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Drawing a Bead on Gun Sales

Law: Irvine councilman drafts one of the state's toughest ordinances for one of its safest cities. Firearms rights lobbyists already are up in arms.

January 14, 2002|TINA BORGATTA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The FBI considers Irvine one of the nation's safest cities, a master-planned community where nagging issues range from lawn maintenance to the early morning howl of leaf blowers.

But there's a new debate in town: gun control.

A city councilman has drafted a proposal that would be among the toughest gun laws in the state, making it nearly impossible for new retailers to sell firearms. All in a city where gun violence is minimal.

Councilman Chris Mears' ordinance would make it illegal to sell firearms within 1,000 feet of churches, schools, playgrounds or city-owned buildings. And in Irvine, most every commercial center is within a short walking distance of one or more of these.

"It's simply an effort to provide us with a slightly greater degree of local control and confidence about gun sales," said Mears. And just in case there's a corner of the city where a gun dealer could set up shop--something that won't be known until the proposal is studied--the ordinance also would require the dealer to obtain a special business permit, pass a background check conducted by police, carry liability insurance and keep a log of all ammunition sales.

The proposal already has raised the ire of anti-gun-control lobbies.

"The ordinance is designed to harass and create bureaucracy and make it impossible for gun dealers to do business in the city," said Chuck Michel, an attorney for the Fullerton-based California Rifle and Pistol Assn.

The proposed ordinance, which won't come before the council for at least a month, takes a different tack from state gun laws, which require a 10-day waiting period for firearm purchases. Such cooling-off periods give the Department of Justice time to screen a gun buyer's background and check for felony convictions. Felons are prohibited from owning guns.

According to a survey by Legal Community Against Violence, a San Francisco-based organization that researches local gun measures, only three cities in the state have adopted ordinances that mirror what Mears is proposing--Los Angeles, Oakland and San Francisco. However, all three cover a far-flung geography where guns can be sold in certain areas and have a higher crime rate than Irvine, which has been ranked among the nation's 10 safest cities of its size for the last decade.

Dozens of cities have experimented with restricted firearm sales--limiting calibers, types of weapons or high-powered bullets--but few have adopted ordinances that could result in an outright ban on the sale of guns.

In 1997, the small Northern California town of Lafayette came close, imposing stiff restrictions on gun dealers, including a ban on gun stores within 1,000 feet of a park, school or residential area.

The city's sole gun dealer sued Lafayette and lost. He didn't challenge the 1,000-foot restriction but a restriction on trigger locks. City leaders said they haven't conducted measurements to determine whether it would be illegal to sell guns in the city's small retail core.

"We haven't had any others wanting to come in and set up shop since then," said Lafayette City Atty. Charles Williams.

Irvine is not awash in gun retailers, either. A Big 5 Sporting Goods near the city-run Alton Athletic Park sells rifles and ammunition, and there are two licensed antique gun dealers. All would be exempt from the proposed ordinance if it is adopted in its current state.

Conforming to local gun ordinances is nothing new to Big 5, said company spokesman Gabriel Friederitchsen.

"There are already a number of cities that have implemented various gun-control ordinances, and we abide by anything the local, state or federal authorities require of us," Friederitchsen said.

Some Say Measure Is 'Feel-Good,' Ineffective

Not all of Mears' colleagues are impressed by the proposed gun ordinance.

"It's a rather puzzling ordinance," Councilman Greg Smith said. "It feels good, but it doesn't serve much of a purpose. It's just a statement."

Smith said the proposal falls in line with past efforts in Irvine to adopt "feel-good" ordinances that are largely symbolic, such as a previous council's decision to declare the city a "nuclear-free zone."

Michel, the rifle association attorney, said he hopes to persuade Mears to tackle gun control in other ways.

"Irvine's program wouldn't address the illegal purchase of guns directly," Michel said. "There are other programs that don't require an ordinance and that deal with this problem much more effectively, and the dealers are happy to do it."

Michel pointed to a program Anaheim implemented in August 2000 that requires gun dealers to notify authorities immediately after someone has been denied authorization to purchase a firearm.

Typically, the Department of Justice notifies the dealer of its findings first. Sometimes, the justice department doesn't notify local authorities right away--or at all.

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