Putting close to 1,500 gun owners in legal jeopardy, state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer has decided to drop a court fight defending his predecessor's controversial practice of registering semiautomatic assault weapons declared illegal by a 1989 state law.
The decision means that the owners of almost 2,000 UZIs, AK-47s, AR-15s and 72 other types of assault weapons will face a fine and imprisonment if they do not turn in their guns, destroy them or take them out of California.
"If they don't, they will be felons in illegal possession of an assault weapon," said Nathan Brankin, Lockyer's spokesman.
Brankin said details on how gun owners will be required to turn in their weapons are being worked out. Enforcement will be left to local agencies, he said.
Spokesmen for the Los Angeles County sheriff and local police departments had not heard about Lockyer's decision Tuesday and did not know how their agencies would enforce the law.
Brankin said the attorney general's office will ask the Legislature to appropriate money to compensate the owners for their weapons. He estimated the cost at $1 million to $3 million.
But that offer probably will not placate the owners.
"We will try to block this settlement [in court]," said Steve Helsley, Sacramento lobbyist for the National Rifle Assn. "It sure proves registration translates into confiscation."
He said the decision is unfair to gun owners who registered their weapons. "Everyone thought they were complying with the law and doing the right thing," he said.
The controversy stems from former Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren's practice of letting assault weapon owners breach the registration provision of the landmark Roberti-Roos Assault Weapons Control Act of 1989, which will be superseded in January by a stricter law recently signed by Gov. Gray Davis.
The 1989 law declared 55 specific models illegal (the list later was increased to 75 models) and required owners to register them with the state Department of Justice by March 30, 1992, if they wanted to keep them.
Lungren quietly let gun owners continue to register weapons after the deadline. He allowed that practice until The Times revealed it, prompting a lawsuit by the activist group Handgun Control Inc. Last year the San Francisco Superior Court ordered Lungren to stop the policy. Lungren appealed that ruling.
The primary purpose of the registration requirement was to cap the number of assault weapons in the state, the law's authors have said.
But because Lungren continued registering the weapons, California residents often bought weapons out of state and brought them back to register them with the attorney general's office by saying they had purchased them before the Roberti-Roos law went into effect. Lungren's office did not require proof.
"California will no longer put out the welcome mat for illegal assault weapons or assault weapon smugglers," said Luis Tolley, western director of Handgun Control, which is co-chaired by Sarah Brady. Brady is the wife of James Brady, the former presidential press secretary who was wounded in an assassination attempt on former President Ronald Reagan.
"Gun smugglers and others who broke the law are now on notice that the assault weapon law will be enforced and those caught with illegal, unregistered assault weapons will be held accountable," Tolley said.
Brankin said his office will file papers with the Court of Appeal in San Francisco later this week, abandoning the state's appeal and accepting the Superior Court decision.
"We are accepting the court's judgment that the statute clearly prohibits the registration of banned assault weapons after the March 1992 deadline," Brankin said.
He said he sympathizes with the legitimate assault weapon owners who were led astray by Lungren's policy. "But Mr. Helsley's criticism is based on the fact that he can't get the attorney general to ignore the law," Brankin said. "We want to bring some resolution to this debacle, which we inherited, and provide clarity and unambiguous enforcement of the law."
Officials in Lungren's administration said they registered more than 16,000 assault weapons after the March 30, 1992, deadline. They said many of them were weapons that owners submitted just a few days before the deadline but were not processed until afterward. Some of those guns turned out not to be assault weapons and registration was not needed.
* ASSAULT WEAPONS CURBS
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* COUNTY PROPOSAL
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