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Officer's death reignites fuse on gun-control debate

NOBODY KNOWS more about the gruesome carnage caused by five blasts from a Chinese-made SKS assault rifle than Thomas Krajewski Sr., the Port Richmond man who cradled Sgt. Stephen Liczbinski as the cop lay dying outside his home Saturday.

Levon Warner (left) faces Joey "Minnesota Ice" Able at the Blue Horizon last Sept. 7. Warner is charged in Liczbinksi's death.
Levon Warner (left) faces Joey "Minnesota Ice" Able at the Blue Horizon last Sept. 7. Warner is charged in Liczbinksi's death.Read moreJ. BROWN / For the Daily News

This story was reported by

staff writers Dave Davies, Kitty

Caparella, Catherine Lucey, Regina Medina, Dafney Tales and Christine Olley, and written by Will Bunch.

NOBODY KNOWS more about the gruesome carnage caused by five blasts from a Chinese-made SKS assault rifle than Thomas Krajewski Sr., the Port Richmond man who cradled Sgt. Stephen Liczbinski as the cop lay dying outside his home Saturday.

That's why Krajewski can't believe that the gun is not outlawed in Philadelphia.

"There is absolutely no reason that anyone should be carrying around military-style assault weapons," he said. "I mean, we saw what a weapon like that did to a human body. I mean, I own guns and my sons and I hunt as well, but I don't have assault rifles or anything. There's no need for it."

Even with one of Liczbinski's three alleged assailants still on the lam and the police sergeant - who would have turned 40 today - not yet laid to rest, a political war of words erupted yesterday over the gun that killed him.

Mayor Nutter, facing his first real crisis since taking office in January, lashed out at the National Rifle Association for its effort to block a city law that would have outlawed many assault weapons. That included the SKS semiautomatic allegedly fired by alleged killer Howard Cain, who was slain by police shortly after.

"There's no legitimate argument by the NRA," Nutter said at a City Hall news conference, referring to a court order blocking the city-only gun law signed by the new mayor just last month.

"They need to get in the real world where the rest of us live," he said. "They owe an apology to the family for their staunch opposition over many, many years blocking legislative support for these kinds of matters."

The NRA's top official, formerly a Delaware police captain, fired a sharp verbal volley back, saying that gun laws wouldn't have saved Liczbinski and that the real issue here was granting freedom to Cain, a serial felon.

NRA President John Sigler said that it was sad "for Mayor Nutter to seize this opportunity to move his own political career. . . . He should instead use his political muscle to ensure that judges keep these people in jail." The gun advocate also said that it was "reprehensible" for Nutter to suggest that Sigler owes Liczbinski's family an apology.

The debate showed how, in just 48 hours, a violent cop-killing quickly became a kind of a Rorschach test for the gridlocked debate of how to reduce out-of-control crime in Philadelphia.

Those who advocate gun control were outraged that efforts to ban the SKS have faltered on the local, state and federal levels. But those who oppose stricter gun laws pointed to other factors - the breakdown of the urban family, or what they see as a too-lenient legal system that granted parole to Cain despite several felony convictions, including an armed-robbery spree in the 1990s.

Either way, the facts revealed yesterday about how such a powerful rifle - sold at a gun show in North Carolina some 10 years ago - ended up in the hands of three convicted felons tell a sad story of America's failed gun policies.

The SKS carbine used on Liczbinski is an inexpensive Chinese version of a rifle invented and made in Russia in the 1940s.

"They are very cheap, selling for $100 to $300," said Tony Robbins, assistant special agent in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives here. "There's a ton of them out there. They can lay some heavy firepower. We see them periodically being used by street gangs and drug organizations. It's a pretty menacing gun."

After an SKS was used to kill a police officer in Ceres, Calif., two years ago, the Washington-based Violence Policy Center said that federal authorities have identified the weapon as "the rifle model most frequently encountered by law-enforcement officers."

Yet despite that, the SKS was not among 19 weapons prohibited in a 1994 federal ban on certain kinds of assault rifles. That law expired in 2004 under President Bush and the then-GOP-controlled Congress. The SKS has been included in several federal bills aimed at renewing the ban, but all those measures have failed.

Meanwhile, last month's city gun law, now contested by the NRA, specifically outlawed the SKS, as does a state gun-control bill that now languishes in the State House Judiciary Committee.

Pittsburgh State Rep. Dan Frankel has introduced an assault-weapons ban in Harrisburg every year since the federal ban expired, but his bill has never even made it out of committee.

"The pro-gun community has been very effective in creating fear among legislators," Frankel said. "Plenty of my colleagues say to me, 'Dan, you're right on this, but I just can't support it, because it will create political problems for me.' "

What's more, Robbins noted that the ATF was able to trace the SKS rifle used to gun down Liczbinski to a gun show in Fayettville, N.C. He said that because it had been bought at a gun show, the owner did not have to undergo a background check - another proposal that's been blocked by the gun lobby.

"In Southern states, you can buy and sell guns like a table lamp if you go to a gun show," Robbins added. "I don't think this gun was sold illegally. It was passed down and sold many times."

Here in Pennsylvania, Frankel and allies say gun control is an uphill fight in Harrisburg, and they've concentrated on more modest goals than banning assault weapons, such as bills aimed at restricting gun trafficking.

Bill Patton, spokesman for State House Speaker Dennis O'Brien, said his boss is not inclined to try to move an assault- weapons ban through the Legislature. "From a vote-counting perspective, there's very little chance of getting something like that passed," Patton said, adding that O'Brien is working on prison reform and enacting a 20-year mandatory sentence for anyone who shoots at a police officer.

The NRA's Sigler questions why so much of the focus is on guns.

"Why is someone with 17 priors out on the street at all?" he asked. "Leadership in Philadelphia is more interested in rhetoric than in fixing the problems. Jobs, schools, things that need to be fixed. And keeping bad guys in jail. If that costs money, that costs money."

Ironically, Krajewski is a former NRA member, and he still owns three semiautomatics. None of that matters to him right now.

"These guns are made for destruction," he said yesterday inside his living room. "They need to ban assault weapons. They're military weapons." He said he knows some friends still in the NRA would disagree, but "I don't care.

"This is a Philadelphia problem."*