LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles County sheriff reversed his own decision Tuesday to order deputies to make sure gun shops were closed during the coronavirus crisis after the county's top lawyer said the shops could be open.
Los Angeles, the nation’s largest county with 10 million residents, enacted a stay-at-home order last week that required all nonessential businesses to close to slow the spread of the virus.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva had said gun stores were not essential businesses and they had been selling to the public through a “loophole” allowing them to stay open, many attracting long lines of customers.
But the county order — and an executive order from Gov. Gavin Newsom — does not specifically mention gun shops, prompting the Los Angeles County counsel's office to issue a statement hours later on Tuesday saying it has “opined that gun stores qualify as essential businesses.”
A few hours after the counsel's statement, a spokesman for the sheriff's department said Villanueva has suspended efforts to close the shops. Deputy Ed Luna said the department is evaluating its next steps.
Guns Direct in Burbank has received conflicting information in recent days, according to manager Palmer Bailey. Burbank police previously told the store they were not considered to be essential business and then Tuesday said they could be open.
The sheriff's conflicting instructions complicated things further. Bailey said employees have been constantly posting new signs at the front of the business, only to tear them down with new ones.
“The roller coaster just keeps going,” he said, noting that the store has not ruled out legal action.
Villanueva said the order was meant to keep open gun and ammunition businesses that support police departments and other security organizations.
The stay-at-home order is not a license “for everyone to be panic gun-buying or rushing to stores, which is now what we're seeing," Villanueva said.
He said gun shops have complied and deputies have not had to issue any citations. The county's stay-at-home order was crafted by the health department and Villanueva had said he's working with the agency on new language.
FOXLA reported the sheriff's decisions first.
County Counsel Mary Wickham could not immediately be reached Tuesday evening for more details on the opinion that the stores could remain open.
The initial move by Villanueva to close the shops on Tuesday enraged Second Amendment advocates who said they planned to challenge it in court. The sheriff also said deputies would close strip clubs and nightclubs if they were open in the violation of the order.
Sam Paredes, executive director of Gun Owners of California, had said his organization was looking at legal action.
“There are far more important things that the sheriff can be doing than sending uniformed officers to gun stores telling them they’re going to be shut down by force,” Paredes said. “We’ve got lots of stories from people who said, ‘I’d never thought I’d own a firearm, and now I want them more than anything in the world.'"
In Northern California, a gun shop called Solar Tactical had initially refused to close despite an order to do so in Alameda County, sheriff's Sgt. Ray Kelley said Thursday.
“We’ll start out nice,” Kelley said. “Then we’ll post a notice to close and then we will take enforcement.”
The gun shop posted on Facebook a day later that it had closed. Calls to the store were not answered Tuesday.
Chuck Michel, an attorney for the National Rifle Association-affiliated California Rifle and Pistol Association, said the organization is trying to work with local authorities in California to keep gun stores open.
“They don’t just sell guns — they sell camping gear, survival gear, things that people may need,” he said. “Gun stores have been deemed to be essential in many, many jurisdictions, but unfortunately some of these jurisdictions are allowing politics to creep in.”
The FBI reported a slight decline in the number of firearms background checks from California in February, before the brunt of the coronavirus pandemic, from 96,567 in January to 95,430 last month.
The state Department of Justice, which does background checks and regulates sales of firearms and ammunition, said it doesn’t have updated statistics for March that can be publicly shared.
Nationally, orders deeming gun shops to be essential or nonessential vary.
In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf quietly allowed gun shops to reopen on a limited basis during the coronavirus pandemic after several justices of the state Supreme Court urged him to do so. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court had narrowly dismissed a gun shop's lawsuit that challenged Wolf’s authority to shutter businesses deemed “non-life-sustaining.”
In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy’s executive order does not explicitly list gun dealers. But the state's online service that processes background checks is not taking more requests and its website says licensed firearms dealers are not essential. A federal lawsuit has been filed challenging the order.
Thompson reported from Sacramento. Associated Press writers Juliet A. Williams in San Francisco and Michael Rubinkam in northeastern Pennsylvania contributed.