California Targets Junk-Gun Sales and Producers

State Senate is expected today to pass a landmark ban on inexpensive pistols.

From the 'hood to the precinct house, they are called Saturday night specials (a.k.a. "junk guns").

They are cheaply made pistols that can be purchased in gun shops for less than $100.

Sirhan Sirhan used one to kill Robert Kennedy. It was John Hinkley Jr.'s weapon of choice in his assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan. On America's streets, gun-control activists say, 7 of 10 guns confiscated at crime scenes today are junk guns.

In what would be a landmark decision - and a major blow to gun-rights advocates - the California legislature today is expected to approve a ban on the manufacture and sale of junk guns, 80 percent of which are made by a half dozen firms in southern California.

Gun advocates say the ban would do nothing to deter crime and, because it would extend to other handguns, it would seriously undermine Americans' constitutional right to bear arms.

Gun-control proponents say a ban would finally plug a nearly 30-year-old loophole in the the federal Gun Control Act of 1968, which banned the importation of such guns to the US but did not establish the same standards for domestic manufacturers.

"Whatever legislators and law enforcement do in California will ultimately affect the whole country," says Gerald Arenberg, president of the National Association of Chiefs of Police. In what was already a significant loss for gun groups, the state Assembly last week approved the measure with bipartisan support. The Senate is expected to approve it today.

"This could roll on, state by state, into a nationwide ban," adds Mr. Arenberg.

Republican Gov. Pete Wilson has not indicated whether he will sign the bill but is being pressured to do so by the state's major newspapers as well as by police chiefs and sheriffs. Gunshot victims cost California more than $700 million annually in medical costs, say handgun critics.

"The governor should sign it," wrote The Los Angeles Times in a lead editorial. "California will be criminally negligent if it allows the trafficking in these cheap, deadly weapons to proceed unchecked.... The rest of the nation would be grateful as well."

If passed, the new law would make it a misdemeanor to manufacture, import, sell, or lend any nonsporting handgun after January 1999. New pistols would have to be at least four inches high and at least six inches long. Pistols would also be required to have a safety lock that can be switched on to prevent accidental firings and must be able to pass a three-foot-high drop test in which they do not discharge.

The statewide ban would come at a time when nearly three dozen cities and counties in California have already moved to outlaw the sale of junk guns. Unlike many states, California allows its local governments to pass ordinances on weapons sales.

"We're like the tobacco companies exporting death around the country," says Assemblyman Louis Caldera (D) of Los Angeles, who sponsored the Assembly bill. "We permit these weapons to be manufactured here in California and then sold, marketed to criminals, to youths, to people who misuse these guns."

But opposition forces, including the National Rifle Association, outdoor sports associations, and the Peace Officers Research Association of California, say the ban hits more than just the Saturday night specials.

"This bill is not what it appears to be," says Stephen Helsley, an NRA lobbyist. Legislators should examine the fine print of the bill, he says. Many firearms now used by law enforcement would be banned and many handguns - including some costing up to $20,000 - would also be outlawed. "When legislators start to really read it," says Mr. Helsley, "their support begins to slip."

Among his contentions: The bill is a thinly veiled, politicized attempt to ban all handguns. Because the bill has provided insufficient time and money for the testing of such guns, a secondary clause kicks in "stopping the sale of all handguns in the state."

The bill discriminates unjustly against lower-income people, who may want such guns for defense, say critics. It drives the cost of approved guns to a minimum of $300. "This is about keeping guns out of the hands of poor people," says Assemblyman Bernie Richter (R) of Chico. "Criminals will pay any amount of money for a gun [but the bill] takes guns away from ... people who want to protect themselves."

But proponents counter that the bill's intent is primarily one of product safety. They note that the NRA supported the exact same ban on imported weapons in 1968. "This bill demands nothing more than what we demand of other products, from automobiles to baby rattles - that the product doesn't do things it is not supposed to do," says Los Gatos Police Chief Larry Todd, a past president of the California Police Chiefs Association.

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