SACRAMENTO — Like a mall display counting shopping days until Christmas, a little box on a state Web site is clicking toward Dec. 31, when California assault gun owners must register, make legal or get rid of their firearms.
State Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer's "Reg A Gun" site, which has received thousands of visits, provides details on how to comply with California's toughened assault weapons law, enacted in 1999.
It displays rules drafted to implement the new controls and offers information on the $500 fines and criminal penalties, including jail or prison sentences, for violators.
Owners may legally keep their assault guns by registering them with the state Department of Justice. A $20 fee covers one or multiple guns registered in the same transaction.
No one knows how many semiautomatic firearms may qualify as assault guns in California. Guesses have ranged from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands.
This year, 3,543 assault guns have been registered, the state Department of Justice said last week. Lockyer and others who support more assault gun controls declined to express either satisfaction or disappointment at the figure.
"They complied with the law. I think many more will be registered when we get closer to the deadline," Lockyer said. "Most people . . . want to obey the law."
Stephen Helsley, an NRA spokesman and its former lobbyist in California, called the state's regulations confusing and said they fail to distinguish clearly between an illegal assault gun and certain popular semiautomatic rifles used for hunting and sporting purposes.
"We don't want our members to get arrested because a local prosecutor or a local police chief disagrees with the attorney general's view," said Helsley, a retired Justice Department firearms expert.
In an interview last week, Lockyer dismissed the criticism, insisting that the regulations were subjected to rigorous public hearings and revised to meet complaints.
"I don't think they will be hard to understand," Lockyer said. He charged that opponents of gun controls have lost major court cases and now are "trying to create another opportunity to litigate."
During the state's first wave of assault gun registrations in the early 1990s, Lockyer recalled, many owners waited until the deadline or beyond. At the time, a National Rifle Assn. executive suggested that the failure to register may have been an act of civil disobedience.
State officials noted that this time, instead of registering, owners may be legally modifying their firearms by removing such offending characteristics as a "conspicuously protruding" pistol grip or flash suppressor.
The option to make a gun legal by removing military-style features was not available under the original Roberti-Roos Assault Weapons Control Act of 1989.
Other alternatives to registration include making the gun permanently inoperable, moving it out of state, surrendering it to police or selling it to a licensed assault gun dealer.
The law's author, Sen. Don Perata (D-Oakland), said he never had high expectations that gun owners would embrace registration. "If they really feel strongly about it, they can move with their guns to another state," Perata said.
During the past 11 years, at least 65,543 assault guns have been registered in California by 40,543 owners, including those registered this year, reported Mike Van Winkle, a Justice Department spokesman.
He said the number of guns registered this year may be conservative, because the department tracks only the applications for registration and has not yet begun counting the firearms actually registered.
Guns registered in 2000 included an unknown number of "copycat" guns that had been renamed or renumbered by manufacturers to skirt the 1989 law.
Last May, after years of litigation, the state Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Roberti-Roos law, paving the way for registration of the "copycat" guns. Lockyer said the deadline for registering these is Jan. 23.
Anticipating that the court might rule against the original law, which regulated guns by manufacture and model, the Legislature and Gov. Gray Davis last year enacted the new controls. They cast a wider net by regulating guns based on their military features.
The Legislature directed the attorney general to craft implementation regulations that would clearly establish the differences between legal and illegal guns.
But because there are many kinds of semiautomatic hunting and sport firearms with potentially disqualifying characteristics, devising a regulatory definition of an assault gun proved extraordinarily difficult.
"The Department of Justice tried, but it is our impression they realized it is impossible," Helsley said.
"We have formed the opinion that the department wants us to sue them to sort of protect them against themselves," he said. "We are certainly going to try."
Helsley also alleged that the department had failed to effectively publicize the new law, an assertion denied by Nathan Barankin, chief spokesman for Lockyer.