Column: Isn't Karen Bass the victim? Why all the questions about her stolen guns?

LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 21: Congresswoman Karen faces businessman Rick Caruso during the mayoral debates at the Skirball Cultural Center on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022 in Los Angeles, CA. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles mayoral candidate Rep. Karen Bass speaks during a debate with opponent Rick Caruso at the Skirball Cultural Center on Wednesday. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Ever since Karen Bass announced that she was running for mayor of Los Angeles, she has mostly downplayed the historic implications of her candidacy.

If she beats developer Rick Caruso, she will become the first woman and only the second Black person to lead the nation's second-largest city. And yet, as diverse as L.A. is, the longtime congresswoman has resisted being pigeonholed as the "Black candidate" or the "woman candidate."

When I asked Bass in May about the importance of her appeal to Black voters, she told me that she was more concerned with having “a very diverse coalition — racially diverse, ideologically diverse, geographically diverse ... because it’s consistent with how I have led my life.”

And just this month, Bass told the 19th that voters “appreciate my message and my understanding of the issues and experience. Of course, anytime you break the glass ceiling, it is critically important. But I do not believe that voters are going to go to the polls because I’m a woman.”

But I can't help but wonder if that might change, now that the politics of race and gender have gotten mixed up with the toxic politics of guns.

"It's the whole narrative that they're attempting to create that is always created with Black elected officials," Bass told me, "... trying to make me untrustworthy."

Confused? Let's go back.

Back to earlier this month, when the Bass campaign shook up the mayor's race by announcing that two handguns had been stolen from the congresswoman's home in Baldwin Vista.

Bass said she walked in the door on a Friday night, noticed signs of a burglary and called the LAPD. Meanwhile, cash, electronics and other valuables had been left behind.

Two men have been charged, so far — Patricio Munoz, 42, and Juan Espinoza, 24. But the LAPD said both gave fake names when they were arrested.

The case is, at best, creepy and, at worst, fishy. Bass has called the whole thing “unnerving.”

What was the motive? Is someone trying to target the congresswoman specifically? To send her a message by breaking into her home? To set her up for a crime? To try to embarrass her by forcing her to admit publicly that she has guns?

These are important questions that need to be answered. Already, the public speculation has been rampant.

But here is where things have taken a more depressing, if politically predictable turn.

The Bass campaign acknowledged almost immediately that the handguns — later identified as .38-caliber revolvers — were registered to the congresswoman and were “safely and securely stored” in a Brinks lockbox in her closet.

But within days, Caruso started pointedly calling on Bass to show that they were legally registered and somehow prove that they were properly stored.

And then, last week, L.A. City Councilman Joe Buscaino, who has endorsed Caruso, sent a letter to City Atty. Mike Feuer and LAPD Chief Michel Moore, demanding to know how the guns were stored, to whom they were registered and when, and whether Bass will be investigated for violations of the city's safe storage laws.

"You have a campaign asking you to prove something, not the police," Bass groused.

This all came to a head during Wednesday night's televised mayoral debate at the Skirball Cultural Center.

My co-moderator, Fox 11 News anchor Elex Michaelson, asked Bass about the burglary and her handguns. She talked about her public safety plan, admitted she doesn't feel as safe as she once did, and then fixed Caruso with a look of disappointment that a mother might give her wayward 10-year-old.

"I'm disheartened, Rick. So I just want to take a moment and speak directly to the people of Los Angeles," Bass began with more than a touch of indignation. "My home was burglarized. I called the police and later they arrested two suspects and the storage and registration were 100% legal. I think this is an act of desperation, Rick."

Rick Caruso appears on a TV screen during his mayoral debate with Rep. Karen Bass.
Developer Rick Caruso appears on a TV screen during his mayoral debate Wednesday with Rep. Karen Bass at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

She went on to call out Buscaino, who was sitting in the front row, for "calling for me to be investigated for the theft that happened at my house."

I heard a rumbling of agreement from some of the Black people sitting behind me.

Caruso looked down for a moment.

"What I said about your burglary is that I feel sorry for anybody — including you — for that to happen to," he said, adding: "There are two guns on the street now and we have terrible gun violence in the city of Los Angeles. And that's a shame and I know that pains you, but knowing how those are stored is just a simple thing to answer."

I caught up with Buscaino after the debate. He told me that his questions are for the LAPD and city attorney's office, not for Bass who has been "victimized."

"I think Karen deserves these answers, the general public deserves answers," he told me.

I'm not really buying that. Bass isn't either.

"That he would actually sink to the level of saying that somebody who actually was a victim of a crime should be investigated," she told me on Thursday. "And what kind of dog whistle does that raise?"

When I asked Buscaino whether he thought race or gender had anything to do with the reaction to the theft of Bass' guns, he gasped, shook his head and told me, "I hope not."

I hope not either. But somehow, I doubt we’d be having the same discussion if someone broke into Caruso’s house and stole two handguns — assuming he owns guns, which he has said he doesn’t.

Bass doubts it, too.

Things are complicated enough for Black people who are gun owners, even when they aren't running for mayor or elected to Congress. I wrote about this after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned some gun control laws that made it harder for people to get a license to carry firearms in public.

Black gun owners regularly confront racist stereotypes and fear — especially at a time when polls show so many people are worried about rising crime and gang violence.

And yet it is Black people — especially women — who are buying guns the most. Between 2019 and 2020 alone, there was a 58% spike, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, even as Americans overall have stocked up on firearms at record rates. Southern California is hardly exempt from this trend.

This is why I was so confused by the initial reaction to the theft of Bass' guns. Many seemed shocked that she owned them at all and, so for weeks, I've heard some variation of: "Oh my, God! She has guns! Why does she need guns?"

It’s almost as if we liberals have bought into our own rhetoric. That only crazy conservatives in red states have guns — and for no reason — while people in blue states are above such tools of violence.

Truth is, I probably know as many, if not more people with firearms in Los Angeles than I did when I lived in Indianapolis.

Bass has said she owned her revolvers for self-protection. But feeling unsafe isn’t the only reason people might own a gun. Maybe they just want one. Or because shooting is a fun hobby. Or because they inherited it from a relative. Or because they bought it years ago, locked it up and forgot about it.

Bass also has taken heat, mostly from conservative pundits, about owning guns while simultaneously decrying gun violence and supporting gun control.

In fact, on the same day the congresswoman was castigating Caruso at the debate, Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta was announcing that California is opening a first-in-the-nation Office of Gun Violence Prevention to keep firearms away from “dangerous individuals” and to promote research.

"Of course, I support gun control," Bass told me. "But it's kind of a stereotype that anybody that supports gun control would never own a gun."

She pointed to Rep. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena), who doesn't face criticism for owning guns, for being an avid hunter and for being pro-gun control.

"I think that a piece of it is gender," Bass told me. "I also think there's an absolute racial component to this."

I don’t doubt for one second that a number of Angelenos will agree with her — and Bass already has a double-digit lead over Caruso in the latest poll heading into the Nov. 8 election.

Regardless of who wins, it's clear we need to have a more honest conversation about guns in Los Angeles. About who owns them, why they own them, and how that factors into the much larger conversation about reducing violent crime at time when there are more guns in America than people.

I'm not sure we're going to get any of that out this mayoral campaign. But, in the meantime, maybe tough-on-crime politicians should stop blaming the victim.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.