LOS ANGELES -- Spurred by public fears after the worst rioting in Los Angeles history, handgun sales in California are on a pace to set the highest one-month total since records were first compiled in 1972, a state Justice Department official said yesterday.
Gun sales numbered 16,000 in California for an eight-day period immediately following the rioting, compared with 10,500 for the same eight days in 1991, said Shelley Rife, a manager in the department's firearms program. Handguns were especially popular, accounting for 11,300 of the 16,000 total sales, she said.
At the current rate, the volume could threaten the single-month record of 38,040 handgun sales set in March 1981, when a state ballot measure was being proposed to severely restrict the sale of handguns, Ms. Rife said.
Although the state Justice Department has yet to compile post-riot figures for Los Angeles, the sharp upsurge is being attributed largely to public concern over the looting, burning and bloodshed that followed the April 29 not-guilty verdicts in the Rodney King beating case.
"Handgun sales are real susceptible to these types of events," Ms. Rife said, likening the boom to previous sales peaks after incidents such as the 1989 Stockton schoolyard slayings, in which five students were killed and 29 others wounded by a drifter wielding a semiautomatic rifle.
Gun shops in Los Angeles, where an edgy public feared further outbreaks of rioting as National Guard troops were withdrawn from the streets, reported sales increases of 50 percent to 500 percent in the first few days of May. Some shop managers said they were having difficulty keeping popular handguns, rifles and shotguns in stock.
"They're buying everything from shotguns to 9mms.," said Jeff Daquila, manager of a store in the San Pedro harbor area, where gun sales were three or four times higher than normal. "It's scary. . . . They're buying guns they're going to carry on them. A lot of people are scared; now they're going to defend themselves. Some of these people have never held [a gun] or even seen a gun up close."
Tom Robertson, 30, a construction superintendent from Torrance, typified the attitude of many buyers as he shopped for a .45-caliber handgun in the $400 to $500 range. At a combination gun shop and firing range where a television showed Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates explaining why officers failed to prevent the deadly outbreak of violence, Mr. Robertson spoke angrily about gangs "taking over" the city.
"I definitely think every man has to protect himself," Mr. Robertson said, while behind a glass wall a dozen men and women fired at paper targets. "If they come down to my neighborhood, I'm going to protect myself, protect my street," he vowed. "It's ridiculous. . . . At this point, I do feel the gangs have control of the neighborhoods."