State Weapons Ban to Remain

State Weapons Ban to Remain
Officials fear an influx of guns from neighbor states, but other groups say the federal change will have little effect.
By Richard Winton, Andrew Blankstein and David Rosensweig
Times Staff Writers

September 10, 2004

If as expected, the federal ban on military-style assault weapons expires Monday, California still will have what is considered one of the toughest and most comprehensive laws in the nation restricting such weapons.

But law enforcement officials say Congress’ failure to renew the ban will expose California to a steady stream of heavy firepower from neighboring states, which have no similar restrictions on semiautomatic pistols, rifles or shotguns.

The expiration of the federal assault weapons ban “will nullify the impact of California’s tough gun laws,” Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton said Thursday. “California will become an island of tough gun laws surrounded by places where these weapons are readily available.”

Chuck Michel, an attorney and spokesman for the California Rifle and Pistol Assn., said Bratton and other gun control proponents are overstating the potential effect of the demise of the assault gun ban.

“It won’t matter a whit to Californians,” said Michel.

The idea that gang members would travel en masse to other states and buy armloads of these weapons is a “work of fiction” created by those who want to restrict the right to bear arms, he said.

Michel cited a 1999 study by the National Institute of Justice, an agency of the U.S. Department of Justice, which found assault weapons are rarely used in crimes.

Richard M. Aborn, former president of Handgun Control Inc., and head of Stop the NRA, said California had the toughest law in the nation to regulate assault weapons, but that didn’t mean it would not be affected by the expiration of the federal ban.

“Unless the state of California is willing to search every car that comes in, it’s going to have worry about assault weapons coming in from surrounding states,” Aborn said.

California’s black market in illegal assault weapons draws on guns coming in from Nevada, Montana, Wyoming and Arizona as well as Florida, Texas and Washington, Aborn said.

In 1989, California became the first state to ban military-style assault weapons.

The law grew out of a shooting rampage in Stockton in which drifter Patrick Purdy opened fire at a schoolyard, killing five children and wounding 30 others.

Purdy, using the semiautomatic version of the foreign military AK-47, squeezed off more than 100 rounds in a minute before taking his own life.

The Roberti-Roos Assault Weapons Control Act restricted importating, distributing or manufacturing about 75 types of semiautomatic rifles, shotguns and pistols designated by brand name to be “assault weapons.”

But the law did not restrict generic features — such as large-capacity magazine clips, folding stocks and flash suppressors.

Manufacturers skirted the law by slightly modifying designs or changing model numbers of the weapons. By law, prosecutors were then required to go to judges to add each new gun model to the list of banned weapons.

The California law became the inspiration for efforts to outlaw assault weapons on the federal level.

During congressional hearings in 1993, Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer cited a rampage earlier that year at a San Francisco law firm in which eight people were killed and six wounded by a man armed with an assault weapon.

The 1994 ban, signed by President Clinton, outlawed the manufacture and importation of 19 types of military-style semiautomatic assault weapons and others with similar features and the manufacture of ammunition magazines containing more than 10 rounds. Another shooting rampage in California provided the impetus for state legislators to expand restrictions on assault weapons.

That incident was broadcast live on television in February 1997. Two men robbed a Bank of America in North Hollywood and sprayed police and civilians with rounds fired from AK-47s as they fled.

Two years later, California tightened state restrictions by defining assault weapons as semiautomatic rifles or pistols that contain more than 10 rounds.

Semiautomatic firearms were deemed illegal if they could accept detachable magazines and have various accessories — such as pistol grips, second handgrips, or folding stocks — that made them easier to maneuver or conceal.

The weapons were prohibited from having threaded barrels that would allow them to accept silencers, extra handgrips, flash suppressors or grenade launchers.

Even with the laws, Bratton said Thursday, the guns still have a devastating impact. He cited a study that found that of 211 officers killed in the line of duty from 1998 to 2001, 41 were shot with assault weapons.

Bratton said that the federal law was far from perfect because it did not cover all guns with similar firepower.

Still, he predicted the impact of the expiration of the ban would be felt almost immediately.

“The men and women who work as police officers in this country, and the people who live in this country, are going to feel the brunt of the effect of the assault weapon ban being lifted,” Bratton said.

“I anticipate seeing a lot more of these guns in the hands of gangbangers on the streets and that means a lot more of my officers will be in harm’s way.”

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