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California and the West

Big Increase in Gun Sales Reported

Weapons: Purchases surged in first half of the year as state legislators moved to enact tougher restrictions.

September 29, 1999|DAN MORAIN and STEVE BERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SACRAMENTO — In the six months before the biggest barrage of anti-gun legislation ever in California, sales of rifles--including assault weapons--jumped at least 50%, Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer said Tuesday.

Sales of handguns also rose between January and June this year, by a more modest 17%.

Overall, sales of handguns and long guns--a category that covers shotguns and rifles, some of which are military-style assault weapons--rose almost 31%.

In the legislative session just completed, state lawmakers approved and Gov. Gray Davis signed a half-dozen major gun control measures, including one that Davis called the nation's most sweeping assault weapons ban.

Davis also signed legislation regulating the sale of cheap handguns, and limiting gun buyers to one gun a month.

Several experts say the phenomenon of gun sales increasing as government acts to limit sales has occurred in the past. Long gun sales increased during the mid-1990s, when Congress approved limits on assault weapons.

"The governor should be Man of the Year for the firearms manufacturers' association," said National Rifle Assn. lobbyist Steve Helsley.

In the Los Angeles area, gun dealers attributed the brisk sales of all guns, especially long guns, to the Legislature's actions.

"I almost think the politicians own stock in gun companies," said a spokesman for King Gun Works in Glendale. "Any time the Legislature comes up with a proposal to ban something, we get an increase."

"Assume that's true," said state Sen. Don Perata (D-Alameda), who carried the assault weapons legislation (SB 23). "The alternative would be what? We don't do anything. Then the gun lobby would have the ultimate control over our destiny."

Perata's measure, which takes effect Jan. 1, bans the sale of certain semiautomatic weapons based on a generic description of the guns, and it prohibits the sale of semiautomatic weapons that hold more than 10 bullets. Owners of existing weapons fitting the definition must register them with law enforcement after Jan. 1.

Perata said there could be other reasons for the increase, including a fear of computer crashes and other chaos associated with the year 2000.

"People should not underestimate the gun lobby and their ability to convince a small constituency to arm up," Perata said. "They're promoting fear and dread. That's very potent."

Lockyer reported that Californians purchased at least 100,593 long guns in the first six months of 1999, up from 66,764 in the same period a year ago.

The state attorney general tracks gun sales by counting the number of forms, called Dealer's Record of Sales. However, an individual could purchase more than one rifle or shotgun on the same form, suggesting that actual rifle sales could be greater than 100,593.

"We don't know how many long guns were sold," said Lockyer's spokesman, Nathan Barankin. "There could be more than one long gun purchased per Dealer Record of Sale."

Additionally, the Department of Justice did not keep track of the number of guns sold that would have been banned by Perata's legislation.

The state's count of handgun sales is thought to be more accurate. Barankin said there must be a separate Dealer Record of Sale form filled out for each handgun sold.

Sales of handguns in the first six months of the year showed a 17.2% increase over the same period in 1998, to 112,875. If the trend continues, 1999 would be the biggest year for handgun sales since 1996, when 215,000 were sold.

The upward spike also would be the first time that handgun sales have shown an increase in California since 1993, when handgun sales reached an all-time high of 433,822.

If gun owners are responding to the Legislature, the second half of the year could be even richer for handgun manufacturers and dealers. Lawmakers did not approve until August most of the bills aimed specifically at restricting handguns.

As Lockyer was reporting increased sales, Davis on Tuesday signed two more gun control measures. One by Assemblyman Jack Scott (D-Altadena) permits prosecutors to charge people who illegally carry concealed, loaded guns with either a misdemeanor or a felony. Currently, the violation is a misdemeanor.

The second measure permits police officers to seize firearms found at the scene of a domestic violence incident. The measure, SB 218 by Sen. Hilda Solis (D-La Puente), builds on a 1996 federal law preventing gun sales to people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence.

Solis introduced the legislation after the murder of an estranged wife in her district. She also cited a 1993 New England Journal of Medicine study showing that death was 20 times more likely in homes where domestic violence and guns coexist.

"It's ridiculous that these people are allowed to have weapons," Solis said.

The law, opposed by the gun lobby, makes it illegal for someone with a restraining order related to domestic violence against them to own a gun. In the past, only gun purchases were barred.

It also would strengthen enforcement of out-of-state restraining orders, increase the minimum sentencing for domestic violence and require that counseling programs for batterers be approved by the state Probation Department.

The Department of Justice Web site includes details on firearms laws: http://caag.state.ca.us/firearms.

Times staff writer Amy Pyle contributed to this report.

* (BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Gun Sales Increase

Gun sales in California jumped nearly 31% in the first six months of the year compared with the same period last year. Sales of long guns, including rifles, shotguns and some military-style assault weapons, were especially strong, rising 50% over the same period last year.

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Source: California Department of Justice

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