Los Angeles County residents, evidently alarmed by law enforcement’s problems in protecting them from violent crime, bought a record number of firearms in the wake of the recent riots, California Department of Justice officials said Thursday.
A tally of dealers’ sales records required by state law confirms the widely held perception that Californians in general, and Los Angeles-area residents in particular, have armed themselves as never before.
State Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren called it “a dangerous road for our society to travel.” Statewide, a record 58,311 dealer documents of gun sales were received in May by state officials--up 45.7% over the 40,001 received in May, 1991. Included in that total were a record 41,872 handgun sales--a figure that exceeds the previous single-month record of 38,040 set in March, 1981, when a ballot measure to restrict handgun sales was being considered.
Los Angeles County gun dealers filed about 14,125 handgun documents, an increase of 64.3% over the 8,594 filed in May, 1991.
On May 18, the Department of Justice received a single-day record of 5,167 applications from gun dealers.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” said Sheriff Sherman Block, recalling that people were lined up outside gun stores in mid-May to pick up guns purchased during the riots, which started April 29. During the unrest, ammunition sales were suspended by authorities. Gun sales were allowed to continue, but the 15-day waiting period required for all firearm purchases remained in effect.
“It reflects a high level of fear,” Block said. “People are wondering whether or not the system can provide for them the level of protection they need. “
In a press release, Lungren defended “the right of law-abiding citizens to legally possess certain firearms.” But, he added, “It is also true that an increasingly armed citizenry is a dangerous” development.
“It shows that some people had their confidence in law enforcement somewhat shaken by what happened down there,” Lungren said in an interview. " . . . We have to work harder to re-instill the confidence.
“You can have good schools, great parks, wonderful libraries, but if people are afraid to go to them, it doesn’t add a single bit to their quality of life.”
Block said that, given the current fiscal crisis, he is pessimistic about personnel increases for law enforcement, even though Los Angeles County has one of nation’s lowest ratios of police officers to population. Officials say the Los Angeles Police Department has 2.2 officers per 1,000 people in its jurisdiction, and the Sheriff’s Department has 1.9 officers per 1,000. By contrast, Willie L. Williams, poised to succeed Daryl F. Gates as chief of the LAPD, commanded 4.1 officers per 1,000 in Philadelphia.
Officials note that in addition to legally purchased guns, thousands of weapons were stolen by looters during the riots or illegally sold.
Advocates of stronger gun control laws contend that soaring gun sales, even to law-abiding people, inevitably will lead to more tragic accidental shootings, lethal domestic disputes and thefts that put the weapons in the hands of criminals.
Pam Pryor of the National Rifle Assn., which has steadfastly lobbied against gun control, said the figures underscore the need for people to attend firearm safety classes.
The upswing in gun sales adds to a vast arsenal held by the California public. During 1991 alone, California gun dealers sold 329,133 handguns and 160,300 rifles and shotguns.
Dealers are required by law to submit a record of sales to the Department of Justice with information on the applicant. During the 15-day waiting period, officials check files for criminal or mental health records that would prohibit prospective buyers from possessing weapons. Unless the dealer is notified that the sale should be denied, the weapon is released when the 15 days have elapsed.
In 1991, there were 5,859 instances in which guns were denied to prospective buyers. So far this year, 2,319 prospective weapon purchases have been canceled, officials said.