Associated Press

For the second time this week, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has ordered gun shops to close, a move that challenges the county legal counsel’s finding that the stores are essential businesses that should remain open during the coronavirus crisis.

Los Angeles County, the nation’s most populous 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.

On Tuesday, Villanueva ordered the shops closed. Panic-buying that produced long lines at the shops was worrisome from a public safety standpoint, he said.

Soon after that, the county counsel and the health department said the shops are among those considered essential under the county’s stay-at-home order that closed many businesses and urged all residents to stay home as much as possible.

On Wednesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom was asked during a news conference if he believes gun shops are essential. He demurred, saying it was up to sheriffs to determine that in their jurisdictions.

In issuing his closure order Thursday morning, Villanueva cited the governor’s executive order on statewide closures during the crisis as stipulating gun stores are not essential. However, the order does not explicitly mention those businesses.

Villanueva said the shops may no longer sell to the general public but may still supply security guard companies. Anyone who already has purchased a gun and possesses a valid safety certificate can pick up their firearms, he said in a statement.

Deputies have not needed to issue citations yet to enforce the order, the sheriff said Thursday afternoon during a news conference.

The sheriff appears to be trying to carve out a legal middle ground by not in effect seizing individuals’ already purchased firearms and by allowing the stores to serve security guard companies, said Sam Paredes, executive director of Gun Owners of California.

But Paredes said his organization is still exploring a legal challenge to the new policy.

“We are into new territory that has not been tread before,” Paredes said. Gun groups are asking the federal government to declare that “gun stores are essential businesses, and it will resolve it for everybody and make it clear what we can and cannot do.”

County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said while she personally thinks gun stores are not essential businesses, the conflicting findings by Villanueva and the county likely need to get sorted out by a judge.

“Let them go to court about it,” she said.

The closure only applies to the county’s unincorporated areas and 42 cities that contract with the sheriff’s department for law enforcement.

Thompson reported from Sacramento.

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