Gun control activist Loren Lieb (right) and her son, Josh Stepakoff, who survived a 1999 shooting at the North Valley Jewish Community Center.
Gun control activist Loren Lieb (right) and her son, Josh Stepakoff, who survived a 1999 shooting at the North Valley Jewish Community Center.

Jewish activist and legislators line up behind state’s proposed new gun law 

Loren Lieb’s son, Josh, was shot twice during the North Valley Jewish Community Center shooting in 1999.

At the time, Josh was a 6-year-old at the JCC’s summer camp. When a white supremacist came onto the Granada Hills campus with multiple firearms, Josh was shot in the shin and the hip. Fortunately, the bullets narrowly missed his spine, and he survived.

The incident exposed his mother, Loren, to the grim realities of gun violence in the United States, where approximately 40,000 people die every year from gun-related injuries, according to a 2019 Pew study (some 60 percent of those are suicides), and in excess of 393 million guns are in circulation, according to a 2018 report from the Switzerland-based Small Arms Survey.

Lieb, a retired epidemiologist, has since become a dedicated gun control activist. She is currently serving as board chair of Women Against Gun Violence and is involved with the San Fernando Valley chapter of Brady California.

Before the JCC shooting 22 years ago, Lieb said, her view on gun violence was “a NIMBY sort of thing: ‘If it doesn’t affect me, it’s not something I have to worry about.’ The JCC shooting helped open my eyes.”

Lieb was interviewed for this article shortly after the Jan. 3 introduction of a new piece of legislation attempting to reduce gun violence in California. Assembly Bill 1594 would make it easier for private citizens to file lawsuits against gun industry members in the event of a firearm causing injury or death.

If passed, AB 1594 would authorize private citizens to file lawsuits against the gun industry — including manufacturers, distributors and sellers of firearms — “if their failure to follow federal, state or local law caused injury or death or if the gun industry member engaged in unfair business practices,” according to a preliminary text of the legislation.

As of press time, the final language of the bill was still being drafted.

Although not involved with crafting the legislation, Lieb supports the effort to financially incentivize the gun industry to change negligent behavior. Earlier this month, she participated in a press conference announcing the bill at the request of one of its primary authors, Assemblymember Phil Ting, whose district includes parts of San Francisco and Daly City.

“The industry could be doing things to protect public safety, but they don’t, and they don’t because they don’t have an incentive to do so,” Lieb said.

As Jews, we are called to pursue justice, or tzedek. Fundamentally, working to end gun violence is a matter of justice for our kids and our communities.

Several Bay Area–based elected officials are co-authors of the bill, including Assemblymembers Marc Berman of Palo Alto and Marc Levine of the North Bay and Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco.

“Every year we have a package [of bills], the tikkun olam package, and healing the world definitely includes reducing the amount of guns in society,” said Wiener, vice chair of the California Legislative Jewish Caucus. “So I suspect that this bill will get strong support from our caucus.”

Berman also spoke of the Jewish imperative to curb gun violence.

“As Jews, we are called to pursue justice, or tzedek,” he said in an email. “Fundamentally, working to end gun violence is a matter of justice for our kids and our communities, and holding the gun industry accountable for their role in perpetuating gun violence is necessary in our pursuit of justice.”

For years, the federal Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act has shielded the gun industry from lawsuits. Signed into law during the George W. Bush administration in 2005, PLCAA protects firearms manufacturers and dealers from liability when crimes have been committed with their products.

AB 1594 would expose a loophole in PLCAA, which does not give impunity to gun marketers, manufacturers or sellers if they have broken federal, state or local laws.

Lieb, for her part, would like to see a reduction in “straw purchases,” or when individuals who would not be able to pass the mandatory background check required for purchasing a gun (or don’t want their name associated with the transaction) have another person, a proxy buyer, purchase the gun for them.

The majority of “crime guns are coming from a small percentage of stores,” she said. The bill would empower people to file civil suits against “bad-apple gun dealers,” Lieb said.

AB 1594 is modeled after a similar law recently passed in New York and scheduled to be heard before a committee in February.

While Lieb could not predict if it would become law, she said the state’s predominantly Democratic Legislature has an encouraging history of supporting gun control efforts.

“Our California Legislature is generally supportive of common sense gun violence prevention measures,” she said.

Ryan Torok

Ryan Torok is an L.A.-based freelance reporter and former Jewish Journal staff writer.