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California and the West

Governor Signs Sweeping Ban on Assault Weapons

Legislation: Nation's toughest such law is called too vague by critics, who vow to challenge it in court. A bill that limits handgun purchases also is signed.

July 20, 1999|DAVE LESHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — As Gov. Gray Davis signed the most sweeping assault weapon ban in the nation Monday, proponents looked ahead to the difficulties of making the law work.

Critics promise a rapid court challenge, partly because they contend that the measure is so vague that a law-abiding gun owner might not know if his or her weapon is prohibited.

Sponsors of the bill acknowledge that they face a formidable challenge in conducting a statewide media campaign to locate and register all existing guns. They can't tell today how many prohibited guns are in California.

"I don't stand before you and say there is absolutely no loophole or no way to evade it," Davis said at a bill signing ceremony on the steps of the San Francisco Hall of Justice. "But it substantially strengthens the assault weapon ban in California and puts California out in front of America."

The ban's political value was evident at Monday's bill signing ceremony, where Davis spoke to more than 100 uniformed police officers and a film crew that was recording the event for a possible campaign television commercial.

As part of the staged production, Davis wore a wireless microphone so he could leave the podium and assist a police officer in sawing an assault weapon in half. "This deadly weapon of war is not going to destroy one more future," he said, holding up the severed gun barrel.

Davis was flanked by several Democratic politicians, including San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles), Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco), Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer and state Sen. Don Perata (D-Alameda), author of the legislation.

The governor signed another gun bill Monday, by Assemblyman Wally Knox (D-Los Angeles), that will limit individuals to one handgun purchase per month in California. Supporters hope that the bill will prevent large gun purchases by individuals who later sell them on the street.

That measure probably will face a court challenge. "Why should I not be able to buy a product if I am legally allowed to own it?" asked Steve Helsley, Sacramento lobbyist for the National Rifle Assn.

Helsley predicted that the new assault weapons law would prove as ineffective as the state's initial attempt to prohibit the guns in 1989.

Back then, after a deadly shooting at a Stockton schoolyard, Republican Gov. George Deukmejian signed a bill outlawing dozens of rifles identified by their brand names. Gun makers circumvented the law by marketing substantially similar weapons under new names.

Perata's measure, which takes effect Jan. 1, contains a generic description of the outlawed weapons. It defines them as semiautomatic rifles, pistols or shotguns that include any of the following: a magazine that holds more than 10 rounds, a pistol grip that "protrudes conspicuously," a thumbhole stock, a second handgrip, a folding or telescoping stock, a grenade launcher or flare launcher, or a threaded barrel capable of accepting a flash suppressor or silencer.

The ban has been embraced by law enforcement groups that complain that they are often outgunned by criminals. Even with loopholes, they said, it will give them an important tool to seize dangerous weapons that are now legal.

"It's a lot easier now than it was," said Alameda County Sheriff Charles Plummer, who attended the event. "You don't know until you really get started. . . . But this is going to be a good thing."

Still, authorities acknowledge that many weapons will remain.

Critics say that the new law could actually boost the number of high-powered guns on the streets by encouraging people to buy them before they are outlawed Jan. 1.

Owners of the prohibited weapons will have until Dec. 31, 2000, to register the guns. The next year--2001--possession of up to two unregistered weapons will become an infraction punishable by a $500 fine. In subsequent years, the maximum penalty for possession of an unregistered weapon will be a year in prison.

Even after the law is in place, opponents say, criminals will still be able to purchase assault weapons in neighboring states, although it will be unlawful to bring the guns to California.

For that reason, proponents are hoping that California's move will encourage a similar step by the federal government.

"By having states like California do it, we put enormous pressure on Congress," Perata said.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

What Is Restricted

A new law prohibits the manufacture, sale or import of the following types of weapons and features:

* A detachable large-capacity magazine, defined as an ammunition-feeding device able to accept more than 10 rounds.

* A semiautomatic rifle that can accept a detachable magazine or has an overall length under 30 inches and any one of the following:

* pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon.

* thumbhole stock.

* second handgrip.

* folding or telescoping stock.

* grenade or flare launcher.

* threaded barrel capable of accepting a flash suppressor, forward handgrip or silencer.

* flash suppressor.

* A semiautomatic pistol with a fixed magazine capacity of more than 10 rounds or a folding stock.

* A semiautomatic shotgun able to accept a detachable magazine or including a revolving cylinder.

Rules and Penalties

Owners of existing assault weapons must register the guns by Dec. 31, 2000, and are prohibited from selling them in California after Jan. 1, 2000.

Possession of up to two unregistered assault weapons after Jan. 1, 2001, is an infraction punishable by a $500 fine. Possession of unregistered assault weapons after Jan. 1, 2002, is punishable by up to a year in prison.

Source: Times research

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