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Assault weapon registrations in California are up 43% under new law

Assault weapon registrations in California are up 43% under new law
A variety of military-style semi-automatic rifles obtained during a buyback program are displayed at Los Angeles police headquarters. Owners of semi-automatic guns with "bullet buttons" were required to register them with the state by the end of June. (Damian Dovarganes / Associated Press)

Assault weapons registered in California have increased by 43% under a new law that expanded the types of firearms gun owners must log with the state.

Californians have applied to register 68,848 additional assault weapons in the last 11 months to comply with a state law enacted following the 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino.

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The 2016 law bans sales of semi-automatic assault rifles equipped with “bullet buttons,” which have detachable magazines that enable quick replacement of ammunition, and requires old ones to be registered with the California Department of Justice by the end of June. The mandate should allow law enforcement to better track the weapons.

Shooters used such semi-automatic rifles in the terrorist attack in San Bernardino that left 14 dead and 24 injured, and a 2013 shooting at Los Angeles International Airport that left a TSA agent dead and three others wounded.

“Registration is a common sense accountability measure to track weapons that can be used for great harm to society,” said Assemblyman Marc Levine (D-San Rafael), who co-authored the law.

Gun owners caught with unregistered “bullet button” rifles face up to a year in jail and confiscation of the firearm.

Firearm registration helps law enforcement determine when assault weapons are in the hands of people ineligible to own them because they have been convicted of a crime or diagnosed with serious mental illness, said Amanda Wilcox, policy chairwoman of the California chapter of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

“If someone legally acquired a bullet button weapon when they are allowed and then they subsequently become prohibited, we want to make sure that they are disarmed,” said Wilcox, whose daughter was killed by gun violence.

A lawsuit filed against the state by firearms groups, who campaigned against the new law, alleged some gun owners were unable to access the state website to register their guns before the deadline.

The DOJ denied the allegations in a statement, saying its website has been working correctly. A representative said the agency has not been served with any lawsuit, “but will be prepared to respond in court.”

The ban on assault weapons with bullet button detachable magazines has helped make California the strictest state in the U.S. on gun control, according to Hannah Shearer, an attorney for the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, named for former Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords, who was wounded in a mass shooting.

In 1989, California became the first state to ban the sale of assault weapons in response to a shooting at a Stockton elementary school that left five students dead. But gun control activists said manufacturers got around the law in recent years by making bullet button rifles.

California is one of six states, including New York and New Jersey, that have banned such assault weapons and require those who owned the firearms before they were prohibited to register them. Some 157,540 other firearms already had been registered as assault weapons under California’s earlier gun laws.

Sam Paredes, executive director of Gun Owners of California, opposes the new sales ban and registration requirement, saying the group believes that registration ultimately will lead to confiscation of the weapons.

“We have concerns with registration because we don’t see that it serves any legitimate law enforcement purpose,” Paredes said.

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Paredes noted that the state already matches a list of gun buyers against a list of people who are prohibited from owning firearms, but there is still a backlog of 10,000 people ineligible to have guns who still possess firearms.

Gun-rights activists also say the registration requirement has not been adequately publicized and adds to a confusing mix of other laws that require paperwork to be filed when a gun is purchased.

“Many will not have heard about the new law, and many others will believe their rifles are already registered since they filled out the government’s paperwork when purchasing them,” said Sean Brady, an attorney who represents the National Rifle Assn. and the California Rifle & Pistol Assn.

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