How a Berkeley father’s grief led to decades of activism against the gun industry

Gun Rights

In 1994, 15-year-old Kenzo Dix was at his close friend Mark’s home in Berkeley when Mark decided to show off. Mark retrieved his father’s Beretta pistol, ejected the gun’s magazine, and loaded an empty one. Returning to where Kenzo was, Mark, age 14, raised the gun, and eager to impress his friend, pulled the trigger.

The hammer didn’t just go “click.” Mark had made a terrible mistake, leaving a single live round in the gun’s chamber. The pistol fired with deafening force. The bullet struck Kenzo in his shoulder and lodged in his chest. Kenzo was rushed to Children’s Hospital Oakland where he died.

The tragic shooting sent a shockwave through the Berkeley community. Mark was racked with a sense of interminable guilt for years afterward. Kenzo’s brother Kalani suffered an indescribable loss. And Kenzo’s parents, Griffin and Lynn, grew apart in their grief, eventually separating.

The first several chapters of Griffin Dix’s new book, “Who Killed Kenzo: The Loss of a Son and the Ongoing Battle for Gun Safety,” tell the heartbreaking story of the shooting and its aftermath. But most of Dix’s book is a chronicle of how his family’s intense grief was channeled into a quest for changes that could help prevent similar tragedies — and the purposeful decisions of a powerful industry that has thwarted public safety.

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After losing Kenzo, Dix’s family sued the pistol maker, arguing the Beretta company knew about safer designs it could have engineered into its pistol that might have warned Mark the gun was loaded, or stopped him from pulling the trigger. They argued that the company chose not to build these locks and indicators into its weapons, and Beretta even advertised its guns in a manner that encouraged people not to store them safely.

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Griffin Dix ran a successful computer industry research and consulting company but became a leading gun violence activist after his 15-year-old son Kenzo was killed in a tragic accident in 1994 in Berkeley. Credit: Amir Aziz

Dix’s book describes in detail the legal twists and turns of his family’s lawsuit and the three jury trials they pursued against Beretta. Although they ultimately lost their case, along the way Dix became a prominent activist in the movement against gun violence. He forged links with others who had lost loved ones in accidents, to suicide, murder, or a mass shooting, and together they pressed lawmakers and the courts for solutions.

Among the many lessons of Dix’s book is that legal and political changes that make firearms safer and restrict their access to dangerous people have been hard fought, and progress has been tempered by enormous setbacks.

But Dix, whose family lived in Berkeley at the time of the shooting, is optimistic that many of California’s firearms laws, some of which he helped campaign for, have saved thousands of lives by banning military-style weapons, requiring common-sense safety features on guns, and preventing guns from falling into the hands of those who cannot and will not use them responsibly.

The Oaklandside recently sat down with Dix to talk about his book and where the movement against gun violence should go from here. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why did you feel it was important to tell Kenzo’s story, and the story of your family’s struggle to hold the Beretta company accountable for his death?

I thought Beretta was making families less safe, less safe for gun owners and anyone who visited a home where one of their guns was stored. The company was marketing its guns in a dangerous way. For example, they were marketing guns as a good means of personal protection when in fact buying a gun more than doubles the risk of a homicide in a home and more than triples the risk of suicide. Guns are very seldom used in self-defense in homes.

The gun companies say you should store your gun locked up, but at the same time they say guns kept for protection should always be kept in use and they should be immediately available. They can be stored loaded. So they suggest that guns can be kept unlocked. They are sending these double messages to people. I think this is very dangerous and irresponsible.

Basically, the firearms companies have opposed almost every proposed law to regulate guns. They want to sell guns to anyone they can, including trying to bypass any type of background check to sell them to criminals and other people with dangerous records.

The first quarter of your book is heartbreaking. The way you describe Kenzo, the shooting, and its aftermath, these chapters bring forth so much sadness and grief. I can’t imagine what you may have gone through to write this. Was it difficult?

