By Emily Alpert Reyes
Defying sharp warnings from gun rights groups, Los Angeles thrust itself into the national debate over gun control Tuesday, as city lawmakers voted unanimously to ban the possession of firearm magazines that hold more than 10 rounds.
Such magazines have been "the common thread" in almost all the mass shootings that have devastated the country, from Newtown to Virginia Tech to Columbine, said Juliet Leftwich, legal director for the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Backers of the plan said it was a small but meaningful step to minimize the bloodshed, by forcing attackers to at least interrupt their rampages to stop and reload.
The National Rifle Assn. and other gun rights groups have threatened to sue over Los Angeles' new rules, arguing that they violate the 2nd Amendment and are preempted by existing state law.
In reaction, Councilman Paul Krekorian declared before a cheering crowd outside City Hall, "If the NRA wants to sue us over this, bring it on."
Mayor Eric Garcetti said he was eager to sign the L.A. measure, which passed 12-0 with three council members absent. Even as city officials celebrated the newly passed restrictions, some gun control activists were dismayed to hear about a proposal to exempt retired police officers from the rules -- an 11th-hour change sought by the union that represents Los Angeles police.
California law already generally bans the manufacturing of such large-capacity magazines, as well as offering them for sale or bringing them into the state. But state law does not prohibit people from possessing them, which Krekorian and others argued is a "loophole" that jeopardizes public safety.
"People who want to defend their families don't need a 100-round drum magazine and an automatic weapon to do it," said Krekorian, who championed the ban at a rally Tuesday outside City Hall. But if someone wanted to do harm, Krekorian added, "imagine what a gunman on this sidewalk could do with that kind of firepower with a crowd like this."
Los Angeles lawmakers first sought to draft such rules more than two years ago. Survivors of gun violence lamented that it had taken so long for the council to press forward with the ban and urged lawmakers to act. Among them were Ruett and Rhonda Foster, whose 7-year-old son, Evan, was killed 18 years ago when a gunman fired scores of bullets at a local park, peppering their car with more than a dozen shots.
If their attacker could not fire so many bullets before reloading, "Evan might still be here today," Ruett Foster told the council on Tuesday.
Gun rights groups argued the law violates the rights of citizens to protect themselves. Ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 rounds "are in common use for self defense and they are overwhelmingly chosen for that purpose," said Anna M. Barvir, an attorney with Michel & Associates, which represents the NRA and the California Rifle & Pistol Assn.
"Indeed, millions are in the hands of good American citizens. As such, they are fully protected by the Constitution," Barvir said in a statement.
At the Tuesday hearing, the CalGuns Shooting Sports Assn. also raised concerns. "I don't think it's going to have any effect on gun violence," said the association's director, Chad Cheung, pointing out that people in neighboring cities such as Burbank or Glendale could still possess the magazines.
"Bad people are going to do bad things, and they'll do it regardless of whatever laws are in place," Cheung said.
The Los Angeles ordinance is modeled on rules adopted in San Francisco and Sunnyvale that have so far survived legal challenges. Leftwich, from the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, assured the council it was on "firm legal ground." But Barvir, whose firm represents gun rights groups, said the legal battles are not over and clients are considering litigation over the L.A. rules.
The new ordinance gives Angelenos who own such magazines 60 days to remove, surrender or legally sell or transfer them after it goes into effect. Breaking the law would be a misdemeanor. Garcetti has 10 days to sign the measure, which would take effect a little more than a month later.
The Los Angeles rules exempt, among others, police and military gun owners, licensed firearm dealers, and people who obtained guns before January 1, 2000, that can only be used with such magazines. At the Tuesday meeting, Councilman Mitch Englander also proposed an exemption for any retired police officer who holds a valid, current permit to carry a concealed weapon. Englander said in a written statement that the police union "recently requested a balanced approach to protect police officers in this ordinance."
Peter Repovich, director of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, said it was important for police -- including retirees -- to be prepared to meet any threat to public safety. "They're additional eyes and ears out there," Repovich said.
The council voted narrowly to ask city lawyers to draft such an amendment, which is expected to return to the council for debate and a vote next week. Four council members -- Paul Koretz, Nury Martinez, David Ryu and Marqueece Harris-Dawson -- voted against drafting the amendment. Koretz said he didn't see "an overwhelming reason" to exempt retired officers, who he said "could occasionally be prone to the same problems we're trying to avoid." Eight council members voted in favor, the minimum needed to advance the proposal.
"If the City Council allows this exemption, none of us are going to be happy," said Women Against Gun Violence Executive Director Margot Bennett.
Exempting retired officers from the rules tugs the left-leaning council between gun control groups staunchly opposed to excluding more Angelenos and the politically muscular police union, which has made more than $34,000 in campaign contributions to city candidates and elected officials since 2010.
The police union has also pushed for retired officers to be exempt from another proposed ordinance that would require Angelenos to lock up handguns or disable them with trigger locks when they are not being used at home, a measure meant to prevent deadly accidents. Repovich said retired officers needed to be able to respond swiftly to threats and had undergone extensive training on handling their weapons.
Krekorian and several other lawmakers have balked at the idea of excluding retired officers from those storage rules, which are expected to come back before lawmakers for a vote next week. However, Krekorian said he supported exempting retired officers from the large-capacity magazine ban because it wouldn't pose a similar risk to the public.
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