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Officer's Death Fuels Gun Debate

Law: Opponents of importation of assault weapons cite his slaying with an Uzi.

September 18, 1997|JEFF BRAZIL and STEVE BERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

It came in as a routine "man with a gun" call but it was hardly that: The gunman had an Uzi assault pistol with thousands of bullets loaded into 30-round clips. Officer Jim Guelff had only his service revolver with a small number of slugs he had to reload by hand.

The policeman didn't have a prayer.

Today, nearly three years after Jim Guelff bled to death while more than 100 of his San Francisco Police Department colleagues stood by helpless, he is at the center of an international dispute over assault weapons.

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein , in addition to calling upon President Clinton to strengthen the nation's assault weapon laws, invoked Guelff's name this week in a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. She urged the prime minister to nix the proposed export of thousands of modified Uzi and Galil assault weapons to a U.S. gun company.

Guelff's name also adorns proposed legislation--the James Guelff Body Armor Act--that is slowly winding its way through Congress. The bill would ban the mail-order sale of the kind of bulletproof body armor used by the assailant who killed Guelff and by the two gunmen who casually kept hundreds of police officers at bay in the Feb. 28 North Hollywood bank robbery.

Guelff's family and friends are contending with the most roiled of emotions this week as they see his name at center stage in the highly politicized arena of national and international gun policy.

"Really, I hate to see my brother mentioned in this context because I remember the way he died," said Lee Guelff, the officer's older brother. "But I will write to Mr. Netanyahu myself, in no uncertain terms, and tell him what he needs to do. Something good may come of Jim's death yet."

Guelff, who was 38, is just one of many law enforcement officers throughout the nation who have been felled or threatened by rapid-fire assault weapons that continue to proliferate on the streets of America in part because of shortcomings in federal and state laws.

In a poll this spring by the California Organization of Police and Sheriffs, 73% of rank-and-file officers favored a ban on assault weapons, whose firing capacity and ability to kill or harm multiple victims in a single incident have spurred state and federal legislative efforts to restrict their use.

But as a series in The Times last month revealed, the much-ballyhooed state and federal assault weapon laws are rife with loopholes, allowing arms purveyors to flood the market with copycats that are cosmetically different from restricted weapons but just as deadly.

Prompted by frightening confrontations with well-armed assailants like those in the North Hollywood bank heist, law enforcement agencies around the country say they are increasingly considering providing their officers with semiautomatic assault weapons of their own.

Just this week, the Los Angeles Police Department acquired hundreds of U.S. Army surplus M-16s because they were so outgunned during the North Hollywood shootout.

"If the bad person has [an assault weapon], it's more firepower than the officer or deputy has at the time," said Dan Moser, executive director of the 22,000-member National Sheriffs Assn. "That officer has no chance with a .45 or 9-millimeter against someone with an assault weapon and God only knows how many magazines."

Few know the anguishing truth of that statement better than Jim Guelff's family, especially his two children, Laura, 11, and Landon, 9.

The youngsters have struggled mightily with their grief. The boy, prone to angry outbursts, has yet to grasp how such a thing could happen. Occasionally, he takes his father's silver badge--No. 1461--out of its glass case and delicately caresses it.

Laura keeps a photograph of her handsome father in her bedroom. She desperately misses their father-daughter dinners and their frequent picnics together. For the most part, she contains her sadness, until it finally explodes in a stream of tears and the inconsolable cry, "My daddy, my daddy."

Says their mother: "It's a lifetime of loss for them."

Guelff died Nov. 14, 1994, just hours after he had responded to the call of a "man with a gun" in downtown San Francisco. He was confronted by Vic Lee Boutwell, who was standing in the street firing wildly.

The first officer to arrive, Guelff was immediately pinned down by the gunman, whose arsenal included an Uzi and more than 2,000 rounds of ammunition.

Guelff returned fire with his revolver, but was struck half a dozen times in the legs and once in the lower abdomen. As he fell to the pavement, he tried to reload but his hands were shaking, giving the gunman plenty of time to take aim. By then scores of officers had arrived but couldn't get close enough to help. A paramedic who tried was wounded. Some officers remember Guelff moaning during a 30-minute standoff until a SWAT team sniper found an opening in Boutwell's bulletproof body armor and killed him.

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