As Ismael Ileto delivered packages on that awful August day in 1999, every television in every office was tuned to the news of yet another mass shooting, this one of children at a Jewish community center in the San Fernando Valley.
“We have so many mass shootings. People get numb,” Ileto, a United Parcel Service driver, said last week, though he wasn’t numb then and isn’t now.
As he proceeded on his route, he heard a news item, that a mailman had been gunned down in Chatsworth. His wife reached him and pleaded with him to rush home. Postal inspectors were waiting with the terrible word that his older brother Joseph, the mailman, was dead. Ismael asked that the inspectors not release Joseph’s name until he could get to the family home to tell his mother, Lilian.
“It was one of the hardest things I ever had to do.”
Joseph Ileto is never far from Ismael’s thoughts, almost 17 years later. Nor are the politics of gun control, the NRA’s hold on Congress, and the federal court precedent that bears his family’s name.
It all comes to the fore again as Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders seek the Democratic presidential nomination, and the race to replace U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer intensifies between Rep. Loretta Sanchez, an Orange County Democrat, and Attorney General Kamala Harris.
In 2005, Sanchez and Sanders broke with most House Democrats, sided with the gun industry and voted for the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, a statute that is unique in its protection of a single industry. Their vote came at the expense of the Ileto family and many other families, blocking virtually all suits over the negligence of gun makers and dealers.
The Ileto family had emigrated from the Philippines in the early 1970s, settling into Monterey Park outside Los Angeles. Lilian was an accountant. Dalmacio worked for the city of Los Angeles. They raised five kids. Dalmacio died of a heart attack in June 1999, a terrible loss.
“Losing someone from a health issue, and someone from a senseless act of violence is a whole different thing,” Ismael said.
Buford O’Neal Furrow Jr. had been living with white supremacists in rural Washington state in the 1990s. He also was suicidal and homicidal, and sought psychiatric treatment. When he pulled a knife on a hospital staffer, he was charged with a crime. A Seattle prosecutor concluded Furrow posed a grave risk and tried to force him into treatment. But before Furrow could be committed, he posted a $15,000 bond.
Furrow’s record should have prohibited him from owning firearms. And yet he possessed seven pistols and assault rifles when he drove south to California in August 1999, intent on killing Jews.
He pulled off the freeway in Granada Hills, burst into the North Valley Jewish Community Center and fired 70 shots, wounding a receptionist, a teenage counselor and three young children. He thought he killed them all, and drove to Chatsworth. There, he spotted Joseph Ileto delivering mail, and unloaded nine shots from a Glock. Furrow later said Ileto was a “target of opportunity.”
First lady Hillary Clinton visited the North Valley Jewish Community Center to offer condolences in November 1999. Ismael Ileto introduced her at the gathering and took the opportunity to urge adoption of anti-hate-crimes legislation. Clinton talked about the need for tougher gun laws.
“My mom didn’t want to make a big thing. It happened. Let’s just try to move on,” Ismael Ileto said. But as the months passed, he and his family concluded that some people – and corporations – should be held accountable. They sued.
The complaint filed in August 2000 alleged that gun makers sold weapons that are unsuitable for civilian buyers, marketed their guns to secondary dealers such as pawnshops and gun shows where background checks are spotty or nonexistent, and failed to train dealers to avoid selling to unstable people and criminals.
Then as now there was a presidential campaign. George W. Bush had made clear he opposed Clinton administration gun control legislation. As Texas governor in 1999, he signed legislation barring lawsuits against gun makers. Several states adopted similar restrictions, at the behest of gun lobbyists.
Not so California. In 2002, then-Sen. Don Perata carried legislation signed into law by Gov. Gray Davis that unraveled a 1984 state law that had given immunity against lawsuits to gun makers and dealers. Several California cities and counties, and individual plaintiffs sued the industry.
“The industry was very concerned about what was going on in California,” Perata recalled.
But he also saw the growing reaction against the California law. In Washington, D.C., the National Rifle Association and other pro-gun lobbyists pushed Congress to grant immunity to the industry nationwide. Variations of the immunity statute were proposed for several years running. Sanders supported them, but Sanchez initially voted against them. In 2005, she flipped and voted for it, one of only four California Democrats who sided with Republicans and the gun lobby.
“It turns civil justice on its head,” said Jonathan Lowy, attorney for the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Congress had never before or since barred state judges from applying state civil law so broadly.
Sanders doesn’t take many donations from the Washington lobby corps. But he made an exception in 2005. Greenberg Traurig, one of top lobby and political law firms, represented gun makers Smith & Wesson and Heckler & Koch in 2005, and gave Sanders $1,000 in September 2005.
Attorney John P. Einwechter, then a Greenberg lobbyist who represented Heckler & Koch, donated $1,050 to Sanchez in July and September 2005. In October, Congress approved the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act.
A Sanchez spokesman said Einwechter didn’t represent H&K on gun matters and never discussed the issue with Sanchez. Sanchez and Einwechter married in 2011.
In 2009, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued its ruling in Ileto v. Glock, concluding that by passing the law, “Congress intended to preempt general tort theories of liability even in jurisdictions, like California, that have codified such causes of action.”
Perhaps Glock was irresponsible. Maybe it wasn’t. But a jury never would decide that. Sanchez, Sanders and a majority in Congress, and President Bush, stripped power from California and all other states to adopt laws allowing such suits.
“A law came out six years after my brother was gunned down,” Ismael said. “It didn’t make sense. The NRA is so powerful that it can do this. Wow. Just like that.”
Now that they seek higher office, Sanders and Sanchez are supporting strong gun control bills. The gesture is empty. The GOP – and the gun lobby – controls Congress. Just like that.