California Lawmakers Target Assault Weapons

Arkansas shootings give more urgency to gun-control bills in Congress, California.

Against a backdrop of national soul-searching over the link between guns and violence, California lawmakers are leading the effort to tighten control of assault-style weapons.

In Sacramento, the California Legislature is on the verge of passing the nation's toughest ban against such firearms. And in Washington, a coalition of legislators led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California announced March 31 that they will introduce legislation to tighten a landmark 1994 federal law by prohibiting the importation or sale of high-capacity ammunition clips.

While there has been some confusion about just what weapons were used in last week's Arkansas schoolyard shootings, Senator Feinstein said "the weapon that delivered the most carnage was a universal carbine with a 15-round magazine." That's just the kind of firepower the federal and California initiatives promise to control.

Prospects for the Feinstein bill are uncertain, but the California legislation has a good shot at clearing the legislature and landing on Gov. Pete Wilson's desk within two weeks. Governor Wilson (R), who has a mixed record on gun control, has not yet indicated whether he would sign the bill.

The movement in the United States to prohibit certain types of guns began in this state nearly a decade ago. A Stockton schoolyard attack led to restrictions on the sale of more than 50 types of assault weapons, and similar legislation followed in a number of other states.

In addition, Congress passed the Brady law in 1993 - establishing waiting periods and background checks for handgun purchases - and legislation in 1994 that banned the importation and future manufacture of certain semiautomatic weapons.

Court challenges

Yet loopholes and court challenges have eroded the effectiveness of some of those efforts.

Critics like the National Rifle Association (NRA) say there was a fundamental flaw in those earlier actions, and the current legislation is simply repeating it. "The expression 'assault weapon' is not a class of firearm," says Steve Helsley, state liaison for the NRA. "What you're doing with this bill is making a distinction between semiautomatic firearms based on appearance. Once you start trying to legislate a nonexistent class of firearms, you're going to fail."

As is the case with the existing California law, many states enacted bans that applied to specifically named models of firearms. Gun manufacturers produced copycat models that did not run afoul of the law, though they were basically identical. Banning some models and not others with the same function was found to be discriminatory by several courts.

To remedy this, the California law gives the state attorney general the power to add copycat models to the list of banned weapons. But when he did so, the case went to court, where a judge struck down the provision, saying it vested legislative authority where it didn't belong. That court also questioned the constitutionality of the starting list of weapons included in the law.

To avoid this problem, the new proposal in California defines weapons to be banned by generic descriptions. For instance, a rifle with a detachable magazine of 10 rounds or more would be banned.

Hawaii and New Jersey have adopted generic descriptions of banned weapons, says Luis Tolley of Handgun Control Inc., a Washington gun-control advocacy group. But neither has the breadth of California's proposal.

A spokesman for Don Perata, the California assemblyman sponsoring the legislation, says the criteria have been carefully selected. "We tried to limit our [prohibited] characteristics to those that actually affect the function of the gun," says the spokesman.

The NRA, however, says the criteria are loaded with cosmetic descriptions that will be circumvented by manufacturers. "There is no possible way law enforcement or owners will know what's expected of them," says Mr. Helsley. "This is not coherent public policy. It's an election-year stunt."

Where the bills stand

For now, state Attorney General Dan Lungren plans to appeal the lower-court ruling this week to the state Supreme Court. Mr. Lungren, who is running for governor, has refused to take a position on the Perata bill on the grounds that whatever he says could undermine that appeal.

Meanwhile, Feinstein's ban on the manufacture, sale, transfer, or importation of ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 rounds would tighten the 1994 law, which allowed continued sale of clips made prior to that year.

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