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July 28, 2014

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Grieving father takes center stage in gun debate

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Chris Carlson / AP

Richard Martinez talks about his son Christopher Michael-Martineza during a memorial service for the victims and families of Friday’s rampage at Harder Stadium on the campus of University of California, Santa Barbara on Tuesday, May 27, 2014, in the Isla Vista area near Goleta, Calif.

Santa Barbara Shooting Rampage

Mourners hug in front of the IV Deli Mart, where part of Friday night's mass shooting took place, on Tuesday, May 27, 2014 in the Isla Vista area near Goleta, Calif. Launch slideshow »

LOS ANGELES — Richard Martinez says he never set out to be a face of the gun-control movement and has no interest in taking deer rifles and shotguns from the hands of hunters. After all, he used to be one.

But Martinez plans to do whatever he can to keep guns out of the hands of people who use them for mass killings, the latest of which took the life of his 20-year-old son and five other students at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Martinez, a 60-year-old criminal defense lawyer, took center stage in the gun debate when he showed up uninvited before a sheriff's news conference a day after the May 23 killings, stepped before a bank of microphones and in a voice filled with rage and grief blamed the death of Christopher Michaels-Martinez on "craven, irresponsible politicians" who won't pass stricter gun-control laws.

"They talk about gun rights. What about Chris' right to live?" he wailed. "When will this insanity stop?"

On Thursday, an exhausted Martinez said he had hardly slept since that day, his hours filled with planning his only child's funeral while fielding calls from all over the world. News organizations from Canada, Great Britain and Australia want to interview him. Other people just want to say they're sorry.

"I tell them, 'Look, I don't need your sympathy. What I need is for you to DO something,'" Martinez said during a lengthy, late-night phone interview with The Associated Press.

That something, he said, would be urging the nation's leaders to engage in a serious discussion about restricting the availability of powerful, semi-automatic weapons such as the ones a lonely, troubled young man used to randomly shoot Michaels-Martinez and two other students near campus after stabbing three people to death at the apartment the killer shared with at least two of those victims.

Police believe 22-year-old Elliot Rodger shot and killed himself after crashing his car as officers moved in.

Nearly overnight, Martinez has become a recognizable figure in hotels, restaurants and on the streets near the Santa Barbara campus. It's a strange new situation for a man who until now has pretty much lived his life anonymously along the Central California coast where he was born and raised.

"I didn't choose this," Martinez said, adding that he believes responsible people have a right to keep guns for hunting, target shooting and their own safety.

"I grew up on a farm and I had guns," he said. "I hunted when I was a kid. I understand the appeal of hunting."

After graduating from high school, he enlisted in the Army and served two years as a military policeman in Germany. He said he had to draw his weapon once to put an end to a domestic dispute.

"I was prepared to use it if I had to," he said.

Martinez, however, said he just can't fathom the proliferation of high-powered, semi-automatic weapons in American society.

"How," he asked of Rodger's weapons cache, "does a troubled kid who clearly had problems wind up with 400 rounds of ammunition and three semi-automatic handguns?"

A single father, Martinez said he was incredibly close to his son. They called each other and texted several times a week. Two years ago, they traveled to the East Coast together when Michaels-Martinez was trying to decide which college to attend.

Martinez said his son expected to graduate from UCSB in 2015 after just three years and planned to follow his father's path as a lawyer.

Less than an hour before he died, the son was on the phone excitedly telling his father that his new girlfriend planned to introduce him to her parents the following week. Martinez later met the parents at a memorial service for victims of the rampage.

Martinez said his job as a defense lawyer had sometimes brought him into contact with people charged with gun crimes. It also led him to represent the parents of troubled young people who ran up against a public mental health system that Martinez said didn't provide the necessary care for their children.

That's why he said he won't blame the parents of his son's killer. It's also why he'll keep demanding reasonable gun control.

"I'm not going to write a book, I'm not going to sue anybody," he said, explaining that such actions would only cheapen the memory of his son.

"I just want to try to make it possible so that other people don't have to go through this."

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