Compton Auto Shop Hits Bulls-Eye by Mixing Assault Rifles With Car Parts

Times Staff Writer

A bull's-eye painted on the building is only one indication that there is more to Mike Virgilio's Boulevard Auto store than just carburetors.

Ever since he added a line of firearms seven years ago, the inside has become more like an armory, with the car parts relegated to a room on the side. An array of guns hangs from the walls, alongside targets of a terrorist and a Soviet soldier. But most prominently displayed is a gleaming assortment of high-powered assault rifles capable of firing 30 rounds in less than five seconds.

"It is an interesting cross-section," Virgilio said of the customers who buy his semiautomatic assault rifles. But he says he sells only to law-abiding citizens.

'They're Fun to Shoot'

Some purchase the weapons for protection. But for many, he says, the motivation is even more basic--assault rifles "are fun to shoot."

Across town at City Hall, however, Compton officials feel differently about the deadly weapons. Only four months after the City Council's widely publicized but ultimately aborted attempt at banning handguns--in a community with one of the highest murder rates in Los Angeles County--there is concern about the increasing presence of semiautomatic rifles.

City Councilman Maxcy D. Filer said recently that semiautomatic rifles "should be banned, banned, banned."

Homicide Only Purpose

"It's frightening that somebody should have one," Filer said. "Committing homicide is the only thing you can do with one. You wouldn't use one to shoot birds or some other animal."

"You should have been around here on New Year's Eve," said Sgt. Hourie Taylor of the Compton Police Department. "You would not have believed the types of (assault rifles) that could be heard going off throughout the city."

In a report to the council last November, city administrators declared that such assault rifles have become "the preferred weapon" of drug dealers and other criminals "who find (their) rapid-firing capability suited to their purpose."

Purchase Is Legal

Uzi, AK-47, AR-15 and other high-velocity, quick-firing semiautomatic weapons--legal to possess and relatively easy to buy--have become almost a routine find during drug raids locally, as well as throughout the state and nation.

"Whereas the weapon of choice among gang members used to be sawed-off shotguns and Saturday Night Specials . . . we are now picking up more and more (assault rifles)," Taylor said. Officers started noticing an increase in the weapons about 18 months ago. Much of the increase, he said, can be attributed to local gangs becoming sellers of illegal drugs in the community.

"The cocaine trafficking means that there is a lot of money with which to buy these weapons. . . . Any kid can go into a store, plop down a couple thousand dollars and walk out with some AK-47s," Taylor said.

Drug Dealers' Weapon

"It has become a macho thing for a lot of these guys," said Doug Creer of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. "People who are involved in drug dealing like their weapons. If you go to a rock house run by the Crips (gang) or the Bloods you'll find a lot of photos of these guys posing with their weapons."

A Chinese version of the AK-47, which in the hands of a skilled shooter can put 30 rounds into a six-inch-square target at 100 yards, is the current gun of choice among Compton's drug gangs, authorities said. These guns usually cost a little more than $300.

"There was one type of AK-47 that was popular for a while because it has a bayonet on the end of it," Taylor said.

Weapons Confiscated

Compton police confiscated seven semiautomatic weapons over a recent 30-day period, according to Lt. Gary Wortman, who is in charge of the department's property room.

The department's records do not show how many of the approximately 80 homicides within the city during 1987 were committed with assault rifles, but one officer termed the number "substantial."

What alarms police most is the weapons' firepower. Recently, a Compton child-care worker was killed by an assault-rifle bullet that carried 200 feet, tore through a stucco and wood wall, then slammed into her back, breaking a rib, destroying a kidney and part of her liver. The coroner's report states that she died almost instantly.

Compared to Other Arms

One detective said if the murderer had been firing a handgun or even a hunting rifle, it is doubtful the bullet would have penetrated the wall.

The victim, Mable Elam, had been sitting at her desk talking to a co-worker at the Little People's World on South Harris Avenue when she was shot just after midnight on Oct. 24.

"She was a very nice and warm-hearted person," said Lemmie Gilbert, the co-worker.

Police say they suspect that Elam was killed by a juvenile gang member. Near the tree in front of the corner church, officers found four shell casings. They have a youth in custody, but decline to release further details.

Hole the Size of an Egg

"I heard the blast and the next thing I know she was lying on the floor. I didn't know she was hit at first. I thought she was just ducking for cover. The bullet put a hole the size of an egg in the wall," said Gilbert, who was sitting six feet away from Elam on a couch.

In California, it is generally illegal to sell automatic rifles--military-type guns that fire continuously with a single pull of the trigger. But semiautomatics, which advance each cartridge automatically but require a separate trigger pull for each firing, are a cash-and-carry business. All a purchaser has to do is present identification showing that he is at least 18, swear that he isn't mentally impaired, a drug addict, a felon or otherwise in trouble with the law, then pay the $300-to-$3,000 price tag.

Gun dealer Virgilio, a friendly but imposing figure who carries a handgun stuffed into a holster on his belt, said the city should find ways to beef up its police force rather than spend time worrying about firearms.

40% of Sales to Police

Virgilio declined to discuss the volume of his gun business. But he said that 40% of his sales are to rank-and-file police officers, and a few of them buy assault rifles for competitive shooting events.

"If the city wants to do something (about my selling semiautomatics), that's their prerogative," Virgilio said. But he said the city might run into problems.

The City Council lacks the power to regulate weapon sales because only the state and federal governments have such authority under recent court opinions--a point council members conceded when they rescinded the proposed handgun ban.

Even if such an attempt were upheld by the courts, criminals could either steal the weapons or buy them from stores outside the city.

"Anything that I sell can be bought at any other successful gun shop nearby," Virgilio said. The AK-47 . . . is a very popular gun."

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