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Bill to Outlaw Military-Type Guns Nears Completion

January 13, 1989|CARL INGRAM | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — A statewide coalition of law enforcement officials, formed last fall to respond to what they see as the proliferation of military-type semiautomatic firearms among street gangs and drug dealers, has nearly completed the task of drafting legislation to outlaw the manufacture and sale of such guns.

As they prepare for a showdown in the Legislature with the powerful gun lobby, the coalition--whose leaders include Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp, Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block and Alameda County Dist. Atty. John J. Meehan--has made passage of the bill its top priority of the year.

"If law enforcement doesn't attempt to do something about it now, we are just going to have a whole higher level of arms race in California, and it is going to be extremely dangerous for innocent people," said Richard Inglehart, an Alameda County prosecutor and member of the task force drafting the legislation.

The legislation is aimed at semiautomatic rifles like the Uzi, AK-47 and AR-15, available over the counter to anyone 18 or older who provides identification and fills out a form declaring that he is not a drug addict, a fugitive or a mentally unstable person. By contrast, purchasers of handguns must wait 15 days for a state background investigation before taking possession of their firearms.

A bruising fight with the politically powerful National Rifle Assn. and the Gun Owners of California seems assured. Traditionally, the Legislature has been reluctant to enact anything that smacks of controls on guns or firearm ownership. Former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. once observed that in California, "you don't mess with a man's guns or cars."

"It will be one of the donnybrooks of the legislative session," predicted Gary Mullen, executive director of the California District Attorneys Assn., of the campaign that will pit the NRA against the police.

Lobbyist David Marshall of the NRA, a veteran of previous unsuccessful attempts to outlaw military-type semiautomatics, maintains that a prohibition against such firearms will not deter criminals intent on getting them but will work to the disadvantage of law-abiding Californians.

"Leave the law-abiding citizen alone," he said. "Go after the criminals and nail them to the wall and stop treating them with kid gloves. Get them off the streets. Give them mandatory jail time. No plea-bargaining. No probation. No parole."

Popular Military Type

Increasingly, the weapon of choice for drug dealers and street gangs is the military-style semiautomatic gun that often is easily concealed and can be converted to a full automatic. At semiautomatic, the rifle fires one bullet at a time as fast as the trigger is pulled. On automatic, one squeeze sends out a stream of fire like a machine gun's.

Under a law sponsored by the NRA, it is illegal in California to convert a semiautomatic to a full automatic. Likewise, it is illegal to possess a machine gun without a permit from the attorney general.

The drafters of the proposed law enforcement gun bill say they are close to agreement on language in the bill that would outlaw the manufacture and sale of certain "bad guns" but exempt "good guns"--those used by hunters, competitive target shooters and collectors.

The difficulty is in distinguishing between semiautomatic military weapons and the semiautomatic rifles and shotguns used by sportsmen, because all operate on basically the same principle.

Broad Definition

The bill would establish a broad generic definition that would fit military assault-type semiautomatics and be based on such things as the length of barrel and size of the bullet magazine. Some existing weapons would actually be banned by name. However, certain sporting guns that may resemble the prohibited firearms would be exempted by name.

The legislation would allow manufacturers of the military-style weapons to obtain a permit to sell the guns that is similar to what is required for machine guns. In general, however, they would not be allowed to sell to civilian outlets in California.

A commission would be created to approve or reject new guns that come on the market in the future. The commission, as yet of unspecified membership, could add prohibited guns to the list, which sponsors said would be short, at least initially.

The bill, which has undergone at least 10 drafts, is expected to be introduced next month. No legislator has yet been asked to carry the measure, proponents said, although Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) has promised to author such a bill.

Strategists for the task force conceded that assuring hunters, collectors and sportsmen that their guns are "safe" and would not be affected by the bill is a key element in winning its approval by a Legislature highly sensitive to gun-owning constituents.

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