s power, and I think a certain glamour in owning an exotic weapon," he said.

Bart said he doesn’t think more laws or a weapons ban would accomplish much. He said the problem is drugs, not firearms.

Sonny Thompson said he believes Washington needs a ban on military-style firearms similar to the ban in California.

"It is so unnecessary to have those guns," he said. "Those kinds of weapons don’t need to be in anyone’s hands."

Stoner’s parents, Ken and Donna Stoner, feel the same way. "I don’t think they should be allowed anywhere," said the slain teen’s mother.

Dale Cramm has refused repeated requests for an interview by The Herald. Instead, he has written the letters to the newspaper, angrily blaming others, including reporters and prosecutors, for his legal trouble.

Cramm is incredulous that anyone would find his firearm collection newsworthy. "All but four or five of those guns were hunting rifles," he wrote.

Sonny Thompson said he is disappointed that the law has not dealt more harshly with Dale Cramm, who is serving an eight-month sentence after pleading guilty to drug trafficking. Thompson’s face darkens and his eyebrows knot when he hears talk that the man has suffered losses, too.

"His son is still alive," Thompson said. "He can go see him. … When can I go do that?"

Royce Ferguson is the Everett defense attorney who represents Dennis Cramm. Ferguson said he is planning to argue at trial that his client acted in self-defense or defense of others when he opened fired with his father’s SKS.

Ferguson anticipates that he’ll face an uphill battle, in part because it will be difficult convincing jurors that his client used necessary force when he grabbed the bayonet-equipped SKS and fired multiple shots. But the reality is "that was what was available. That was what was there," he said.

Ferguson said he expects to try to show the SKS was "a tool, just a piece of metal there." He also plans on making clear that the gun was Dale Cramm’s. The defense investigation has shown Cramm did little to keep the firearm away from his son, and probably viewed the weapon "as a fashion accessory," Ferguson said.

He disagrees with the suggestion that banning military-style weapons would lead to safer streets in this state. He wonders, would anyone seriously consider banning cars to cut down on road rage?

There are bigger problems afoot here, he said, and it’s time people start talking seriously about raising young people who believe "in something bigger than drugs, guns and Hollywood."

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