Los Angeles officials agreed Wednesday to hold off on enforcing a ban on possession of semiautomatic rifles until March 1, pending a federal judge's ruling on an ordinance intended to rid the city of the lethal weapons.
"As far as we're concerned, this is the beginning of the end of this ordinance. One step at a time," said a lawyer for Colt Industries Inc., manufacturer of the AR-15 assault rifle. Colt filed suit last week challenging a week-old city ordinance banning possession and sale of the rapid-firing military-style rifles.
U.S. District Judge William P. Gray persuaded the city to postpone enforcement of the ban on possession of the weapons, but he refused to halt restrictions on semiautomatic weapons sales. A lawyer for the city said those restrictions are needed immediately "to protect the safety of our citizens (and) our police officers."
"I have a great deal of sympathy with the city's concerns, but I also am mindful of the constitutional arguments asserted by the plaintiffs," Gray said, scheduling a hearing Wednesday to determine whether to issue a preliminary injunction blocking enforcement of the ordinance.
The Colt Industries lawsuit was the first of what will probably be many legal attacks against a growing move to outlaw semiautomatic rifles in cities across the country.
Although several cities have adopted similar ordinances, many others are awaiting the court's ruling on the constitutionality of the Los Angeles ordinance before deciding whether to adopt similar bans.
Meanwhile, the National Rifle Assn., which claims 250,000 members in California, said Wednesday that it will attempt to go directly to the state Supreme Court next week to seek a determination that the growing number of cities adopting ordinances controlling the weapons are illegally usurping the state's authority in the field of gun regulation.
The Supreme Court could refuse to hear the case directly and send it back to the lower courts for initial review.
Those mounting the legal challenges say the proliferation of local ordinances will produce confusion among gun owners and dealers until the matter is resolved. Already, Colt Industries argues, someone can buy a gun in Culver City and take it home to Beverly Hills, but the Los Angeles ordinance would make it a crime to go through that city while taking it home.
At least six California cities, including Los Angeles, Compton, Stockton, Carson, Gardena and Lynwood, have adopted ordinances barring the sale and possession of assault rifles, as has Santa Clara County.
County Vote Postponed
Nearly a dozen other cities throughout the country, from New Orleans to Boston, are considering similar ordinances. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors postponed a decision this week on a countywide ordinance. A vote is scheduled in two weeks.
State legislatures are also moving to fill in gaps in gun control and registration laws that have historically been directed at handguns or fully automatic machine guns. Committees in the California Senate and Assembly will consider legislation on Feb. 28 prohibiting selling, distributing or importing assault rifles anywhere in the state.
The control measures have all been proposed in the weeks since Patrick Edward Purdy, 24, opened fire with an AK-47 assault rifle in a Stockton schoolyard, killing five children and wounding 29 others.
In its lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, Colt Industries claims that the Los Angeles ordinance is "wildly over-broad" and intrudes into an area of regulation that is within the jurisdiction of the state, not municipalities.
City officials, in response papers filed with the court, said the state has exclusive jurisdiction only over registration and licensing of guns, not over sale and possession. Assistant City Atty. Byron R. Boeckman argued that urban areas like Los Angeles have a unique need to control semiautomatic weapons that may not be present elsewhere in the state.
'Very Significant' Interest
"These weapons are an ever-increasing problem in Los Angeles, weapons of death and intimidation, and the local interest in their regulation is very significant," Boeckman argued.
City attorneys also rejected Colt Industries' protests that the AR-15 is designed primarily as a sporting gun for use in target practice. "Assault weapons are not used for hunting or target practice but are military-style weapons designed for wholesale killing," the city said in its court papers. "Their force and magnitude render them inappropriate for anything other than war."
In Wednesday's hearing, Gray said he is not certain that the federal courts should intervene in a dispute over state law.
"I'm troubled about whether this court should take jurisdiction," he said. "This is a case that strictly pertains to what is the California law, and I can't think of any court in the land that is more equipped to handle that than the courts of this state."