Friday, February 14, 2003
County, Gun Show Settle Suits Over Ouster From Fairplex
By ROBERT GREENE, Associate Editor
Los Angeles County will pay $1.6 million to settle two suits brought by the operators of a long-running gun show that the county kicked off its property in 1999, lawyers said yesterday.
Great Western Shows, Inc. will not try to bring back its gun show to the Fairplex at Pomona or any other county-owned property under the agreement, which was negotiated by county lawyers under authority given in December by the Board of Supervisors.
Senior Deputy County Counsel Judy Whitehurst said the settlement has been accepted by U.S. District Judge Margaret Morrow of the Central District of California and that Morrow is expected to dismiss the suit shortly.
The settlement was reached nearly a year after the state Supreme Court upheld the county’s right to pass laws banning sale of weapons and ammunition on its property. Having lost its state preemption claim, Great Western was preparing to move forward to trial in Morrow’s court on allegations that the ordinance violated its First Amendment rights.
Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who led a narrow board majority in efforts to adopt the ordinance, called the agreement “a victory for public safety and common sense.”
Making the payment was a simple business decision, he said.
“They had a very high-powered attorney challenging us,” Yaroslavsky said. “We’re better off having resolved this case. The bottom line is that the county is a safer place because this particular bazaar of weapons of all kinds is no longer in our midst.”
Michael Wright of the Century City firm of Case, Knowlson, Jordan & Wright, counsel for Great Western, said the size of the payment at a time of financial distress for local governments shows that “the county recognized that this ordinance had a lot of legal problems and was likely to be held unconstitutional.”
Yaroslavsky led efforts to adopt the gun show ban in the months that followed shootings by self-proclaimed racist Buford Furrow at a Jewish Community Center in the San Fernando Valley. Investigators said Furrow purchased his weapons at a gun show in the state of Washington.
Critics of the Great Western show, which ran annually at the county-owned Pomona fairgrounds, said the annual event provided an opportunity for people seeking weapons to enter into agreements for illegal sales and swaps. Even if all sales inside the fairgrounds followed all state and local laws, they argued, some used the shows to strike illegal deals that were consummated later, off county property.
After several weeks of bitter debates the Board of Supervisors approved the ordinance on a 3-2 vote.
Great Western Shows sued, and then-U.S. District Judge Richard Paez of the Central District of California enjoined enforcement on the state preemption claim pending trial.
The county appealed the injunction and the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments, then certified the case to the state high court on the question of whether state law preempts local gun sale bans on county land or tramples on the power of incorporated citiesó-in this case, Pomonaó-where the property sits.
Last April, the Supreme Court ruled for the county, and in a companion case found that a more stringent Alameda County ordinance banning gun possession on county property also is not preempted by state law.
Paez was subsequently elevated to the Ninth Circuit and the case was assigned to Morrow.
In a second suit, Great Western alleged that the county secretly granted rental credits of nearly $2 million to Fairplex, the company that operates the fairgrounds under contract with the county. Western alleged that the payments were part of an illegal interference with its business.
“That, too, played into this settlement,” Wright said. “That’s where the taxpayers’ money went in this.”
Yaroslavsky said the case stands for the proposition that the county has a right to determine what it can do with its own property. But more important, he said, was that “there is no question that lives have been saved and will be saved because of this.”
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company