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Santa Rosa defense attorney Chris Andrian's unique perspective on gun violence

Attorney Chris Andrian has a unique perspective on gun violence. Andrian was shot by a client's estranged husband in 1989, and has defended shooters in court.

(Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)
Published: Thursday, February 7, 2013 at 6:39 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, February 8, 2013 at 11:07 a.m.

Each time Chris Andrian hears about a new act of gun violence, memories of his own terrifying experience of being shot outside a Sonoma County courthouse come ricocheting back to him.

The well-known Santa Rosa attorney, who was struck in the arm by a bullet from an angry husband in a family law case, went on to defend many people accused of gun crimes, including a woman who shot her spouse.

But his brush with death helped shape his opinion about gun ownership as the nation reels from a string of mass shootings.

Andrian said guns aren't necessarily the problem, although he says they are too easy to get. And he doesn't see why people need assault weapons like the one he was shot with.

He believes better screening of gun buyers along with stepped-up mental health services could go a long way toward reducing the number of deadly incidents.

"I have mixed feelings," said Andrian, who still has the scars from the shooting 23 years ago. "A lot of what the pro-gun people say is true. We need to do a better job of getting guns out of the hands of people who shouldn't have them."

He has vivid memories of the day he was shot outside the old civil court building on Cleveland Avenue.

It was Sept. 29, 1989, and Andrian had just emerged from a hearing with client Lee Ann Pommier. Her ex-husband, Scott Pommier, had tried unsuccessfully for a reduction in alimony and child support payments.

Andrian got into his car and was backing out when he heard a loud noise and thought he'd run into someone.

It turned out that Scott Pommier was opening fire on Andrian's car with an AR-15 rifle after shooting Lee Ann Pommier, leaving her seriously wounded.

A bullet ripped into Andrian's left arm as he lifted it to shield his head. He was thrown to the floor as more shots whizzed by.

He said he might have been killed if he had been buckled in to his seatbelt.

"I could hear the bullets going over my head," he said. "Zing, zing. Just like in the movies. I was a very lucky guy that I wasn't killed."

Scott Pommier fled but surrendered a few days later to Del Norte County authorities. He was later sentenced to 13 years in state prison.

Andrian lost half of his upper arm and went through physical therapy to regain the use of his dominant left hand.

Lee Ann Pommier, who was shot in the head, arm and stomach, underwent 36 reconstructive surgeries.

The frightening experience prompted Andrian to leave divorce law. To this day, when he hears a sharp pop, he's been known to jump.

"It's a moment in your life that you never forget," Andrian said.

But in the two decades since, he's defended many people charged with gun crimes. Among them is Shirley Nelson, who in 1995 shot her estranged husband as he worked in "Peanuts" creator Charles Schulz's Santa Rosa studio.

Ronald Nelson nearly died from his wounds after his wife barged into the office and blasted him with a .357 Magnum. She tried to take her own life, turning the gun on herself.

Andrian, who described her as a "good person who went off the deep end," took the case after telling Shirley Nelson about his own experience.

After a hung jury in her first trial, he worked a deal with prosecutors in which she pleaded no contest to attempted murder and served a year in county jail.

The shooting made him realize that otherwise nonviolent people could find easy access to guns to try to solve their problems.

It caused him to wonder about the mental state of people like Scott Pommier, who was in therapy at the time, as well as other gunmen across the country.

"If I were going to indict our justice system today, I would say we've done a horrible job of maintaining mental health services," he said. "There are more and more disturbed people who are not getting help."

Still, his experiences as both a victim and defense lawyer have left him with an abiding belief in the need for tougher gun control laws.

He doesn't want to take guns out of the hands of hunters or responsible people, but believes something must be done.

Andrian, who doesn't own a gun, said no one needs assault weapons, which he called "killing machines."

"What function do they serve?" Andrian said. "I don't see any reason to have them."

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