Court Lets Stand Municipal Bans on Assault Rifles

Times Staff Writer

The state Supreme Court on Thursday refused to prevent Los Angeles and other California cities from enforcing recently enacted bans on the sale and possession of military-style assault weapons.

In a brief order signed by Chief Justice Malcolm M. Lucas, the court declined, at least for now, to hear arguments from gun owners opposed to the bans.

Instead, the high court directed that the cases be sent for review first by the state Court of Appeal here. The action allows the bans to remain in effect while the matter is before the appellate court.

There was no indication when the appellate court will rule on the cases. And, whatever the outcome, the matter could return to the high court on another appeal.


Validity of Bans

At issue is the validity of bans on semiautomatic weapons imposed in Los Angeles, Berkeley, Stockton and Santa Clara County. The bans were imposed in the wake of the fatal shootings of five children in Stockton by an assailant wielding an AK-47 assault rifle.

In suits challenging the ordinances, gun owners backed by the National Rifle Assn. contended that gun laws enacted by the state Legislature preempt local communities from enforcing their own restrictions on firearms.

The gun owners urged the high court to take jurisdiction in the matter directly, without waiting for review by lower courts, and issue an order blocking enforcement of the ordinances until the justices could decide their legality.

In response, attorneys for the city of Los Angeles and other municipalities argued that existing state controls on such weapons as machine guns or sawed-off shotguns did not prevent local communities from acting on their own against assault rifles.

‘Particularly Dangerous’

“Assault weapons are designed for warfare and combine certain attributes which make them particularly dangerous in an urban environment,” Los Angeles city attorneys said in a brief to the court. “They are used almost daily in Los Angeles in some effort to take human life.”

Since the ordinance went into effect in Los Angeles earlier this month, officials have notified commercial firearms sellers of its prohibitions and police are enforcing the measure as cases arise, according to Assistant City Atty. Byron R. Boeckman.


“There are not going to be any door-to-door, house-to-house searches,” Boeckman said. “If police find weapons in the ordinary course of an investigation, or in carrying out a search warrant, the ordinance would be enforced in that way.”

Meanwhile, the Legislature must yet reconcile two bills--one passed by the Assembly, one approved by the Senate--that would outlaw semiautomatic assault weapons throughout the state.

However, the effect of such legislation on local measures is still not clear.

Reginald D. Steer, a San Francisco attorney representing gun owners in the NRA-supported suits, said Thursday that statewide legislation would make clear that gun control is the exclusive province of the state and that local controls are illegal.


Boeckman, however, refused to concede the point. The Legislature has yet to agree on one bill, he noted, and legislation that is passed might not take effect until January.

In other action Thursday, the justices agreed to decide a case that could cost insurance companies millions of dollars and provide new tax revenue to California cities.

The court said it would review contentions by the city of Los Angeles that municipalities can impose business taxes on investment properties owned by insurers. The city has collected over $1 million in such revenue but last December a state Court of Appeal ruled that a provision of the state Constitution exempts insurers from the tax, even on property that they do not use in their businesses.