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Easy Access to Guns Fuels Epidemic of Youth Violence : Firearms: L.A. teen-agers, seeking protection or status, steal weapons from home or buy them easily on the streets.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Leti, 16, borrowed a semiautomatic pistol from her brother with the idea of silencing a group of teasing classmates. Jimmy, 17, picked out a snub-nosed equalizer from a flood of weapons hitting the street after last year’s riots. Chris, 16, discovered a ready supply of handguns in the glove compartments of cars he broke into.

“Guns are easy to get,” Chris boasted.

Stories like these, which have become routine as shootings involving teen-agers in Southern California continue to mount, raise a troubling question: Just how do such lethal weapons end up so easily in the hands of children?

Many guns are found at home, tucked away in hiding places by parents or siblings. A bountiful supply can be found on the streets--sold by addicts, pushed by illegal gunrunners on the black market or passed around by gang members.

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Already this year an array of weapons ranging from a sawed-off shotgun to a .357 magnum have been used by young people to commit crimes.

A 12-year-old boy allegedly used his parents’ .22-caliber revolver to kill a Monrovia bicycle shop owner. A few days earlier, a 15-year-old was arrested in the brutal shotgun slaying of a husband and wife as they left their View Park-area ice cream parlor. And in separate incidents this year, two high school students reportedly murdered classmates with handguns they smuggled into school for protection.

“A gun is power,” said Lorenzo, 17, a soft-spoken former South-Central Los Angeles gang member. “It makes you feel like somebody.”

For Lorenzo, like many teen-agers, the possession of a gun became a rite of passage. He found a variety of ways to get one.

He had his first taste of “power” at 9 when his uncle let him fire a .25-caliber automatic to celebrate New Year’s Day. Three years later, he found his first gun while rummaging through his grandmother’s closet.

“It was a shiny black and brown .22 (caliber revolver),” he said. “I used to sneak into the closet and get it all the time. I even let my friends borrow it, and every time I finished with it, I wiped it off and put it back where I got it. She never missed it.”

As he got older, he found other sources.

Anytime he needed one, he could borrow a shotgun or a .38-caliber revolver--no questions asked--from his homeboys in the East Coast Crips.

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But while guns brought Lorenzo respect, they also brought tragedy.

“I was one of the first of the homeboys my age to have a gun,” he said. “Now I don’t want to have anything to do with them.”

When he was 5, his mother was shot and killed. His father made his living on the fringes of petty crime until he was shot in the leg. His older brother was shot three times. And the uncle who first put a gun in Lorenzo’s hands died after he was shot 12 times with an AK-47.

But many teen-agers have not learned that hard lesson.

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The Centers for Disease Control, which charts the epidemic of violence among youths, found that one in 25 high school students reported carrying a gun to school over a 30-day period in a 1990 survey of 12,000 students in 50 states.

In the survey, high school students indicated that they needed guns and other weapons for protection, said Lloyd Potter, a behavioral scientist with the center.

“Students perceive that they are potential victims,” he said. “They are not carrying weapons for offensive reasons but generally for defensive purposes.”

Leti was one of the rare students who got caught in Los Angeles.

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She was trying to settle an old score with a group of girls who were making her life miserable.

“I got fed up and I decided to take this in my own hands,” she said. “I thought those girls were going to do something to me so I wanted to be prepared. I said: ‘Let’s see who will call the shots. Them with their fists or me with whatever I had.’ ”

Her brother put the gun in her hand. He told her not to tell anyone, and to be careful. Despite the warning, word quickly spread that she was packing.

School officials caught up with her in her fourth-period class. She was escorted to an office where they asked her to empty her pockets and searched her knapsack.

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“ ‘Bingo, I’ve got it,’ ” she recalled the officer saying as he carefully lifted out a loaded semiautomatic pistol.

Already this year more than a dozen students have been expelled from the Los Angeles Unified School District under a tougher gun policy. Any student caught with a gun is expelled. Last year, officials collected 150 guns from students, many of whom said they brought them to school for protection.

Carolyn Price, who handles expulsions for the district, said little is known about where the students picked up the weapons.

“According to most of them, every bush in Los Angeles has a gun under it,” Price said. “They always found it in the grass or something like that.”

