As Los Angeles City Council members recently debated a proposal to keep guns away from certain criminals, the measure’s author, public safety committee chairman Jack Weiss, called on the Police Department for an example of why the law was needed.
An LAPD detective laid out a “major” recent case -- that of a Simi Valley man, Wayne William Wright. After he was arrested for allegedly selling an illegal firearm, police seized more than 400 guns from Wright. Now his lawyer was trying to get them back.
What Weiss did not mention was that Wright was the client of his opponent in the city attorney’s race, defense attorney Carmen Trutanich, and soon would be featured in Weiss’ campaign commercials.
In their next face-to-face meeting, Weiss accused Trutanich of representing “a one-man armory” and trying “to get hundreds and hundreds of his illegal guns, semiautomatics, handguns, returned to him so he could get them back on the streets.”
In rebuttal, Trutanich told the audience that Wright was a Vietnam War veteran and former law enforcement helicopter pilot who had failed to register his assault weapon.
Explaining why he wanted Wright to get his guns back, Trutanich told a vignette intended to tug at the heartstrings. It was Wright’s custom, he said, to meet the planes carrying dead soldiers back from Iraq and to fire a weapon “in salute” at their grave sites. “I’m proud of what I did,” Trutanich said.
The Wright case was just the latest tangle between the Westside councilman and the San Pedro defense attorney over gun issues in the bitterly fought city attorney’s race, which will be decided in a runoff May 19.
Though Weiss says he began developing his “prohibited [gun] possessor” legislation long before he learned of Trutanich’s involvement in the Wright case and a similar case in Los Angeles County, it bolstered the Trutanich campaign’s argument that Weiss uses his chairmanship to advance his political goals.
For Trutanich, it underscored the difficulties of jumping into the political sphere from a small boutique law firm, whose clients include the National Rifle Assn. and California Rifle and Pistol Assn.
Trutanich said he has never represented the NRA “or any other gun entity like a club or CRPA,” and says he disagrees with many of the organization’s positions.
But some of the casework of his law partner, 2nd Amendment and NRA attorney C.D. “Chuck” Michel, has provided rich targets for Weiss, whose proposed gun ordinances have been questioned by Michel on Trutanich-Michel LLP letterhead.
When asked whether he had used his office to advance his political aspirations, Weiss said he got into the race “to fight the NRA tooth and nail, to fight the gun industry, and they won’t scare me and they’re not going to scare the city.”
Trutanich, a former gang prosecutor who often tells audiences he was shot at while investigating a murder case in the 1980s, questioned why organizations such as the Los Angeles Police Protective League, as well as the Los Angeles County sheriff and district attorney, would have endorsed him if he intended to unravel the city’s gun laws.
“I promise to keep people safer in this city,” Trutanich said. “My gun policy is -- if it’s a law, it’s going to get enforced.”
‘Hired gun’ ad
There is no question, however, that the gun-rights work of Trutanich’s law firm has clouded, to a degree, his run for city attorney.
On top of the ads mentioning Wright’s cache of guns, a union supporting Weiss sent a mailer this week with a close-up of a gun barrel beneath type that misleadingly called Trutanich the NRA’s “hired gun.”
Weiss has repeatedly made that same argument -- stating there should be no distinction between Michel and Trutanich’s clients since they share the profits of the law firm.
In a brief interview, Michel said Weiss has mischaracterized the kinds of clients that he represents: “These are not gangbangers,” Michel said. “They’re police, fireman, veterans, the people with no criminal record, who because of the complexity of California’s firearm laws have accidentally broken one, typically just by possessing something that became illegal without them knowing that the law had changed.”
Trutanich frequently states that he is not “a gun guy” and that he disagrees with positions articulated by his partner. Among them: Trutanich supports the 1989 California assault weapons ban while Michel represented a group of gun collectors and a gun manufacturer who unsuccessfully challenged the law, arguing that it ensnared unwitting owners by creating confusion over which weapons were illegal.
Trutanich’s “position is contrary to all of Chuck Michel’s positions,” said Trutanich’s campaign consultant, John Shallman said.
Over the years, Michel has become well known in California legal circles for his challenges to local ordinances on behalf of the NRA and California Rifle and Pistol Assn.
California has some of the strongest gun laws in the nation, but by filing numerous lawsuits against cities and counties, Julie Leftwich, legal director of the San Francisco-based Legal Community Against Violence, said Michel “has aggressively fought to thwart local efforts to adopt laws to reduce gun violence.”
By threatening lawsuits when governments are considering adopting gun laws, Leftwich said Michel and the NRA have had a “chilling effect.”
Before the Trutanich- Michel firm was formed in 1998, Michel unsuccessfully sued West Hollywood after it became the first city in the state to ban Saturday night specials.
More recently, on behalf of the NRA, Michel successfully challenged a 2005 San Francisco initiative banning the possession of handguns by residents and the sale and manufacture of firearms and ammunition.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who encountered Michel when the lawyer challenged a policy banning the sale of weapons on county property, said, “If there’s an issue relating to gun legislation that comes up in Southern California, the odds are he’s going be involved on the gun owners’ side.”
Over the last year, Weiss has made campaign props of letters Michel sent to council members challenging the validity of proposed and standing Los Angeles gun ordinances.
One was a “pre-litigation” demand on behalf of several gun groups challenging the city’s ban on the sale of “ultracompact” weapons, which Michel said discriminates against women and disabled gun users who need smaller guns for self-defense.
Another was a December memo analyzing several proposed Weiss gun ordinances, which Michel called “naive, and ineffective public policy.” Michel argued that Weiss aides were “milking” hearings for “all the free campaign publicity they can get,” and “smearing my partner in the campaign as being associated with the NRA.”
Local gun laws
On the council, Weiss has won approval of six measures and proposed others -- a number of which were modeled after the laws of other cities. When Weiss’ package of four ordinances passed in December, Trutanich questioned the timing, stating that over his eight years on the council “Weiss has spent more time chasing cameras and campaign contributors than criminals.”
UCLA law professor Adam Winkler, who teaches a course on the right to bear arms, characterized the package of four Weiss ordinances as “good policies,” but predicted they would not “have a huge effect on gun crime.”
“Local gun control,” Winkler said, “is primarily a symbolic way for elected officials to show that they’re doing something -- anything -- to stop crime.”