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The Guns of Autumn 

Getting the county out of the arms trade

Wednesday, Aug 25 1999
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Photo by Ted Soqui

The summer is slowly ebbing away. In another time and place, the leaves would already be turning amber and our thoughts would be turning to hunting. This was the great American pastime centuries before Abner Doubleday ever pitched a ball. And now, many decades after I last participated, I can still recall rituals like handing a broken-open shotgun to my partner as I crossed a fence. Or the rushing sound of birds taking off in a field of dried cornstalks.

I know that somewhere people still hunt, but where most people reside now, in the urbs and the suburbs, the ideas of guns and sports seldom converge. Much of what used to be hunting land is now where we live. But also, somewhere halfway through my life, I think this country changed its mind about guns.

When I was younger, guns were mostly about shooting targets and bagging meat. This tradition had its macho aspect, which many still find repellent. Or inspiring: I recall my brother’s enthusing about the blood smear a companion striped on his forehead after he killed his first deer. Take it or leave it: Guns were for target practice or hunting; hunting was a seasonal ritual; and a tall, hardwood case of long guns was considered tasteful décor in the den or living room. Guns were glamorous appliances to put meat on the table and to show the community your (male) wilderness prowess. And on the covers of the gun consumers’ magazines you mainly saw costly sporting weapons — bolt-action rifles and Belgian shotguns, hand-inlaid with silver hunting landscapes.

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Nowadays, however, the same magazine covers feature guns for killing people, not game. It is easy to infer from current gun literature that much of the gun-owning community sees itself as besieged by shadowy hostiles. The modern gun world’s consumer magazines usually focus on handguns — ugly embodiments of death that are, with advancing metallurgy and ballistics, more lethal than the hunting guns of my childhood. Cover-girl shotguns tend to be the little man-killers some cops call "alley cleaners." The rifles are either sniper specials, variants on the eternal assault-gun theme, or some combination of the two. Perfect for Sarajevo’s Sniper Alley — but you wouldn’t want them in antelope country. Indeed, most new show weapons seem intended for use against such targets as the imaginary myrmidons of the Zionist Occupation Government, who apparently so vex the members of Christian Identity movement and their fellow travelers — like Buford Furrow.

According to reports, Furrow didn’t obtain the guns he used at a gun show. But one of the handguns used in the Littleton high school massacre was purchased at a show. So were the weapons used at that North Hollywood Bank of America shootout a couple of years ago. These gun shows, by dint of their informality and frequent absence of the usual background-check precautions, have become a choice site for the purchase of lethal weapons by individuals who would rather not be spotlit with legal scrutiny. Thanks to the hiatus in federal regulations for which the gun industry and the NRA lobbied, it is often easier for persons with criminal records — or intentions — to buy guns at gun shows than at any other legal venue.

Which brings us around to the L.A. County Fairgrounds in Pomona — the frequent host to what its promoters call the largest gun show in the world. The show has paid L.A. County, which owns the fairgrounds, around $600,000 a year — not exactly hay, even in a $15 billion annual budget — to use its facilities to mount the nation’s biggest gun shows.

Last month, state and federal agents mounting a sting operation managed to get a dealer at the show to sell them a light battlefield weapon called a Browning Automatic Rifle, and kits and parts sufficient to assemble 10 World War II Sten submachine guns, each capable of firing more than 500 rounds a minute. The resulting arrest focused sudden and overdue attention on the gun shows.

On Tuesday, a majority of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors — that is, Zev Yaroslavsky, Yvonne Burke and Gloria Molina — voted to get the county out of the gun biz. If the new ordinance is approved again next Tuesday (ordinances must be voted on twice), gun shows will be banned from all county property, the fairgrounds included, by early October.

According to a recent New York Times report, there are 2,000 gun shows a year in the U.S., attracting more than 5 million people. Originally, the shows were for amateurs, who were (and are) allowed to sell and swap weapons in their personal collections without the usual legal oversight. But the number of shows and attendees has been rising steadily ever since the NRA-supported 1986 Firearms Owners’ Protection Act allowed professional gun dealers to join the fun. That’s perhaps why one national anti-gun group called the shows "Tupperware parties for criminals."

Now, 5 million is a lot of people, most of whom, you may well surmise, aren’t lawbreakers. (Although they certainly do buy a whole lot of Confederate and Nazi regalia.) And the Pomona show’s managers have claimed that their operation is clean and further noted that the illicit Sten sales were completed elsewhere. They have threatened to sue the county for keeping them from plying their weapons trade on county property.

But the L.A. County Sten-gun incident was far from unique. Gun shows, with their diminished controls, remain the choice locale at which to purchase otherwise-regulated assault weapons. Undercover officers in Detroit and Chicago, sometimes claiming to be felons unable to purchase guns legally, reportedly have bought guns from a number of gun-show vendors. The New York Times article alleged that there was a pattern to this abuse, with some sellers expressing personal contempt for the law that would keep guns out of the hands of lawbreakers.

By shutting down the Fairplex gun shows, the county supervisors aren’t exactly bucking a trend. While the gun lobby usually demonizes the federal bureaucracy as its prime oppressor, most of the recent government action against unlawful firearms has been state and local. Two major state anti-gun bills have already been signed into law by Governor Davis; two more are pending. Here in L.A., City Attorney Jim Hahn has been bringing legal action against the manufacturers of the cheap handguns so popular on the streets. City Councilman Mike Feuer has introduced a motion proposing a law that would establish a commission to study placing personalized security devices on most new handguns — this in addition to state-proposed childproof locks. Both Sheriff Lee Baca and LAPD Chief Bernie Parks — the two highest-profile lawmen in the western U.S. — have voiced their opposition to the availability of high-lethality weapons in the urban environment and, more recently, to the county show itself. "Los Angeles is no longer a frontier county," Baca said.

Nationally, nearly two dozen municipalities, ranging from Compton to Chicago, have sued the gun industry for various causes of action. Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago has explained that the cities turned to lawsuits "out of frustration with the federal government." (Los Angeles County is also in the process of filing such an action.)

The feds remain shackled by the Reagan-era gun owners’ act, which limited inspection of dealers, cut the penalties for faking sales records and raised the burden of proof for prosecutors. It is interesting that many local sting operations have been able to use federal firearms records against erring dealers —records of illicit transactions that the feds themselves were unable to take advantage of under current law.

The turning tide of anti-gun legislation may in part be due to a strategic blunder by the NRA: In recent years, it’s sighted its big lobbying guns on Washington, leaving its local flanks uncovered. But local government is supposed to be the most responsive government. Now it is responding to a changed public sentiment, clearly running against firearms proliferation, that itself responds to some important numbers. Like 36,000 gunshot deaths a year, another 100,000 woundings, a billion-dollar-plus cost in related medical bills to taxpayers. That’s a big cost for the public to be paying for a proliferation of deadly guns.

And the public is even more acutely aware that, with the current level of gun saturation, we — and our children and grandchildren — are constantly at hazard. In the end, this is why local governments all over the country are trying to hang up the gun.

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