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UNDER FIRE: GUNS IN LOS ANGELES COUNTY : Proliferation of Guns May Be Bloody Legacy of Riots : Violence: Thousands of weapons were stolen as stores were systematically looted. Also, merchants and residents are arming themselves for protection.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As many as 1,700 guns were stockpiled for sale inside the Western Surplus store on South Western Avenue when rioting broke out last month. Within hours, suspected gang members broke in and carted off every last one of them--plus ammunition.

Outside the riot-damaged areas, fearful residents crowded into gun stores, clamoring for firearms and buying the only ones immediately available--surplus rifles from World War II.

Inside ravaged neighborhoods, the vast majority of shooting victims were killed not by police officers or soldiers--as in the 1965 Watts riots--but by gun-toting rioters.

Burning and beatings may have produced the most indelible images during the riots of 1992, but bullets accounted for the greatest human wreckage.

And it is gun-related violence, authorities believe, that promises to endure as a bloody legacy to the riots: Dozens of pawnshops and other businesses stocked with firearms were systematically looted during the first few hours of unrest, putting thousands of guns in the hands of criminals.

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Within days, guns were turning up on the black market. Suspected gang members were offering stolen pistols for sale at Skid Row hotels in downtown Los Angeles, residents said. Nearby, amid grocery shoppers at the Grand Central Market, a well-dressed man discreetly peddled a semiautomatic handgun for $10.

There was no shortage of guns and gunfire in Los Angeles County before the riots. While at least 40 people were shot to death during the unrest, nearly three times that number were gunned down in March, coroner’s records show.

But with thousands of additional guns now on the streets, some authorities believe, the gunfire could escalate. Sniper attacks on police officers have increased dramatically in the past two weeks, authorities say, and many are taking seriously intelligence reports that gang members with enlarged arsenals plan to wage war on officers after National Guard troops leave the city.

“Rumors about killing cops are nothing new,” said Cmdr. Robert S. Gil, a Los Angeles police spokesman, “but this does give us pause, especially when you consider the theft of hundreds of weapons.”

Guns were never so visible in modern-day Los Angeles as they were during the riots.

Scattered looters with handguns roamed downtown on the first night of violence, firing at random--or at anything that got in their way. Vigilantes nervously clutched pistols while patrolling the perimeters of apartment houses in Hollywood. Armed merchants in Koreatown and South Los Angeles barricaded themselves behind makeshift fortifications or manned rooftops to take aim at would-be thieves and arsonists.

A Times Poll found that 9% of adults in Los Angeles--including 31% of gun owners--carried a firearm during the riots.

Norm Simples was among those who came to value a good gun in bad times.

Throughout much of the rioting, he and a handful of his employees used hunting rifles, shotguns and pistols to defend their mini-mall at Vermont and Manchester avenues. They expended more than 250 rounds of ammunition, firing into the air to deter marauders, he said.

“Look around,” Simples said, pointing to the charred remnants of buildings across Vermont Avenue. “We were the only ones that didn’t get burned.”

Only after troops ordered them out of the area, Simples said, was there any looting of his property.

Other gun owners, including retired dentist Nicholas Zrinyi, 75, found comfort in keeping a firearm within reach during the unrest. Zrinyi, who lives near Inglewood and could see smoke and fire from his house, said he unlocked his pistol on the second day of rioting and kept it on his bedroom night stand until the riots ended.

The last time he took out a gun, he said, was during the Watts riots.

“I don’t think anything would’ve happened in this neighborhood,” Zrinyi said, “but you never know.”

Having a gun, however, did not always ensure safety.

Northern California businessman Howard Epstein flew to Los Angeles on the second day of violence to check on his machine shop near 7th and Slauson avenues. Driving in from the airport, he was shot to death and his car looted. Police discovered a holster on Epstein’s belt, leading to speculation among detectives that he may have driven into trouble, drawn a gun to scare away would-be assailants and was shot.

Including Epstein, at least 40 of the more than 50 people whose deaths have been linked to the riots were killed by gunshots.

More than three-quarters of the victims were slain by someone other than the police or military. The opposite was true during the Watts riots, in which soldiers and officers were responsible for 23 of 31 shooting deaths.

In the months after the Watts riots, authorities recovered 851 guns and concluded that “a substantial number” had been taken from pawnshops that were among the first businesses targeted by looters.

History repeated itself in the 1992 riots. Of 10 pawnshops randomly checked by The Times in South Los Angeles and Koreatown, every one had been looted. As of Friday, police officers in the riot zones had recovered 305 guns--most of them stolen or used during the unrest. Roughly the same number had been recovered in the three months preceding the riots.

At Westside Loan, a pawn brokerage on West Jefferson Boulevard, looters pried off steel security bars to gain entry and used a blowtorch to peel open a floor safe that was crammed with pistols and revolvers. Owner Joel Mendelsohn estimated that he lost at least 1,500 handguns, rifles and shotguns--although the actual number, he said, easily could be twice that.

The shop was also looted during the Watts riots but gun losses were minimal then, Mendelsohn said, because the police secured the neighborhood more quickly.

“This time was (more) dangerous,” Mendelsohn said. “You’re dealing with people without consciences.”

One of Mendelsohn’s employees, Robert Jordan, 72, said he sat outside the shop and watched as looters--many of them dressed like gang members--parked trucks outside the back door and loaded up while a liquor store burned next door. Police officers watched from an intersection, Jordan said, but took no action.

About 2:30 a.m., Mendelsohn joined Jordan at the store, handed him a .45-caliber pistol and the two men barged in through the back door, guns blazing. As they intentionally fired into the floor, Jordan said, eight or more looters fled the shop.

Jordan later caught a looter who tried to climb back inside.

“You wouldn’t think,” Jordan said, “that anything like this could happen in America.”

Farther south, workers at the Western Surplus store on Western and Manchester received a call from Los Angeles police within minutes after the verdicts in the Rodney G. King beating case, asking that they immediately suspend all gun and ammunition sales, according to a store employee. The store complied.

About 6 p.m., with the streets turning ugly, a handful of youths came in, “told us that trouble had started” and suggested that “it would be in the best interest if we closed and got out,” the employee said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The workers locked up and left. By 8 p.m., according to neighborhood sources, members of a Crips gang broke in and kept other looters out until the surplus store was stripped of guns.

Between 700 and 1,700 firearms were taken, according to a store estimate provided to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

“It was a professional job,” the employee said.

Looters repeatedly tried to break into another Western Surplus store on Hawthorne Boulevard in Hawthorne but were deterred by Hawthorne police. As other businesses were looted across the street, Hawthorne officers stood guard while Western Surplus employees frantically removed all of the guns.

In North Hollywood, Bob Kahn, co-owner of B & B gun shop, said he was faced with unrest of a different sort on the second day of rioting. More than 100 customers were inside the shop when Kahn announced that Mayor Tom Bradley had imposed a temporary ban on the sale of ammunition, which remains in effect citywide.

“We almost had a riot,” Kahn said. Dozens of his customers, he said, promptly drove to Orange County, where there were no restrictions on ammunition sales.

Despite a California law that imposes a 15-day waiting period on most gun purchases, Kahn said some of his customers were able to buy high-powered rifles they could take immediately.

The waiting period is intended to give state officials time to check arrest records and prevent criminals from buying guns. The wait does not apply to the sale of rifles and shotguns at least 50 years old, which are deemed curios and relics.

During the height of the riots, Kahn sold military surplus rifles from World War II.

“People will buy anything because they’re frightened,” Kahn said. “They’re not going to be caught defenseless again.”


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