CALIFORNIA is on the leading edge of an national debate over whether to control military-style assault rifles like the Uzi and AK-47. A move to ban them is being led by law enforcement officials and prosecutors in the state, who are worried about a proliferation of semiautomatic weapons among street gangs and drug dealers.
They are running into stiff opposition, however, from the politically powerful gun lobby.
How the dispute is resolved could influence debates in other urban states and in Congress, where legislation that will seek to control such weapons is expected to be introduced soon.
``There will be a big push this year and next to control these weapons,'' says Barbara Lautman of Handgun Control Inc., a gun control group.
The issue here has taken on added visibility in the wake of last week's tragic shooting at an elementary school in Stockton, Calif., where a drifter opened fire on a playground of children with a military-style AK-47. Five students were killed by the gunman, who sprayed the schoolyard with more than 100 rounds before taking his own life.
Although the man bought the the gun in Oregon - which means a California law banning such weapons wouldn't have prevented the tragedy - the shooting has focused attention on the ease with which such guns can be purchased.
More than 30 million semiautomatic weapons are estimated to exist in the United States. Most of these are ordinary hunting rifles. A small but fast-growing number, however, are high-powered weapons patterned after military arms. Officials estimate that 80,000 AK-47s have been imported into the US from China in the past three years.
The difficulty of writing laws to distinguish between assault weapons and ordinary rifles is one reason few regulations exist in this area. The only federal statutes that touch on them are the ones pertaining to all firearms: Purchasers have to fill out a form indicating whether they have a criminal record, are addicted to drugs, or have been judged mentally ill. No mechanism exists to determine if the answers are truthful.
NOR are there any state strictures, other than a handful that require a waiting period so that a background check can be done on the purchaser.
``It is easier to buy an assault rifle in most states than it is to buy a handgun,'' says Mario Fontana of the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms in Los Angeles.
It is this easy access, coupled with the popularity of the rapid-fire weapons among criminals, that is prompting the row here. Police in California say the Uzi, MAC-10, AR-15, and other para-military rifles are increasingly the weapon of choice among gang members and drug dealers.
``When you spray the streets with these, a lot of innocent people get hurt,'' says Allen Sumner of the California Attorney General's office.
In a major policy shift, Gov. George Deukmejian (R) has come out in favor of controls on assault weapons. He is urging an extension of the state's 15-day waiting period for handgun purchases to include all firearms.
In addition, state Senate President Pro Tem David Roberti (D) is expected later this month to introduce legislation that would ban the sale of assault weapons. The bill will try to get around the definition problem by listing specific guns that would be prohibited and some that would be exempt. It will also use barrel lengths and bullet magazine capacity to try to delineate between different classes. A similar measure is expected to be introduced in the state Assembly.
Opponents of the move, including the National Rifle Association (NRA), say it's hard to distinguish between sporting rifles and assault weapons. Even if it could be done, they wouldn't support a ban. They argue outlawing the weapons won't keep them out of the hands of criminals, since a huge black market exists. They urge stiffer penalities on the criminals caught carrying them.