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California and the West

Gun's Journey From Import to Assault

Weapons: When Arturo Reyes Torres killed four people at a Caltrans yard, he was using a firearm that had come into the country just before a deadline on restricting such items.

January 25, 1998|ESTHER SCHRADER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WESTMINSTER — It was January 1988, little more than a year before it became a crime to import or sell certain assault weapons in California, when Bob Kahn put in his order.

The gun dealer told his supplier he needed 4,400 AK-47S semiautomatic rifles. Like other gun dealers across the United States, Kahn was anxious to get the weapons as quickly as he could. Around the bend were state and federal laws designed to restrict the military-style weapons that were among dealers' hottest sellers.

The call was the beginning of a journey common among assault weapons in those years, when more of the powerful guns flowed into the United States than before or since. According to federal authorities, 4,399 of the guns Kahn received were never used to commit a crime.

But on Dec. 18, the other one would be used to kill four people and wound two others, including a police officer.

That afternoon, an unhappy former Caltrans worker named Arturo Reyes Torres drove into the Orange maintenance yard where he had worked, and later into the street, pumping out 144 bullets from the assault rifle in just over two minutes, each traveling at more than twice the speed of sound. Torres died soon afterward, shot by police in a gunfight at a nearby intersection.

The gun, serial number 0318, barrel length 17 1/2 inches, is no different from tens of thousands of assault weapons treasured by gun aficionados. When 0318, manufactured in China, made its way into Torres' hands, it was as easy to buy an assault weapon as a car.

At the time Torres snapped, 0318 was one of 17 guns in a safe in his Huntington Beach den.

"The guy bought the damn thing in 1988, and let me tell you, a heck of a lot of people were buying AKs back in 1988," said Kahn, whose two B&B Sales stores, in North Hollywood and Westminster, sold out of the rifles a few weeks after they went on sale. "People wanted them; I sold them."

Lying less than a foot from Torres' outstretched arm when police first came upon it, submerged in four inches of rain and blood, 0318 these days is in a back room at the Orange County Sheriff's Department, encased in a plastic evidence bag.

At just over eight pounds, dull black, with a wooden stock and a pistol grip so it can be held comfortably on the hip, 0318 is pedestrian as assault weapons go. Unlike some of its flashier cousins, it has no bayonet lug, no silencer attachment, no grenade launcher.

But 0318, packing slugs 7.62 millimeters in diameter in cartridges 39 millimeters long, fires its bullets at 2,300 feet per second, more than twice as fast as the 9-millimeter and .45-caliber handguns carried by police who confronted Torres.

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One of a series of knockoffs of the Automat Kalashnikova designed in the Soviet Union in 1947, 0318 can pump out 100 rounds without requiring reloading. Unlike the original, automatic version of the Kalashnikova, a machine gun that sprays bullets at the pull of the trigger, 0318 is a semiautomatic weapon. That means it fires one bullet at a time. But because it reloads a new cartridge every time it is fired, without needing to be re-cocked, 0318 can be fired much faster than a standard gun.

On Dec. 21, Torres loaded 0318 with five magazines, each holding 30 bullets, police said. Wielding the gun alternately at his shoulder and hip, he sprayed bullets in a wide arc, police said. Several lodged in neighboring buildings.

"This type of gun can cause a lot of devastation very quickly," said Orange Police Department spokesman Art Romo.

Demand for AK-47-style weapons had been heavy for years in the United States before Torres bought his. But it was never stronger than in the year Torres was shopping.

About 4,000 AK-47-style weapons were imported annually between 1980 and 1985, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. But from 1986 to 1988, when momentum was building throughout California and the nation to restrict assault weapons, imports of the guns jumped to nearly 40,000 annually, according to the ATF. Between January 1988 and March 1989, when a federal ban on the import of some semiautomatic weapons went into effect, 48,000 more AK-47-style weapons were imported to the United States.

"Nasty-looking, big-clip military-style image weapons came into their own as an icon in those years," said Franklin Zimring, a UC Berkeley law professor who studies the politics of gun issues.

In March 1989, the U.S. Treasury Department suspended the import of some assault weapons. Three months later, California became the first state to ban the sale of certain models of assault weapons.

A 1994 federal law banned the manufacture and importation of 19 semiautomatic weapons, including certain AK-47 knockoffs.

But people like Torres, who bought weapons before the restrictions went into effect, were allowed to keep their guns.

In California, where since 1990 registration of assault weapons has been required, 37,869 people have registered 62,395 of the guns, according to the state attorney general's office.

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