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Justices OK Local Ban on Gun Shows

Arms: State high court rules cities and counties can have tougher laws than California's for their property, such as L.A. fairgrounds. Other prohibitions expected.

April 23, 2002|MAURA DOLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

California cities and counties have the right to ban guns or gun sales on fairgrounds and other public property, the California Supreme Court decided Monday.

In a pair of 6-1 rulings involving Los Angeles and Alameda counties, the state high court found that state gun laws do not prohibit cities and counties from passing tougher local laws to restrict gun shows on their property. Gun shows are held throughout California on county fairgrounds virtually every weekend of the year.

The decisions are expected to spark many more bans around the state, lawyers on both sides of the cases said. Some counties already have passed resolutions of intent to prohibit gun sales if such bans were found to be permissible under state law. In Los Angeles County, the decision will lead to removal of an injunction that prevented it from enforcing its 1999 ban.

The state high court said that state law does not require counties to make their property available to gun shows and concluded that Los Angeles County can prohibit the sale of guns and ammunition on its fairgrounds in Pomona even though Pomona is an incorporated city with laws of its own.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, author of the county's gun law, said the ruling was "a very big deal" for the county because gun shows on the fairgrounds were a "veritable bazaar for all kinds of weapons, legal and illegal."

"This is the venue of choice for people who want to traffic in guns, who don't want to be held accountable, who don't want to be known," the supervisor said. "This is the great beyond where gun traffickers go to buy weapons they don't want to be traced or enter into deals for weapons that are illegal in the United States."

The Supreme Court said the county has the right to prohibit sales at shows held by Great Western Shows Inc., which operated three gun and collector shows a year at the fairgrounds until 1999. The shows, some of the biggest in the nation, were held there for 22 years. Great Western, which later relocated its shows to Las Vegas, sued Los Angeles County to end the ban.

Justice Carlos R. Moreno, writing for the court, said "grave problems" prompted Los Angeles to approve the sweeping prohibition. He noted that there had been "significant illegal gun trafficking" at shows on the fairgrounds.

The court also ruled in favor of Alameda County's ban on possession of guns and ammunition on its property. Alameda County outlawed gun possession after eight people were wounded in gunfire at its fairgrounds in 1999.

Gun promoters had challenged both county laws in separate cases in federal court. In the Los Angeles case, a federal district judge refused to allow the county to enforce its gun ordinance on the grounds that it was preempted by state law.

The legal challenges then went to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which asked the state Supreme Court to determine whether such ordinances are permissible under state law. The cases will now return to federal court, where in the Los Angeles case the court will remove the lower court order blocking the ban, a county lawyer said. Gun proponents say they will then argue that the laws violate 1st Amendment rights to assembly and other constitutional protections.

The two decisions Monday removed what many believed was the biggest hurdle to such laws. Other appellate courts in California have disagreed over whether such ordinances are preempted by the state.

"I think we are on solid ground on every other issue," said Lawrence L. Hafetz, senior deputy Los Angeles County counsel. He said the county has a "strong case" on the 1st Amendment challenge.

The Los Angeles case will probably go to trial within six months, he said.

Both Counties Allow Shows About Guns

Neither Los Angeles nor Alameda county prohibits all shows about guns. Alameda County Counsel Richard Winnie said gun sellers could still gather on county property to show videos of guns and hand out leaflets.

"Our ordinance merely bans the possession of guns on county property," Winnie said. "If that has an incidental dampening effect on gun shows, that is up to them."

But Donald E.J. Kilmer Jr., who represented a gun show promoter in the Alameda County case, said he was optimistic that federal courts will determine that the laws prohibit "people from assembling and discussing and trading ideas and merchandise and thoughts about firearms."

"It is an attempt to ban gun shows," Kilmer said. "Gun culture does exist, and [people] do have a right to express their views."

He said gun shows are highly regulated traditions at county fairs. "What is new is people trying to scapegoat law-abiding gun owners for the crimes other people commit with guns," he said.

Justice Moreno, writing his first major majority opinions since his appointment to the high court last year, cited statistics that 1,385 people were killed by firearms in 1997 in Los Angeles County.

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