The whole process has been a mixture of grief and anger. The more I learned about the gun industry, the more I got angry. And that wasn’t good for me. As I mentioned in the book, I started to get chest pains at some point and had to go to a cardiologist and eventually had eight stints put in. I became a sort of walking hardware store.

But I also met amazing people along the way. These were very wonderful activists. I thought doing something about gun violence with them was very meaningful to me. That’s what I wanted to do.

You wrote about how the shooting that claimed Kenzo’s life tore apart your marriage and strained your family and personal relationships. It also harmed your health. What were some changes in your life you eventually made to regain your health and rebuild relationships that had frayed from trauma?

I turned to music and writing. I enjoy writing a lot. And I formed a book club with some friends, all of whom were going through a transition in life. There were eight people. We were all going through something difficult. In addition to reading books, we would go on bike rides and hikes together.

And as I said, I met lots of activists who I enjoyed collaborating with. One of them was a wonderful lawyer who worked in Washington D.C. for the Brady Center. He helped us sue Beretta USA.

Those trials — there were three — went on for 10 years. There was jury misconduct in the first trial and a hung jury in the second trial. Beretta was eventually able to win in the third trial.

But our lawyers were extremely helpful. It was notable they took on a case like this. This case wasn’t going to win them a lot of money. They could have made a lot more money on other kinds of cases. 

But this is a cause that can help a lot of people in every corner of American society who are affected by gun violence.

And along the way, I started an Oakland chapter of the Brady organization.

Can you talk a little more about that? Berkeley isn’t heavily impacted by gun violence. The tragedy that happened to your family was a relatively rare thing. But in Oakland, some communities are deeply impacted by gun violence. What was it like creating that Brady chapter and working with activists in Oakland?

I met all kinds of people who had been working on addressing gun violence for a long time, people I really admire. 

There was Deane Calhoun, who had started Youth Alive! a long time ago. 

And there was Marilyn Washington whose son Khadafy had been killed. She started the Khadafy Foundation. She made herself available to anyone whose child had been killed. They could call her and she would help them 24 hours a day, show them how to contact the police, get help grieving, set up a funeral and everything else they needed to do. She’s an amazing community activist.

For me, it was quite an experience. We started an evening of remembrance around Christmas time when a lot of people would miss their children the most. That event has continued. It’s been held in various churches in Oakland. Families bring photos and will say something in remembrance of their loved one. It was good to get together and commiserate with each other at that time. 

We would also meet at other times and try to figure out how to work together. Sometimes we would have a bus we chartered to go to Sacramento to testify together for legislation that might help to reduce gun deaths.

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“Who Killed Kenzo: The Loss of a Son and the Ongoing Battle for Gun Safety,” tells the story of one family’s legal fight against a firearms manufacturer. Credit: Amir Aziz

You’ve participated in decades of legal and policy battles with the firearms industry. What big changes have you witnessed in terms of the power of the gun industry and how most Americans think about the issue?

I think the answer depends a lot on where you live in America. 

In California, I think there has been a big change. We’ve passed a lot of good laws here. I joined a coalition of groups of which the Giffords Law Center was a leader, as were the Brady chapters up and down California, and together we were able to pass significant state and local legislation.

For example, we pushed local police departments to trace the origin of crime guns recovered by their officers. If many of these guns came from a particular dealer and had a short “time to crime,” meaning if a specific dealer sold a lot of guns that ended up being used in crimes in under three years, that’s an indicator that those guns might have been illegally trafficked. This can happen through straw purchasers and other means. We were trying to hold these gun dealers accountable for selling guns to people who weren’t permitted to own them.

There are lots of different laws this coalition passed over the years, well over 100. As these laws went into effect, California’s rate of firearm mortality declined by over half. This is much more than in the rest of the country.

Recently, the gun death rate has gone back up in the rest of the nation but California’s is still much lower than it used to be. The peak rate of firearm deaths was in 1993, when so many junk guns, unsafe guns, were being sold.

