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California and the West

Lungren to Appeal Ruling on Assault Weapons Law

Court: Appellate panel struck down key provision that allowed some additions to list of banned guns.

March 06, 1998|STEVE BERRY and DAN MORAIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren said Thursday he will ask the state Supreme Court to reverse an appellate ruling declaring a key provision of California's assault weapons law unconstitutional.

"I was very disappointed," Lungren said. "My disappointment comes from the broad scope of the decision."

The 2-1 ruling by the 3rd District Court of Appeal on Wednesday outlawed a provision of the state law that allowed the attorney general--with a judge's consent--to add newly marketed assault weapons to a list of 75 banned firearms.

The Sacramento appeals court said the law violated the separation of powers principle by giving judges legislative authority to decide whether copycat weapons are illegal military-style weapons.

Lungren said he was particularly concerned about the justices' statement that the list of 75 banned weapons may be unconstitutional as well because it unfairly penalizes owners of the restricted weapons while exempting people who own similar weapons that are not banned. The panel sent the case, which was filed in 1991 by Colt Manufacturing Co., back to the Superior Court in Sacramento to determine whether weapons on the list are distinguishable from those that are not.

Although the Legislature is considering a new assault weapons bill, Lungren said his decision to appeal the ruling prevents him from expressing an opinion about the legislation.

On Thursday, the state Senate postponed a vote on the bill for a week after Assemblyman Don Perata (D-Alameda) amended it for the 12th time.

The bill, AB 23, seeks to replace the 1989 list of banned guns with a generic definition listing a variety of attributes that would make a semiautomatic gun an assault weapon. The bill seeks to prohibit the sale of semiautomatic pistols that accept magazines holding more than 19 rounds, and semiautomatic rifles that take magazines holding 10 or more rounds. People who own such weapons would have six months to register them or face criminal charges.

If the Senate approves it as expected, the measure would head to the Assembly for a final vote before being sent to Gov. Pete Wilson. He declined Thursday to say whether he would sign it, but he voted for federal assault weapons restrictions when he was in the U.S. Senate.

If the court decision stands and lawmakers fail to approve new legislation, California would be without any state restrictions on such weapons. As a result, Perata said, the appeals court decision adds pressure on lawmakers to act, particularly in so-called swing suburban districts where he believes voters support assault weapons bans.

"If you want to get elected, you better pay attention to these [swing voters]," he said.

Although most Democrats in the Democratic-controlled Assembly support the legislation, the bill cannot pass the 80-seat house without Republican support. Among the key votes is that of Assemblyman Jim Cunneen (R-San Jose), a moderate. Cunneen said Thursday he probably will vote for the bill, saying Perata's amendments made him "much more comfortable" with the legislation.

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