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California

L.A. council supports exemption to ammunition law for retired, reserve police

Councilman Mitch Englander

Los Angeles City Councilman Mitch Englander listens at a council meeting on June 3, 2015. 

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

In a hotly contested move, Los Angeles lawmakers voted Wednesday to back an exemption that will allow some retired and reserve police officers to continue to possess firearm magazines that hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition — arguing that this would help protect the public from threats.

The Los Angeles City Council voted 11-4 in favor of the exemptions to a citywide ban on such ammunition magazines passed earlier this year. Council members Mike Bonin, Paul Koretz, Nury Martinez and David Ryu opposed the proposed exemptions.

The debate pitted the Los Angeles Police Department and the police union, a politically muscular group that has been an important player in local elections, against some of the gun-control activists who had championed the ban as a way to curb the carnage of mass shootings.

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It also stirred concerns for City Atty. Mike Feuer, who privately warned lawmakers earlier this year that exempting retired officers could create a legal risk for the city. Los Angeles already is being sued over the law by gun-rights groups and other critics.

The L.A. law, passed earlier this year, already exempted police and military on active duty, licensed firearms dealers and several other categories of gun owners.

Under the new exemptions, the rules also would be lifted for retired law enforcement officers who have permits to carry concealed weapons, as well as reserve officers who work for agencies that already authorize them to possess such gun magazines.

Police officials and their union argued that retired and reserve officers should be exempt so that they could be equipped to face down threats to public safety.

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“Having retired police officers who are trained — [in] many cases for 30 years or more — to be able to provide for public safety, to save lives, is something that the police department is absolutely in favor of,” LAPD Deputy Chief of Detectives Kirk Albanese told the council.

City Councilman Mitch Englander, who is an LAPD reserve officer, recounted incidents in which retired officers stopped robberies or other attacks. Councilman Mitch O’Farrell said it made no sense to bar police from using such ammunition magazines once they retired.

“I am of the firm belief that once a cop, always a cop,” O’Farrell said.

But Women Against Gun Violence, a gun-control group that backed the ammunition rules, said it was disappointed by the exemptions. Its executive director, Margot Bennett, said they wanted “actual evidence” that the rules should be lifted for retired and reserve officers.

If the goal is to help retired officers fend off attacks on the public, “I’m not sure there are many cases that you could point to where you absolutely needed to spray 20 or 30 bullets” to stop a threat, Councilman Koretz said before voting against the exemption.

“The danger is that retired police officers are not necessarily magically any different than anybody else” and could suffer depression or other problems after retiring, Koretz added.

Feuer, the city attorney, also warned lawmakers against the idea: In a confidential report to the council obtained by The Times earlier this year, he said exempting retired officers would pose “significant legal risk” because it would be hard to show that it was “rationally related to a legitimate state interest.” City lawyers said Wednesday that Feuer stood by his advice.

Englander said other attorneys had told him it was “absolutely false” that exempting retired officers would pose such a legal problem, and he has argued the changes are on solid ground.

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At the Wednesday meeting, Chief Assistant City Atty. David Michaelson said that city lawyers had included a “severability provision” that could allow the exemptions to be removed, if they were found unconstitutional, without jeopardizing the entire ordinance.

However, Michaelson cautioned that the city would have to convince a judge to do so and that Los Angeles could face legal costs for damages if the exemptions were challenged.

Englander emphasized that the exemptions would apply only to officers who were deemed “qualified” under state or federal laws. That would exclude retired officers who did not leave their police agencies in “good standing,” among other restrictions under federal law.

Because the exemptions were not unanimously approved Wednesday, they must undergo a second reading at City Hall before getting final approval. Once the exemptions are approved, Mayor Eric Garcetti is expected to sign off on them, his spokeswoman, Connie Llanos, said.

The City Hall debate over the exemptions occurred as reports emerged of a mass shooting in San Bernardino, news that Englander shared with the council just before their vote.

Months earlier, Los Angeles lawmakers thrust the city into the national debate over gun control by voting to ban firearm magazines that hold more than 10 rounds.

Backers of the ban said it could make gun rampages less deadly, by forcing an attacker to stop sooner to reload. Gun rights activists and other critics — including dozens of county sheriffs from elsewhere in California – have sued Los Angeles over the city ordinance, arguing that it is preempted by California law and adds to a confusing patchwork of local rules that gun owners must navigate when they travel.

Follow @latimesemily for what’s happening at Los Angeles City Hall.

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