These junk guns were the weapons produced by the “Ring of Fire” companies in Southern California, made from cheap materials, small and easily concealed pistols that were often diverted to the streets, where they ended up being used in robberies, murders, and other violence, correct?

That’s right. They were extremely dangerous. If you dropped these handguns they would sometimes just go off and injure someone. They were used in a huge number of gun deaths. 

We passed laws in California setting safety standards for handguns. My son was killed with a gun that lacked a prominent chamber-loaded indicator. The boy who shot my son didn’t know there was a bullet still in the chamber of the semi-automatic handgun he was holding, even after he’d taken out the magazine that had bullets in it. He actually picked up an empty magazine, walked back to the room where Kenzo was, and put an empty magazine in, thought the gun was unloaded, and pulled the trigger. But the bullet that was still in the chamber killed Kenzo.

Of course that was a very bad thing to do and the boy had been told not to touch the gun. But if it had had a prominent chamber-loaded indicator sticking right up in his face every time there was still a bullet in the chamber, we think Kenzo would be alive today. 

So we passed a law requiring chamber-loaded indicators and magazine disconnect safety devices, which are something that makes the gun unable to fire when the magazine has been removed. This was important because a lot of people mistakenly think ‘Oh, there’s no magazine in this gun, it must be unloaded,’ but there can still be a live round in the chamber and so many accidental deaths have been caused this way.

Today, we probably would see many more unintentional gun deaths in California if these laws hadn’t been passed, is that right?

This is true. Around 1993, according to the CDC, there were about 1,500 unintentional gun deaths nationally. And in 2021 there were about 500. So the decline has been enormous. When the gun industry finally started selling safer handguns, even in the rest of the country their rates of unintentional gun deaths declined also. I think California’s laws helped.

But after the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd, a lot of people started buying more guns and the gun death rate has increased again, especially among young people. So we’re seeing another epidemic of gun violence.

You’re describing regulations that made guns safer as consumer items, preventing accidents and negligence. I’m wondering about another kind of gun violence. Arguably a higher profile problem—although it may not claim as many lives—is mass shootings. We’ve seen a growing number of horrible crimes at schools, workplaces, places of worship, where people use high-powered weapons like assault rifles and semi-automatic pistols to kill indiscriminately. How do we better address the problem of people who are maliciously going out to kill others?

These mass shootings are horrendous. The gun industry turned to selling military-style assault weapons, AR-15s and similar weapons.

Overall, the number of people killed in mass shootings is still relatively smaller than the number killed in single-gun homicides and gun suicides. But we should be banning the sale and possession of assault weapons. That’s difficult to do because of our constitutional system of government. Small rural states get two senators and huge states like California only get two, and there’s gerrymandering and other problems that make passing new, effective laws very difficult. 

All the while, the gun industry is advertising its products with messages like “Get your man card reissued” by buying an assault weapon. It’s outrageous. They are even starting to make assault weapons for kids. It’s mind-boggling.

At that point it’s more of a cultural and political problem than a legal or engineering problem, right?

Right.

But a huge problem is really gun suicides and gun homicides. And we’ve shown that we can reduce the rates of these kinds of deaths in California with sensible laws like waiting periods and extreme risk protection orders that identify someone who is a risk to themselves or others. 

Families and law enforcement can take information about dangerous people to a judge and the judge can decide if we need to remove guns from a person’s ownership because they’re a danger to themselves and others. These are helpful laws. 

Safe storage laws help to reduce suicides because many people who kill themselves do it in the spur of the moment. People get depressed and suddenly decide “I’ve got to commit suicide,” but a few minutes later they think about it and decide not to. A small delay by making it harder for them to get their hands on a gun can help a lot.

Also, violence interrupters in urban areas where there is a lot of gun violence can be extremely helpful. Organizations like Youth Alive and Ceasefire can bring people in who are likely to be involved in gun violence and say “We can help you get out of this problem.” 

