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Fear of Riots Fuels Gun Sales : Weapons: One dealer says handgun, shotgun and ammunition sales have been five times higher than normal.

April 04, 1993|ANDREW LEPAGE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN GABRIEL VALLEY — For two years Morrison Jackson's husband had tried to persuade her that the couple should buy a gun to protect themselves and their South Pasadena home. "No way," she would tell him. "Handguns are killing people and we don't need more of that."

But last week Jackson was standing inside a Monrovia firing range, pulling the trigger on a 9-millimeter pistol for the first time in her life as she took aim at a paper torso.

To hear San Gabriel Valley gun dealers tell it, Jackson is one of a growing number of people who have broken their vow to never buy a gun. Most say the primary reason is fear of widespread violence following a verdict in the federal trial of four Los Angeles police officers accused of violating the civil rights of Rodney G. King.

Even in the suburbs, which went relatively unscathed after last year's riots, gun dealers say that handgun, shotgun and ammunition sales, as well as lessons to use them, have risen sharply in past weeks.

"I think most of these people have been thinking about buying a gun for a long time, and this fear (of civil disorder) is pushing them over the line," said Bryan Harris, vice president of purchasing at Turner's Outdoorsman, which has stores in West Covina and Pasadena, as well as in other cities throughout Southern California. "Normally, maybe 10% to 20% of our customers are new gun owners. Now we're running 50% to 60%. These are largely older people and women who are buying guns for self-protection."

Harris estimates that, over the past few weeks, his stores have sold an average of five times the amount of handguns, shotguns and ammunition that he would expect to sell in an average month.

Despite law enforcement promises of better police preparation, "middle-class citizens are scared to death because they learned from the last riots that picking up the phone and dialing 911 will not protect them," said Adel Simmons, who manages the Santa Anita Firing Range in Monrovia.

In the past month, she said, her basic gun safety and shooting technique classes have sometimes exceeded capacity. Many new gun owners, she said, are husbands and wives and business owners who say they were driven to arm themselves by repeated accounts in the news media of Southland violence and speculation about another civil uprising.

Lately, Simmons said, she has been training many senior citizens to use handguns. Roughly 40% of her students are women.

"At first the wives are (extremely) scared, but then they realize the gun is just another vacuum cleaner or other piece of equipment."

Morrison Jackson works in theatrics at USC. Her husband, Ed Perez, works for a property management company. They have a 10-month-old daughter. Hours after they rented a pistol and test-fired it at the range in Monrovia last week, they plopped down a deposit at Turner's Outdoorsman in Pasadena for a Luger 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistol.

Like everyone who buys a firearm in California, Jackson and Perez will have to wait 15 days to pick up their gun while their backgrounds are checked--a requirement that gun shop owners say is spurring sales.

Once in hand, could Jackson, 32, pull the trigger on someone?

"If anybody tried to hurt my baby, you bet," she said shortly after firing the rental pistol at the range.

"I would feel remorseful, but it's the kind of remorse I could live with. Your whole perspective changes when you have a baby."

Jackson said she reversed her "no guns in my house" stance suddenly last week after she overheard a South Pasadena police officer give her husband a piece of advice: "If I were you, I would buy a gun."

The officer, she said, was standing on the couple's driveway after taking a stolen vehicle report. She said he made the statement while chatting with Perez about the likelihood of civil disorder following a verdict in the King case.

"He (the officer) sees the bad elements out there. I look at the world through rose-colored glasses," Jackson said. "I started thinking about what might happen after the verdict. . . . If I got hurt, I couldn't protect my baby."

South Pasadena Police Chief Thomas Mahoney said his department does not have a policy of recommending steps that citizens should take to defend themselves.

"I think that, if one of our officers actually recommended these people buy a gun, then this officer may have gotten involved in a conversation where he expressed his personal opinion," Mahoney said.

"If I were asked for advice, my first response would be, 'Why on earth do you want a firearm?' " Mahoney said. "If you feel you absolutely must have one, go to a range and fire a weapon and see if you can deal with that. If so, learn how to use it responsibly . . . and understand that if you want it as some talisman that you can hold in your hand and keep the bad people away, it doesn't work like that."

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