Dan Morain

Why Kevin de León cares about guns

Lawmakers, from left, California Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, and Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, D-Los Angeles, shake hands after a measure to restrict the sale of ammunition was approved by the Assembly on June 30.
Lawmakers, from left, California Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, and Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, D-Los Angeles, shake hands after a measure to restrict the sale of ammunition was approved by the Assembly on June 30. The Associated Press

A decade ago, Kevin de León was knocking on doors in the East L.A. neighborhood of City Terrace in his first Assembly race when he looked down and saw an unspent bullet.

“This bullet had somebody’s name on it,” he said. “Was it rival gang member? A mother coming from work?”

Or maybe it was intended for a 9-year-old girl, like Charupha Wongwisetsiri. Five days before Christmas in 2006, Wongwisetsiri was playing in the kitchen of her Angelino Heights home while her mother rinsed dishes. Mother and daughter had emigrated from Thailand a year earlier.

As police pieced it together, two gang members on the street outside were attacked and fired in self-defense. A bullet went astray. “Her mom thought she slipped. She picked her up. Blood was coming from her, from her temple,” de León said. The 9-year-old was removed from life support the day after Christmas in 2006, shortly after de León was sworn into the Assembly.

I had intended to write about the unseemly turf fight between Senate President Pro Tem de León and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom for control of the gun control debate in California. It would have been snarky and gossipy. Then five Dallas police officers were shot to death as they kept order at a protest about police shootings. And what I had in mind became uninteresting.

And so when de León called, I tried to get at what drove him to carry gun legislation. Of course, he is ambitious. Certainly, he aspires to higher office. He has pride of authorship. And gun control is a winning political issue in his urban Los Angeles district.

But there’s a story behind why, upon arriving in Sacramento, he introduced legislation to regulate bullet sales. It has to do with the unspent bullet, the girl who became an innocent bystander, and where he grew up – Barrio Logan in San Diego. It was a recruiting ground for the Tijuana drug cartel. Hitmen who assassinated Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo in 1993 in Jalisco came from his barrio.

De León moved out and on to college and landed in L.A., where he worked as a community organizer helping immigrants become naturalized. His boyhood friend, Fabian Nuñez, had gotten into politics, become Assembly speaker and helped de León muscle a win in that first Assembly race. As in Logan Heights, gun violence is a part of life and too often death in his East L.A. district.

“It is fundamentally not right that in the neighborhood I represent boys and girls who live in fear,” he said.

That first bill failed, but he came back in his second term, and then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed it. You have to show a license to prove you can legally buy spray paint, pseudoephedrine, cigarettes or a beer. Why should buying a box of bullets be as easy as buying a bag of peanuts?

“Ammunition is the oxygen that fuels the violence. Without it, a gun doesn’t function,” de León said.

Attorneys representing gun owners sued to block implementation of de León’s first ammo bill. The case is still in court. De León took a slightly different tack in another bill to regulate bullets, but that one stalled in the Assembly. Enter Newsom, who unveiled his initiative late last year, the guts of which would require bullet registration.

While Newsom set about qualifying his measure for the November ballot, de León and Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, pushed a new bullet regulation bill through the Legislature, and Gov. Jerry Brown signed it into law this month. De León had hoped Newsom would stand down. That didn’t happen. Voters will decide the fate of the initiative, Proposition 63. Whether they approve it or not, de León’s version will be on the books.

In Congress and in most states, politicians block gun measures, no matter how modest, from coming up for votes. In California, politicians seek to out-maneuver one another to become authors of gun control legislation.

In much of the nation, the debate isn’t over bullets or the size of magazines, but whether civilians should have unfettered rights to carry weapons openly and concealed. Because of legislation signed by Brown, possession of magazines of more than 10 bullets will be illegal in California, as will any assault weapon with a detachable magazine.

“These are weapons that belong on the battlefield,” de León said. “Ordinary citizens should not have access to them. Period.”

Like all cops, the slain Dallas police officers understood that their lives were at risk. It’s part of their jobs. In a small way, legislators experience a measure of risk, too. Someone recently posted the home addresses of legislators who voted for this year’s gun control bills, warning “these tyrants are no longer going to be insulated from us.” Police are aware of the threat.

As much as one can, de León has grown accustomed to threats. He has been receiving them since that first bullet bill in 2007. He is, he added, a two-fer. “My name is not Murphy,” he said. In addition to be threatened for carrying gun legislation, he is regularly told to go back to Mexico, not politely. He’s not budging. The issue is a little too personal, and that’s good for the rest of us.

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