The battle to outlaw military-style assault weapons in Los Angeles was handed from politicians to police officers Wednesday, as the Police Department officially began enforcing a ban on the weapons enacted by the City Council three weeks ago.
The emergency ordinance, which attracted nationwide publicity as the first attempt by a major U.S. city to crack down on the weapons, got off to a quiet first day on the books. By the end of the workday, no arrests or seizures had been reported.
“We’re going about this just the way we would enforcing any other law on the books,” said LAPD spokesman Bill Frio. “We are not doing anything different at all.”
The ordinance applies to a variety of so-called assault weapons. In order to comply, citizens have three options: turn in their weapons to police, render them permanently inoperable, or move them outside the city limits. Violation is a misdemeanor offense, subject to a $1,000 fine and six months in jail.
The ordinance was passed unanimously Feb. 7 and enacted in two installments. Sale of the weapons has been illegal since the measure was approved. In a court-negotiated concession to gun merchants, possession of the weapons did not become illegal until Wednesday.
Nonetheless, officers said 89 city residents already have turned in semiautomatic weapons to Los Angeles police. The latest gun control flurry followed a Jan. 17 incident in which a gunman killed five Stockton schoolchildren with an AK-47 assault rifle.
Police said they are giving receipts to those who have turned in the guns so they can be retrieved if the Supreme Court strikes down the law, which along with a succession of other local gun laws has come under legal challenge from the National Rifle Assn.
The law applies to semiautomatic assault weapons, center-fire rifles, carbines that accept detachable magazines with a capacity of 20 rounds or more and shotguns with barrels of 18 inches or less and a capacity of more than six rounds.
Proprietors of gun stores, owners of the weapons and some officials stressed Wednesday that most owners of the guns probably are not complying with the law. No one keeps statistics on how many such weapons there are in the city. However, officials and gun-owner representatives estimated Wednesday that there are tens of thousands.
“There’s no way to enforce the ban,” said Semuel Libunae, 25, a customer who was inspecting semiautomatic assault rifles at a gun shop Wednesday in Glendale, where sale of the weapons is still legal. Libunae said he once was in a gang whose members routinely bought such assault rifles illegally.
“You just gotta play, ‘Don’t get caught by the cops, I guess,’ ” he said.
A survey of half a dozen gun store owners both in and outside the city indicated that several had heard customers say they planned to store their assault rifles outside Los Angeles city limits, or, in some cases, simply keep them hidden.
“They’ll pack them away,” said Steve Cotter, co-owner of Hilldale Gun Sales in Simi Valley. Cotter said his sales of the weapons has soared since the ban took effect in Los Angeles. He said he sold “thousands” of such guns a year, even before the ban.
City officials stressed there are no plans to try to track down people who bought such weapons legally.
“We won’t be going door to door,” said Byron Boeckman, the assistant city attorney who is advising the Police Department on enforcement of the law.
“These weapons are like any other contraband. If an officer observes a weapon in a public place, he can seize it. He can make an arrest for violation of the municipal code. If he finds it in the course of an otherwise permitted search . . . he can make a seizure and an arrest.”
“I’d wonder if they’re going to issue little pry bars, maybe 3, 4 inches long,” said Jim Nalley, a veteran compliance officer for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which enforces federal laws. “Remember the bumper sticker from a few years ago that said something like, ‘If you want my gun, you’ll have to pry it from my cold dead fingers’?”
Said City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, principal sponsor of the ordinance: “No one is arguing our law is going to eliminate these weapons from our community. But to reduce their volume and availability is one of our goals. If just one life is saved . . . then this law will have been worthwhile.”
The National Rifle Assn. said it has been receiving as many as 1,200 calls a day about the city’s law, roughly a dozen other municipal bans, and about proposed legislation that could outlaw such weapons throughout the state.
“When people call,” said NRA spokesman Pam Pryor in Sacramento, “we simply tell them to obey the law. And let them know that we continue to believe it is unconstitutional and will be struck down.”