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Gun Show Suits Settled

The county, which barred event from fairgrounds, will pay operators $1.6 million.

February 14, 2003|Daren Briscoe | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles County has agreed to pay the organizers of the nation's largest gun show $1.6 million to settle two lawsuits brought by the show's organizers.

Stemming from a 1999 county ordinance barring the sales of guns or ammunition on county property, the lawsuits alleged that the ban violated the 1st Amendment and that the county held "secret meetings" related to the ban.

The settlement ends a nearly four-year battle between the county and the operators of the Great Western Gun Show, which was formerly held at the Los Angeles County fairgrounds. It also brings to $4.3 million the amount the county has paid or agreed to pay to pursue the ban, not counting legal fees.

Both sides sounded more relieved than pleased with the settlement announced Thursday.

"I'm not completely happy with it, but it's a good business decision," said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who introduced the ordinance. "I'm pleased that our right to determine what gets sold on county property has been affirmed. I'm not pleased that we had to shell out this kind of money."

The county agreed in 2000 to give as much as $2.7 million in rental credits to the company that manages the fairgrounds as compensation for lost revenue from the gun show, which drew as many as 50,000 people in a single weekend in 1999. That arrangement was the focus of the second lawsuit.

Chad Seger, general manager of the Great Western Gun Show, said he was confident that the county ordinance improperly targeted a show that "has always been about military history and the Wild West," but that after spending more than $1 million in legal fees, economic considerations had won out.

"L.A. County made it very clear that even if we won in court, they'd keep passing ordinances, so we decided to cut our losses," Seger said.

Undercover state and federal agents at the fair in July 1999 purchased or arranged to purchase two illegal assault weapons, five illegal machine gun conversion kits and a rocket launcher. County officials enacted the ban in August of the same year, one week after white supremacist Buford O. Furrow shot and killed a postal worker and wounded five others in a shooting rampage in the San Fernando Valley.

Great Western sued the county to block enforcement of the ban in 1999, seeking $5 million in damages, and sued again in 2000, alleging that the county secretly arranged to pay the fairground operators to force the show from the county fairgrounds.

A complicated mix of federal and state legal issues, the cases have since pinballed between the California Supreme Court and the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Although the ordinance banning sales of guns or ammunition on county property will stand, Michael F. Wright, the Great Western Gun Show's attorney, said it would do nothing to stem gun sales on private property or other property not owned by the county.

"What they've done is remove a gun show away from the county fairgrounds and leave the rest of the world open to that gun show," Wright said. "It makes no sense to say that on one piece of property you can't do things that are otherwise lawful and that you can do anywhere else in the county."

The Great Western Gun Show's last event in the county was held in December 1999, and the organization hasn't held another since it lost money on a Las Vegas show in May 2000.

Yaroslavsky said the costs of removing gun shows that had become "the venue of choice for illegal transactions" from the county were justified.

"If one person's life has been spared because someone didn't get their hands on a machine gun or a bazooka, it's worth it," he said.

Seger said the show will go on. "We're looking at Dallas, Texas, as a new venue," he said. "We're never going to be as big as we were [in Los Angeles County], but we're going to attempt to make it a more focused show."

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