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Empire State shootings prompt tougher security, gun-control questions

February 24, 1997 GMT

NEW YORK (AP) _ A day after a Palestinian gunman went on a fatal shooting rampage, the Empire State Building tightened its security Monday while city officials questioned how the man could get a gun just weeks after he came to America.

The famous landmark, long a symbol of romance and tourism, was fitted with an airport-style baggage scanner and two metal detectors. The mayor said weak gun-control laws _ not a security lapse _ were to blame for the shootings of seven tourists Sunday on the skyscraper’s 86th-floor observation deck.

The fact that the gunman _ an elderly Palestinian in the country only two months _ could buy a Beretta semiautomatic handgun ``is totally insane,″ Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said at a news conference.

A Danish tourist was killed and six other sightseers were injured before the gunman, Ali Hassan Abu Kamal, 69, killed himself. Police Commissioner Howard Safir described him as ``one deranged individual working on his own.″

An anti-terrorist task force was still part of the investigation, Safir said, but so far it had found no evidence that Abu Kamal was aligned with any terrorist group.

In Abu Kamal’s hometown of Gaza City, relatives said he had been distraught over losing his life savings of more than $300,000 and had no ties to Palestinian radical groups. Abu Kamal called home Sunday and said he could not send tuition money to one of his sons, who is studying civil engineering in Russia, a son-in-law said.

A security camera showed that Abu Kamal concealed his weapon under a long coat while entering the Empire State Building. He took an elevator to an observation deck visited by 3 million tourists each year.

Some witnesses said he mumbled something about Egypt before opening fire on a group of tourists, many of them foreign. As panicked sightseers stampeded toward exits, Abu Kamal shot himself in the head, police said.

The Empire State Building was closed to tourists Monday. Visitors Tuesday will be screened by the metal detectors at the second-floor elevator to the observation deck, and will have to check their bags through the scanner.

At City Hall, Giuliani attempted to shift the focus toward gun control. He was accompanied by Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., whose husband was killed and son wounded in the 1993 shootings on a Long Island Rail Road commuter train that killed six people and wounded 17.

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In both that incident and Sunday’s shooting, the gunmen circumvented New York’s strict gun control laws by traveling out of state to buy the murder weapons, officials said.

``New York State, New York City have great gun control laws,″ McCarthy said. ``But as the mayor said, we cannot control all the guns that are coming in from other parts of the country and that’s what has to be stopped.″

Officials said Abu Kamal established residence in Florida by using a motel address shortly after he arrived in the United States on Dec. 24 from Cairo. He obtained a temporary resident identification card on Jan. 30 _ the same day he went into a gun shop to buy the semiautomatic, which costs about $500 and holds 14 bullets.

Police said he was required to wait three days and received the weapon on Feb. 4. The waiting period turned into five days because a weekend fell during the three-day waiting period.

``It makes no sense,″ Giuliani said. ``He was living in a fleabag motel and you hand him a Beretta. It is totally insane.″

Federal law requires aliens like Abu Kamal to be a resident for 90 days before getting a gun, although gun buying forms don’t specifically say that.

Security experts agreed that no measure can stop a determined gunman.

``He could have done that in Times Square, or St. Patrick’s Cathedral, or on the subway _ any stage he wanted for the final act of his life,″ said John Horn, a senior official at Kroll Associates, a security consulting firm.

Of the six survivors, one remained in critical condition with a gunshot wound to the head. The rest were in serious but stable condition.

One victim, Patric Demange of Verdun, France, thanked police and doctors for treating him ``wonderfully throughout this ordeal.″

``I am a Catholic and it is important to forgive,″ he said.