Sheriff Alex Villanueva said Wednesday he has the authority to force gun stores to close – or to modify how they operate – if they are creating a threat to public safety amid the growing coronavirus outbreak.
The Los Angeles County’s sheriff stance contradicted an order from the top attorney for the L.A. County Board of Supervisors that gun stores, with Villanueva saying he could ask them shutter or require them to change how they do business.
The sheriff had expressed concern last week that panic gun buying during the crisis could make county residents less safe. On Wednesday, he also said he was concerned the long lines at gun stores were acting as vectors for exposing more people to the coronavirus.
Whether sheriff’s deputies will go out to gun stores and asking them to close, however, was not clear.
Villanueva also said the Sheriff’s Department would not “restrict people’s Second Amendment rights in any form or fashion.”
He intended to lay out a plan on Thursday. Sheriff’s officials were talking with the county’s municipal police chiefs to see how they could enforce such an order.
“We have panic gun buying,” the sheriff said during a Wednesday press conference. “We have to mediate between what is a need for arming (and) the proper process you have to go through to obtain a proper license.”
He said any gun store still open must follow “social distancing” requirements set by the L.A. County Department of Public Health.
At around the same time that Villanueva spoke Wednesday, Gov. Gaven Newsom gave his daily COVID-19 update. When asked his opinion on whether local sheriffs could enforce closing down businesses during the pandemic, the governor said he would “defer to the sheriff.”
Thank you Governor @GavinNewsom for confirming what we believed was the case, that the Sheriff has the authority to enforce his executive order and keep the public safe during this pandemic. #FlattenTheCurve, #COVID19 pic.twitter.com/ap8wOpWZS1
— Alex Villanueva (@LACoSheriff) March 25, 2020
Some gun store owners across Los Angeles County have said most of the customers showing up have been first-time gun buyers. Owners contacted Tuesday by the Souhern California News Group said if they were still selling guns, they were informing new customers about requirements such as the state’s 10-day waiting period for gun purchases.
Most stores have now closed, it seeems, with owners fearful about spreading the coronavirus to themselves or their employees.
Some stores are only selling guns online, either delivering them or allowing customers to pick them up.
Still, the sheriff said Tuesday that stations were getting complaints of gun stores that were still operating. He mentioned other businesses – strip clubs, night clubs and bars – that have also generated complaints.
Both the Sheriff’s Department and large city police agencies including the Los Angeles Police Department have said they’re not seeking to immediately cite businesses that are open. They’re hoping for voluntary compliance.
County supervisors have tried to reign in Villanueva after he made his intention known about intending to close what he deemed as non-essential businesses. The county’s counsel, Mary Wickham, said in a statement Tuesday that the county considered gun shops as “essential” businesses during the state-at-home orders.
The haggling over what constitutes a non-essential business continues a spat between Villanueva and county officials that has dragged on for most of his time as sheriff.
The five-member board, which has few official powers over the elected sheriff but controls his department’s purse strings, has sought to reign in Villanueva by giving itself subpoena power over the sheriff’s records. Voters overwhelmingly backed Measure R, which in addition gives a civilian oversight panel similar subpoena powers.
On Wednesday, however, Supervisor Kathryn Barger’s office, when asked about Villanueva’s new order, said it now was referring questions about gun shops to the Sheriff’s Department.