It was nine years ago, but the moment still sears Juan Perez, who knelt to pray at the feet of dying Jose Somohano, a fellow officer ambushed by a killer with an assault rifle. Dan Oates knows the hurt, too. Four years ago, he led a Colorado police department when a crazed gunman with an assault rifle and other weapons shot 82 people in an Aurora movie theater, killing a dozen.
The deadly assault on Dallas police officers Thursday by a sniper armed with an semiautomatic assault rifle did more than evoke painful memories for two of the top law enforcement officers in Miami-Dade County. It also renewed their long-ignored calls for gun reform. Like many big-city chiefs across the country, they view weapons originally designed for military combat as threats to both the public and police officers.
Neither is certain their voices will make a difference. Both feel staying silent isn’t an option.
“I don’t think there is any place for assault weapons in American society,” said Miami Beach Police Chief Dan Oates, who oversaw the Aurora police department in 2012 when James Eagan Holmes entered a movie theater in tactical gear during a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises” and opened fire.
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Twelve people were killed and 70 were injured in what at the time was the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. It was surpassed by last month’s Orlando massacre at the Pulse nightclub, where Omar Mateen used an assault rifle to slaughter 49 patrons and wound 53 others.
“We go through this every single time. We talk about gun control and nothing changes,” said Oates. “Universal background checks are reasonable.”
It was September of 2007, when Miami-Dade Police Director Juan Perez ordered 42 officers to different hot spots in the gang violence-plagued South District. Moments later his radio crackled. Shots had been fired.
From inside a home, a small-time doper named Shawn Labeet used a modified AK-47 to gun down Somohano. Then he stepped outside, stood over the fallen cop and finished the execution. Three other officers were also shot and badly injured. Perez raced to the scene and found Somohano, who had been placed in a patrol car by colleagues, mortally wounded. Perez knelt at the officer’s feet and prayed.
On Friday, Perez and Oates joined a growing chorus of law enforcement and elected leaders around the nation in calling for — yet again — some type of gun reform legislation.
Their calls followed a Thursday night massacre in Dallas, where army veteran Micah Xavier Johnson, 25, methodically gunned down 12 cops and a civilian during a peaceful protest in the wake of police-involved shooting deaths in Louisiana and Minnesota. Five of the officers were killed.
Johnson was killed after negotiations collapsed and police detonated a bomb delivered by a robot. Before his death, numerous media outlets have reported that Johnson told police during negotiations that he wanted to kill white police officers. His weapon of choice was a semi-automatic long gun rifle, similar to the one used by Labeet.
“You can hunt cops with them,” Perez said Friday. “You need to raise the rifles to a Class 3. Make it more difficult for them to get into the hands of people.”
Mass shootings around the country remain etched in the public memory.
Thirteen killed at Columbine High School. Twenty children murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary. At Virginia Tech University, 32 students were killed. Nine people were gunned down at a Charleston Church. Just last month, the Pulse nightclub massacre. Now Dallas.
Some blame former President George W. Bush for letting the assault weapons ban expire in 2004. Democrats have fought for its renewal but failed. The National Rifle Association and others advocate arming the public to help prevent mass shootings. The Dallas police were trained and armed but still fell victim to the firepower of an assault rifle.
On Friday, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla, endorsed by the National Rifle Association and generally opposed to gun control, called the Dallas shooting “a very unique situation.”
“Someone was out there standing, trying to pick them off, and it’s a very troubling development,” Rubio said during a press conference in his Doral office. “I’m worried about elements of our society that are willing to do that.”
As for gun reform, Rubio said he wasn’t sure a law can be passed that would prevent another Dallas ambush.
“There are communities in this country that have a terrible relationship with their local law enforcement. We need to recognize that,” said Rubio. “We also need to recognize that law enforcement officers in this country are truly among the best that we have. What these people do on a regular basis, you never hear about it.”
President Barack Obama, who has urged but failed to persuade Congress to support a host of gun control measures, weighed in on the tragedy from Poland: “We also know when people are armed with powerful weapons, unfortunately it makes attacks like these more deadly and more tragic, and in the days ahead we’re going to have to consider those realities, as well.”
The Congressional Black Caucus — noting that shooting deaths by police in Louisiana and Minnesota preceded the Dallas assault, bringing the total of deadly police shootings to 491 so far this year — renewed its call for background checks.
A prepared statement from the caucus said, “America is weeping; they are angry and frustrated that Congress [the Republicans] are refusing to address gun violence in America that targets black men, black women, and yes, police officers.”
The deadly events in Dallas during one of several Black Lives Matters marches around the country have spurred local South Florida police agencies to change some tactics. Without going into detail, Miami-Dade, Miami and Miami Beach police said they will change the way they patrol protests and rallies.
Oates said officers on Miami Beach will take additional steps when answering calls and have already doubled up in patrol vehicles. Officers there just finished active shooter training sessions and are now getting a refresher on officer safety.
After the Aurora shooting, Oates said state legislators passed a statewide background check law. Statistics, he said, show that it has made a difference. Still, the law can’t stop a shooter from buying a weapon out of state and returning to Colorado, he said. Miami Beach held a vigil for the dead Dallas officers on Friday afternoon.
“The cops are coping the best we can and feeling for our colleagues in Dallas,” said Oates. “It’s difficult. I’ve been through the carnage.”
Miami Herald Staff Writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.