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L.A. Takes First Step Toward New Handgun Law

Laura J. Nelson |
January 26, 2011 | 12:07 a.m. PST

Staff Reporter

Guns on display at an L.A. gun shop. (Susan Shimotsu / Neon Tommy)
Guns on display at an L.A. gun shop. (Susan Shimotsu / Neon Tommy)

Los Angeles officials have begun exploring a ban on the "open carry" of unloaded handguns, following a nationwide push for stronger gun laws after a month rife with gun-related violence. 

Under current California law, only law enforcement and other permit-holders can carry a loaded gun. Residents who legally own a handgun can carry them unloaded in plain sight – such as in a holster – with ammunition in the same holster or elsewhere. 

The California gun law has come under attack following three unrelated gun incidents on L.A. Unified School District campuses and the Jan. 8 shooting in Tucson, Ariz. that killed six and left U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords critically injured.

On Tuesday night, an L.A. Metropolitan Transportation Authority bus driver was shot in the head with a pellet gun by a passenger disputing the fare he was asked to pay. The driver suffered no serious injuries and the alleged shooter was arrested.

Los Angeles City Council President Eric Garcetti asked the council Friday to consider modifying the city's open-carry policy. His proposal, which he called a "common-sense" approach to gun control, would restrict the right to carry a gun in public to law enforcement. 

"No one needs a gun on their hip when walking down the street or going to the store," Garcetti said. "The open carry of a handgun can be intimidating and threaten public safety."

Should the city council approve Garcetti's motion, it's still a few steps away from becoming law: first, city attorney Carmen A. Trutanich will recommend what the ordinance should and shouldn't include, said Julie Wong, Garcetti's director of communications. Then the council will draft, vote and possibly amend the ordinance. 

Under what's called "pre-emption," Los Angeles can't create laws that overlap with those of California, said California State University-Sacramento law professor and gun rights expert William Vizzard.  For example, because California regulates gun registration, the city couldn't create its own licensing laws.

"It's not like California says, 'You can carry a gun' and Los Angeles is saying, 'No, you can't,'" Vizzard said. "There is no state law that says you can carry a gun."

Instead, California Penal Code Section 12031 tells residents what they can't do: carry a loaded firearms within city limits, carry a concealed weapon without a permit and carry a gun without a permit. 

Gun-control advocates say firearms in plain sight create an unnecessary culture of fear. Those in favor of looser gun laws often cite the constitutional right to bear arms and are expected to weigh in on the ordinance.

"When you license a constitutional right, the right ceases to be a right," said Sam Paredes, the executive director of Gun Owners of California. "We don't like that you go through all this gobble-de-gook to get something we should have full access to anyway." 

Last year, anti-gun control groups opposed an unsuccessful attempt to reverse the state's gun laws. That legislation has recently been re-intoduced by Assemblyman Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge). His proposal would ban the open carrying of unloaded handguns in all public places. The penalties could be as severe as a jail and a $1,000 fine.

Despite that proposal, Los Angeles officials will still approach their proposed open-carry ban with the state's current gun laws in mind, said Wong of Garcetti's office. The ordinance will have to be carefully crafted to avoid conflicting with state regulations, which would invite lawsuits. 

"We don't want to write and draft an ordinance that's going to fail in the courts," Wong said.

The current gun laws have been in place since the 1960s, when Penal Code 12031 passed. Before that, openly carrying a loaded firearm was legal too — but that doesn't mean people ever did it, Vizzard said. Society generally shunned people who carried guns publicly, and it was hardly ever done. But political rhetoric has brought these issues to the forefront, with laws being created to appease one side or the other, Vizzard said.

"In a sense, both the far left and far right have created an issue that wasn't ever an issue," Vizzard said. "I don't see this as a public safety issue — it's an example of typical American idiosyncratic lunacy." 

The city council is scheduled to consider Garcetti's proposal on Friday. 

To reach staff reporter Laura J. Nelson, click here. Or follow her on Twitter: @laura_nelson.



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