'City' gun roars into the suburbs, and death follows

DAN RODRICKS

March 11, 1993|By DAN RODRICKS

Is this the sound of the city reaching the suburbs? "Tick, click. Tick, click. Tick, click." It's the sound of bolt action in the slate gray Cobray M-11/9 -- "The Gun That Made The Eighties Roar" -- in the hands of a firearms expert named Joe Kopera.

Before presenting the gun to the jury, Kopera checks to make sure it is not loaded. To do this, he holds the T-shaped weapon in his left hand and pulls back on the bolt with his right three times, checking the gun in front of the witness stand microphone. Each time, the light mechanical sing-song raps through the speakers in Room 8, Baltimore County Circuit Court.

There is awesome silence in the room when Kopera checks the gun, a foot-long semiautomatic with blunt, military styling, weighing three to four pounds, with a combination grip-magazine that holds 15 rounds of 9-millimeter ammunition. From the rear of the courtroom, the gun looks like a toy in Kopera's hands.

Kopera has testified in dozens of trials around the state during the past two years. Before that, he served two decades with the Baltimore Police Department, conducting firearms and ballistics tests and providing expert testimony in hundreds of felony cases in the city.

By now, thousands of jurors remember him as the gentle, thick-shouldered guy who delivered a clear, concise lecture on firearms testing.

Yesterday, Kopera was the state's final witness in the prosecution of Benjamin Boisseau, one of two men accused in the horrific murders of two tellers and the wounding of two other employees of the Farmers Bank in Randallstown last October.

Right there, in the moment when he held the Cobray aloft and made it click, Kopera seemed to be presenting, for all of Baltimore County to see, not only a deadly instrument of the urban criminal underground, but an invention of the out-of-control U.S. gun culture.

And if the men, women and visiting high school students who were there had never before been in the chilly presence of such a thing -- if they had only seen it on "Miami Vice" reruns -- they could be forgiven a moment of awe.

While Kopera has seen Cobrays before -- "Hundreds of them," he said, after his testimony was complete -- he has not seen them much beyond the city limits.

In Kopera's experience, most Cobrays have been used in Baltimore, and most in drug-related shootings. It was unusual, he said, to find one of these semiautomatics in the suburbs.

"Ugly guns," the feds call them. Guns like this have the look, as well as the magazine capacity, of terrorist weapons. Though widely condemned by police, the Cobray is widely available on the consumer market. It is, as a matter of fact, approved for sale in Maryland by the state's Handgun Roster Board, though Baltimore County Police Chief Cornelius Behan calls it nothing but a "terrible killing instrument."

The Schaefer administration is trying to get the Cobray banned, but the bill appears to be dying -- like other gun bills before it -- in the General Assembly.

The Cobray, whose origins go back to gunsmith Gordon Ingram's designs for a guerrilla combat submachine gun, has long been, in semiautomatic form, the weapon of choice of drug dealers. It was advertised by its manufacturer, S.W. Daniel Inc., as "The Gun That Made The Eighties Roar."

"It is not a hunting gun," wrote Baltimore-based reporter Erik Larson in his well-researched and exquisitely-written cover story on the Cobray in the January issue of The Atlantic. "The gun would never satisfy a target shooter; it is heavy, clumsy and prone to rock up and down when fired, and its two-inch barrel makes it painfully inaccurate."

Larson says the development and distribution of the Cobray is "a clear example of the culture of nonresponsibility prevailing in America's firearms industry." He said that at one point, the manufacturer gave it away free in a monthly contest.

It's too bad the people who produced and marketed the Cobray are not forced to sit through the Randallstown murder trials.

If I were related to any of the victims -- Dorothy Langmead and Stacy George, who were killed; or Cindy Thomas and Barbara Aldrich, who were wounded -- I would wait a decent interval after the criminal proceedings conclude, after sentences are handed down, then sue the people who put this gun on the market.

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