SACRAMENTO — Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren said Thursday that even though the Legislature has not approved extending the deadline, he has ordered his staff to approve the registration of thousands of legal assault guns whose owners filed after the cutoff last Dec. 31.
In a brief interview, Lungren confirmed that he took the unpublicized action in mid-June in an effort to aid 2,590 assault weapon owners who had applied for registration after the deadline and who potentially face criminal charges for illegal possession of a firearm.
He told The Times that registration of legally acquired semiautomatic assault guns continues even as he and Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) attempt to smooth out differences over an embattled bill to provide a 90-day "grace" period for registering the guns.
Lungren's disclosure occurred as some gun owner organizations, including representatives of the National Rifle Assn., expressed the belief that the state's 2-year-old law outlawing military-style assault guns seemed to be unraveling under the weight of technical but major drafting flaws.
NRA lobbyist Brian Judy said gun owner warnings long ago that the law would be unworkable appear to be accurate. "For example, we have pointed out all along that a number of the firearms on the list do not exist," he said.
Supporters of the 1989 statute conceded that some features of the law need tightening but brushed aside suggestions that its defects were fatal. One Roberti aide voiced confidence that differences with Lungren would be resolved.
Shortly after taking office in January, the Republican attorney general announced that the registration applications postmarked after Dec. 31 would be stored away and not processed until the Legislature dealt with the issue of extending the registration period to assault gun owners who did not file or filed late.
Roberti, Senate author of the 1989 "Assault Weapons Control Act," was caught by surprise Thursday when told by a reporter that Lungren's department is registering the firearms nearly nine months after the registration deadline supposedly expired.
"That's news to me," said a stunned Roberti, who had conferred privately for half an hour with Lungren to discuss the attorney general's stalled 90-day extension bill. "I just met with him and he didn't say a thing about it."
Asked if there was still a need for the registration extension bill, Roberti appeared at a loss for words. "Good question. Good question," he finally replied.
Although virtually everyone had agreed that Dec. 31 was the deadline to register assault arms legally acquired before June, 1989, Lungren said Thursday that in reviewing the complex law "we came to the conclusion that the law as currently on the books does allow registration."
He noted that as the new attorney general he faced the massive backlog of tardy registration applications when he took office in January. Later department officials told police and sheriff departments that enforcement of the technically flawed statute "is not practical."
"By the time we got to the backlog, we made the decision that the law did allow weapons to be registered after the (Dec. 31) date as long as the people who owned them qualified (for registration)," Lungren said.
Lungren noted that those who failed to register their assault guns can be charged with possession of an illegal weapon, punishable on the first offense by a $500 fine and for subsequent violations by jail and prison terms. Both Lungren and Roberti earlier said it would be "tragic" to prosecute an assault gun owner who tried to register but did not meet the deadline.
A government source, who asked not to be identified, said the decision to process the backlog of applications was prompted, in part, by letters from California members of the military serving in Operation Desert Storm. The source said these individuals could not register their civilian assault guns, did not want to face possible prosecution and appealed for help.
"How are you going to turn down someone in Operation Desert Storm?" the source asked.
Another source said that when it became apparent late last spring that Lungren's 90-day extension bill was in trouble in the Assembly, Department of Justice officials felt pressure to take action on the late applications, which must be accompanied by a $20 registration fee.
"We had to make a decision on what we were going to do with those 2,600 applications and cashing the fee checks," the source said.
The landmark law, among other things, prohibits the manufacture, distribution, sale, or trade of nearly 60 types of semiautomatic rifles and handguns in California. But it established a yearlong registration period ending last Dec. 31 for those who legally owned such guns before June, 1989.
For a variety of reasons, the registration provision was ignored or forgotten by droves of assault gun owners until a month before registration closed. The department was flooded by 11th-hour applications and accepted for processing all those that bore a postmark on or before Dec. 31.
The department reported Thursday that 42,809 assault weapons have been registered. A spokeswoman said the 2,590 late applicants had not been included in the total because they still are being processed.
No one knows for certain how many assault weapons are privately owned in California. However, some estimates put the total at around 300,000.