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Going Great Guns : Security: The L.A. riots trigger a firearms-buying spree in the county. First-time owners drive the boom in sales.

August 17, 1992|RON SOBLE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

More than three months after the Los Angeles riots, residents of Ventura County are continuing to buy more guns and ammunition than at any time in the recent memory of gun-shop owners.

"The calls I get tell me people still want to own a gun, and they are very worried about another riot situation developing," said Fred Romero, the Simi Valley-based Southern California director for the National Rifle Assn.

"They just don't want to be caught off guard or unprotected."

Handguns, rifles, shotguns and cases of ammunition still are being purchased in record numbers from Thousand Oaks to Oxnard, according to gun-shop owners. And, they add, first-time gun owners are fueling much of the boom in sales.

"Most of the people who are buying guns are from the middle class, who are terrified that the have-nots are going to take what they have away from them," said Judy Cotter, owner of Hilldale Sales Inc., a large Simi Valley gun shop.

Recalling the long consumer lines in her shop after rioting broke out in Los Angeles in late April, Cotter said, "Half the people who bought weapons were first-time buyers. One woman had this Dirty Harry image and wanted a weapon that would blow away an elephant."

The initial wave, she recalled, included a Los Angeles Police Department officer still wearing a flak jacket. He rushed in and bought several rounds of ammunition, "throwing the bullets in a box."

But for the most part, the customers who queued up while Los Angeles burned, paying several hundred dollars for armed protection, were "wearing suits and ties and were quiet," Cotter said.

"They were saying, 'God, do you really think (the rioters) are going to come out here?' "

Part of the rush for weapons was caused by police inability to initially control the riot, said her husband, Steve Cotter, who waits on customers with a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson stuffed into his holster.

That spawned a public perception that "if the police can't handle it, we'll handle it ourselves," he said.

Such emotions even motivate liberal advocates of gun control to buy a weapon for the first time, he believes.

"There are no atheists in foxholes; there are no liberals in riots," he said.

Still, purchasing a gun is not like buying an appliance, warned Roy K. Craik, whose firearms store, C Crest Arms, is near the Simi Valley courthouse where the April 29 decision in the Rodney G. King beating trial touched off the rioting.

"I tell people that deadly force is something you can't take back," Craik said. "Are you willing to kill someone and live with it for the rest of your life?"

So far, there are mixed reports from authorities over whether the increase of guns in the general population is complicating life for law-enforcement officials.

Debbie Ruud, a crime analyst for the Simi Valley Police Department, said weapons violations have been dropping this year in her jurisdiction despite the riot.

Ventura County Assistant Sheriff Oscar Fuller said his agency has seen no significant increase in assaults with firearms or incidents involving concealed weapons since the L. A. disturbance.

But David Keith, senior crime analyst for the Oxnard Police Department, said weapons violations have gone up in Oxnard since the rioting.

"There's been an increase in gun situations, in concealed weapons," he said.

Keith, who also manages Oxnard's crime prevention program, said he is apprehensive about all of the guns being bought by the public.

"The majority of people won't learn how to use them," he said.

Tracking the number of guns in public hands is the job of the California attorney general's firearms unit.

Under a law that took effect in 1975 for handguns and in 1991 for rifles and shotguns, California residents must wait 15 days before they can take possession of a firearm.

In the case of handguns--but not rifles or shotguns, whose paperwork is destroyed by the government shortly after it is received--this gives the firearms unit time to review a person's background and to record data.

According to the attorney general's figures, gun sales this year in Ventura County were proceeding at a fairly normal pace until the Los Angeles riots.

In April, 251 handguns were sold in the county, according to the data. Then came the horror of the riots. Suddenly, in May, Ventura County handgun sales jumped to 872, the figures show.

One of those handguns was bought by Jackie Simpson, 29, of Simi Valley, who had never owned a gun in her life.

"I saw all that looting going on on television," said Simpson, Simi Valley branch manager for State Mortgage, a real-estate finance company.

"Then I heard people saying, 'We'll burn Simi Valley!' I was really frightened. So I looked in the Yellow Pages, and Crest was closest to my house."

Hardly had the Los Angeles fires been quelled when Simpson took her place in line at Craik's firearms shop.

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