There’s money in California to help these organizations sustain this effort and it’s very helpful.

This has been a big push in Oakland right now with the city’s Department of Violence Prevention. It sounds like you’re pretty hopeful about this work?

Yes. And you have to be patient. It takes time. But I think these programs and the organizations that do this work need ongoing funding.

We’re now witnessing the rise of whole new ways of manufacturing firearms, including 3D printing and ghost guns made in people’s garages. What kinds of new dangers are we facing? And how do we protect our communities?

It’s difficult to do. Gov. Newsom signed a law making ghost guns illegal and anyone who has one has to turn it in or register it. It’s illegal to manufacture ghost guns. I think this can help but we have to find the sellers and manufacturers of ghost gun components who are trying to find ways around California’s strong firearms laws. The whole phenomenon of ghost guns, in a way, is in response to our state’s strong gun regulations.

You tell a story near the end of your book about a talk you gave. At that talk, you encountered a person who thought, erroneously, that you wanted to get rid of all guns or have the government confiscate everyone’s guns. You said this person’s inability to understand your actual point of view derailed the conversation you wanted to have around practical laws that can make guns less dangerous and save lives. I bring this up because much of your book is focused on very specific technical and legal solutions that could make guns less dangerous. But can you talk about the broader cultural problems Americans have when it comes to guns and the ways the gun industry has framed the gun control debate?

I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding about gun control. I don’t like the term “gun control.”

I think the gun lobby — the NRA, National Shooting Sports Foundation — likes the debate to be framed as pro-gun versus anti-gun. I don’t want to see it that way. 

Many of us think of it in the following terms: We’d like to keep dangerous weapons out of the hands of dangerous people. You can tell which weapons are dangerous. And you can tell which people are especially dangerous. Clearly, assault weapons made for the military to spray people down in killing fields are especially dangerous. So are guns that don’t have safety features. They’re dangerous for their owners and everyone around them. Guns with large-capacity magazines are especially dangerous. And certain people are especially dangerous, like those with a history of violence. They shouldn’t be allowed to purchase or own a gun.

Way back in 1989 California passed a law that prohibited people who were guilty of certain violent misdemeanors from purchasing handguns. I think that was helpful. We also require background checks on every gun purchase and transfer, including from private sellers. That’s unusual and not true in most states, but it helped a great deal. I believe this has helped bring down the gun death rate, because of enforcement of laws like this.

Those are the laws that have been passed, but there are still these beliefs that people have about guns. Are gun violence activists making progress in changing the way Americans view the issue?

I think we still have a lot of work to do there. 

Many people see it as part of their identity to own a gun. That’s OK with me, but most people are for reasonable regulation of firearms. Everyone ought to be able to see that as good for their safety and the safety of their children. 

In the Brady chapters, some of our strongest leaders were Mary Lee and Charlie Blek, who were conservative Republicans from Orange County. Their son was murdered in New York. They realized the junk gun used to kill their son had been manufactured in one of the Ring of Fire factories located near their home. They wanted to pass a law outlawing those kinds of very unsafe guns. They were wonderful leaders. 

The issue cuts across many different kinds of people. On some things, I might have disagreed with the Bleks, but on keeping children safe, and on many gun laws, I agreed with them completely.

Because of school shootings, a lot of activists fighting for gun regulations are young people. What’s a key lesson you’d like to pass on to these activists?

It’s wonderful to see so many young people concerned about this issue. My advice is to stick with it. It’s not an easy thing. You’ll get frustrated. Just passing a law — step-by-step through committees, negotiating, giving up some things to get rural Democratic representatives to sign onto a bill, sometimes there’s a police union that can be a problem — it can be tough going.

But I hope these young people stay on it. They’re concerned about their safety as they should be. As they keep at it, they’ll learn more and more.

Don’t get discouraged. Keep learning.

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