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A lot of that grass seems to grow near home, despite a new state law that makes adults criminally liable for keeping loaded weapons accessible to those younger than 14.

The law makes the unsafe storage of a firearm punishable by a maximum of three years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000 when death or injury results. Last year, a Los Angeles man was sentenced to prison after his 3-year-old brother took his gun and accidentally shot himself in the foot.

So far, the new law has not been used to go after the parents of youths who use their weapons to commit crimes outside the home.

In fact, it has been used only once in Los Angeles County, said David Ross, an assistant district attorney.

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“Most people are not going to be punished because they suffer enough by their own negligence,” he said. “They lose a loved one. Government can only do so much to protect people from their own folly.”

The district attorney’s office has not decided whether to use the statute to prosecute the parents of the 12-year-old boy who allegedly shot a Monrovia bicycle shop owner with their gun March 11.

The law would not apply in the case of the student at Fairfax High School who accidentally killed one student and wounded another while handling his grandfather’s .357 magnum in his knapsack. At 15, he is too old to be tried under the law.

Shootings involving teen-agers will not be reduced until something is done about the proliferation of violence in the media, said Dr. Louis Simpson, a psychiatrist who counsels inner-city gang members.

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“It’s like a Shakespeare play where the characters have no control over the tragedies that will occur in their lives,” he said. “Many of these children witness thousands and thousands of murders on television or in the movies before they ever pick up a gun. Life has no meaning.”

For many youths, the desire to own a gun extends beyond the need for revenge or protection to the desire for status and glamour. “They are like the latest Air Jordans” sneakers, Simpson said.

Names used by the young--on the street and in rap music--add to the allure of weapons. On the streets a gun is a heater, strap, nine, gat or burner.

Chris picked up his first heater when he broke into a neighbor’s home to steal cheap lightweight items he could sell fast on the streets. A gun fit the bill.

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“I found three pieces around this one house,” he said. “I kept one and sold the others.”

This growing underground market for weapons stolen from homes, gun dealers, businesses or cars has added to the flood of weapons on the streets. Drug addicts are a common source of stolen weapons.

“You get guns anywhere drugs are sold,” said 15-year-old Elijah, who said he was given his first gun by his father in Mississippi and now borrows them from friends.

“Addicts steal and sell guns to the highest bidder, anywhere from $50 to $500,” said Mike Duran, the Los Angeles County Probation Department’s director of specialized youth services.

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“Just like there are dope pushers for drugs, there are pushers for guns,” Duran said. “There are gun pushers who load up several hundred pieces of armaments and go into neighborhoods in trucks to show people what they have.”

Last year’s riots resulted in thousands of weapons being obtained--legally and illegally--by Los Angeles residents, sparking a record year for gun sales in California. The sale of illegal weapons was fueled by 4,000 guns stolen during the civil unrest, many of which ended up in the hands of teen-agers.

“After the riots, guns were all over,” said Jimmy, a 17-year-old who carried a gun for protection from rival gangs. “Some of my homeboys had ripped off a pawnshop and they were selling them on the street. That’s when I got one.”

Once, while sitting in the back seat of a Vernon Avenue bus, Jimmy said a rival gang member pointed a gun at his temple and cursed his neighborhood.

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When something like that happens, he said, “the idea of carrying a gun becomes as natural to me as putting on a gold chain. . . . Some people don’t care about life. When it’s in your face, when you are staring death in the face, it’s no joke.”

Danger came without warning for Orlando, a plump-faced 16-year-old with an easy smile.

Orlando was wounded in the chest in a drive-by shooting a few yards from the 77th Street Division police station. No one has been arrested in the shooting and his mother is still traumatized.

Even though he said he has never been involved in a gang, Orlando said the only way to protect himself was to get a gun.

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“When I think about it, I get mad,” he said, sitting with his mother in their South-Central Los Angeles home, the bullet still inside him. “I think if I had a gun it would have been a different thing. I would have been able to defend myself. What they did to me, I would do to them.”

As Orlando spoke, a troubled look fell over his mother’s face. For so many mothers, this was how the nightmare began.

“That’s not a solution,” she said sternly.


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