Law Enforcement in the Crosshairs: Shooting Spree in Tucson

In May, we discussed the tragic murder of Sergeant Stephen Liczbinski in Philadelphia. Sgt. Liczbinski was a victim of loose gun laws—felled by an assault rifle that had been illegally trafficked from a North Carolina gun show. Now, less than two months later, another police officer has been murdered with an assault weapon, again by an assailant that never should have been granted access to a firearm.

Officer Erik Hite, described as “the perfect father and the perfect man,” was gunned down on June 1 in Tucson, Arizona, during a cross-town shooting spree. The incident began when Hite responded to a call about a man, Nick Delich, who was arguing with his neighbors and had fired a gun at several houses. When police arrived on the scene, Delich took off in his car. During an ensuing chase, Delich fired several rounds from an assault rifle at the police, killing Hite and wounding two other deputies. Delich was eventually cornered at a campground, where he surrendered. In his car, police found three AK-47-type assault rifles, a Sig Sauer P226 pistol, a .45-caliber Colt Commander and more than 3,000 rounds of ammunition. Delich has been indicted for first-degree murder and a long list of additional charges.

Delich had a long history of mental illness. In 2004, police responded when Delich threatened to assault his father. In a report, a deputy wrote that Delich “may have a mental illness.” Two weeks later, a justice of the peace issued a protection order temporarily barring Delich from possessing firearms, and requiring him to submit to a mental health evaluation. As a result, he was evaluated at Palo Verde Behavioral Health Hospital and then discharged (whether or not he received treatment for any condition remains a mystery). Up until the time of the shootings, Delich also maintained a MySpace page where he announced, “Soon I plan to kill many police officers.

Federal law prohibits the possession or purchase of firearms by those who have been adjudicated as a “mental defective” or who have been involuntarily committed to a mental institution. Because Delich’s hospital records remain sealed, it is unclear whether his commitment was voluntary or not. Even if he had been prohibited under federal law, Delich still might have been able to buy guns from a licensed dealer. Disturbingly, nine out of ten disqualifying mental health records that should be in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) have yet to be submitted to this federal database by the states.

The assault weapons used in the shootings were semiautomatic weapons that Delich had illegally converted to automatic fire. This was not difficult—Delich was able to acquire the conversion kit he needed through the mail. Manuals that explain the conversion process are also easily purchased at gun shows across America.

Assault weapons pose a serious threat to our police. The Violence Policy Center has released a report that shows that one out of every five law enforcement officers slain in the line of duty is killed with an assault weapon. With the federal Assault Weapons Ban having expired in September 2004, police departments across the country are arming up to keep pace with the overwhelming firepower now in criminal hands.

Sadly, America’s law enforcement officers will continue to be put at risk because of loose laws that allow citizens who are not mentally stable to gain access to powerful firearms. While the gun lobby complains about infringements on their Second Amendment freedoms, freedoms enjoyed by the rest of Americans are increasingly under threat as our public servants find themselves outgunned and in harm’s way.

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