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SHOOTING SPOTLIGHTS GUN SALES PROBLEM OUTRAGE: OFFICIALS WANT STATE TO KEEP CLOSER WATCH ON VIOLENT PAROLEES WHO MAY BUY WEAPONS.

Byline: Rachel Uranga

Staff Writer

As outraged politicians called for an investigation Monday into how a violent parolee got his hands on a semiautomatic rifle and shot three people at a Granada Hills church festival, frustrated law enforcement officials admitted what has become painfully clear -- if criminals want guns, they'll find them.

Despite some of the country's toughest gun laws, California's violent ex-cons, like Fernando Diaz Jr., 33, have no problem arming themselves.

"Unless you assign police with him every day, there was no way to know this guy had a gun," said Capt. Steve Ruiz of the LAPD's Devonshire Division. "There is no record of the gun being registered or stolen. We don't know where it came from."

Diaz, a parolee and former North Hollywood Boyz gang member, has a violent history stretching back 10 years.

With a .22-caliber semiautomatic rifle, on Saturday Diaz shot his girlfriend, Carolina Mendoza -- who is also the mother of his child -- and two others as they prepared for a festival at St. John Baptist de la Salle Catholic Church, police say.

His weapon was one of thousands of guns sold and traded in the city's booming black market -- with pistols, revolvers and other firearms regularly changing hands, officials say.

Though many of the guns were originally purchased from legitimate dealers, they are often stolen in burglaries or traded for drugs or money, and wind up in the wrong hands. Last year alone, the Los Angeles Police Department confiscated more than 6,000 guns that were either used in a crime or were being held illegally.

"We try and enforce the law, but those that are intent on breaking the law will break the law," said Lt. Steven Nielsen, head of the LAPD's gun unit.

Convicted felons and those named in domestic restraining orders -- such as Diaz -- as well as the mentally ill are prohibited from owning a gun.

But, Nielsen said, "it's just a matter of knowing a contact and someone who is willing to sell it. There is nobody who really has the corner (on the market). The majority are one- gun-at-a-time sales."

Weapons black market

Despite years of cracking down, officials say the strong demand for weapons -- everything from revolvers to semiautomatic handguns -- continues to fuel an underground arms trade organized by gangs and other criminals.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich argues that more safeguards must be put in place to prevent the tragedy that rocked Granada Hills last weekend.

Nearly a decade ago, a similar incident occurred in Granada Hills when parolee Buford Furrow Jr. opened fire at the North Valley Jewish Community Center, prompting the county Board of Supervisors to create DISARM. Under the program, probation officers were paired with local law enforcement officers to conduct unannounced searches in hopes of finding any illegal weapons or drugs.

"We expect parolees to be monitored closely by the state if they are in our county, especially ones with mental health issues and a restraining order," said Antonovich spokesman Tony Bell.

"If he had been a county probationer, he would have been subject to a DISARM search that may have led to the discovery of a weapon and the confiscation of the weapon before this tragedy ensued. So it is our hope that state corrections would adopt a similar program that we use here in the county to perform unannounced searches of parolees to prevent gun-related crimes."

History of violence

Representatives of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which oversees parolees, could not be reached for comment Monday, But a search of court records painted a picture of Diaz as a troubled man with a violent history and rap sheet littered with lesser crimes.

At the time of the shooting, Diaz was on parole for assault with a deadly weapon. And his ex-girlfriend had taken out a restraining order that banned him from church property, where he tried to visit his son, church officials said. The order is under court seal.

But it was hardly his first run-in with the law.

In 1995, a Van Nuys court judge convicted him of assault. Nine years later, he was again found guilty of assault, this time with a deadly weapon. Last April, he was charged with violating a restraining order, but the court dismissed the charges. Two months later, he was charged with criminal threats, resisting arrest, disturbing the peace and trespassing. He was found guilty of trespassing.

rachel.uranga(at)dailynews.com

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 20, 2008
Words:743
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