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Tougher of 2 Bills to Outlaw Assault Rifles Is Weakened by Panel

April 05, 1989|CARL INGRAM | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — The tougher of two competing bills that would outlaw military-style assault weapons in California was substantially weakened by a pivotal legislative committee Tuesday as its price for approval of the plan.

The action of the Assembly Public Safety Committee put the bill by Senate leader David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) into almost the same form as that of the rival bill by Assemblyman Mike Roos (D-Los Angeles).

In rewriting the Roberti legislation, the committee appeared to be making the bill more acceptable to Gov. George Deukmejian, who has indicated a preference for the Roos measure and had termed Roberti's bill unclear and confusing.

Later in the day, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the Roos measure on a 6-3 vote and sent it to the Appropriations Committee.

Both bills had been given swift passage in the houses where they originated in the aftermath of the Stockton schoolyard killings on Jan. 17. Now, they are wending their way through the other house on parallel tracks toward a final settlement that supporters hope Deukmejian will sign.

"It is not as strong as it was going in," Roberti said of his heavily amended bill after the vote. "But it still is a significant bill."

Heart of Legislation

The heart of the Roberti plan was a broad, generalized definition of what elements a semiautomatic firearm must contain to be considered an assault weapon, such as an Uzi or an AK-47 of the type that crazed rifleman Patrick Purdy fired to murder five children at Stockton and wound 29 others and a teacher. Purdy then shot himself.

Top-level law enforcement officials, who began drafting the bill last year, strongly supported a "generic" definition of an assault weapon because it would include a wide variety of anti-personnel firearms both now and in the future when new guns hit the market.

On the other hand, the Roos measure, basically, lists about 50 guns by manufacturer and model that would be banned and proposes no definition of what constitutes an assault weapon. While the list is extensive, it is not exhaustive.

Critics, chief among them the National Rifle Assn., contended that the "generic" definition was so imprecise that semiautomatic hunting and other sporting arms could be classified as assault guns and be outlawed. The police and Roberti insisted that they did not want to include sporting firearms.

Early on, both bills contained the generic definition as well as a provision establishing an appointed commission that would be empowered to exempt from the ban new semiautomatic weapons that might appear to be assault guns.

But the Public Safety Committee--at the behest of Assemblyman Charles Quackenbush (R-Saratoga), who is a swing vote on the issue--struck the definition and commission features on Feb. 28 when it considered the Roos bill. Instead, the list of specific "assault weapons" was substituted.

In effect, the Public Safety Committee did the same thing to Roberti's bill on Tuesday by amending it to make it virtually the same as the Roos legislation. The committee also approved amendments offered by Roberti to toughen the penalties for use of a gun during crimes and adding another nine semiautomatic guns to the banned list.

On a 5-3 vote, the Roberti proposal was sent to the Ways and Means Committee. Four Democrats and Republican Quackenbush voted for it, while two Republicans and Democrat Gary A. Condit of Ceres voted no.

In contrast to previous hearings when the NRA and a relative handful of gun owner organizations testified against the assault gun legislation, the committee session Tuesday included an eclectic parade of witnesses, ranging from current and former police officers to non-gun owners and a clergyman.

Several witnesses protested that the legislation threatened their rights to own guns under the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

David S. Marshall, lobbyist for the NRA, indicated that he organized opposition witnesses to testify because the "NRA for a long time has been perceived as the only opponent."

One witness, Brian Misuraca, 31, of San Pedro, told the committee that "Patrick Purdy has a smile on his face right now. . . . From the grave, he has the ability to rob us all of our Second Amendment rights."

A San Jose police officer, Leroy Pyle, who said he was not speaking for the department, told both the Assembly and Senate committees that the legislation would do nothing for the protection of police and would have the effect of disarming law-abiding citizens.

Referring to violent street gangs, Pyle told the committee that "a lot of people have guns because of the Bloods and Crips. I cannot deny an honest citizen the right of self-protection."

At one point, Sen. Ed Davis (R-Valencia) objected to a provision of the bill that would require current owners of legally purchased assault weapons to register them with the state by 1991.

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