Assembly Caught in Crossfire of Testimony on Assault Weapons

Times Staff Writer

The Assembly, bombarded with an often conflicting overload of technical and emotional testimony, found out Monday that writing a law to keep semiautomatic military-style weapons out of the hands of criminals and the mentally unstable will be no simple task.

At an unusual 3 1/2-hour hearing of the full Assembly, some law enforcement officials appealed for a ban on such weapons, while other police officers warned that it would not work.

A district attorney suggested outlawing gun clips that hold more than five bullets instead of banning the weapons themselves, some of which can be fitted with magazines that contain 50 or more rounds.

The widow of a Los Angeles policeman slain with a semiautomatic gun demanded a prohibition against such weapons, while a surviving relative of slain motor racing promoter Mickey Thompson demanded tougher sanctions against criminals.

A special Assembly “committee of the whole” was called by Speaker Willie Brown Jr. (D-San Francisco) as an information-gathering forum to acquaint the full Assembly with arguments for and against outlawing manufacture and sale of rapid-firing military-style rifles.


No bill was formally before the lawmakers, although several gun restriction measures have been introduced since the slaughter Jan. 17 of five children in a Stockton school yard and the wounding of 29 other students and a teacher.

Gunman Patrick Edward Purdy, 24, who had a history of drug and alcohol abuse and who ran up a criminal record of misdemeanors, fired at least 106 bullets into the yard from a Chinese-made AK-47 semiautomatic rifle before shooting himself in the head with a pistol. Authorities said the weapons had been sold to him legally.

Brown said he wanted legislation drafted so that never again would “people like Purdy have access to those types of weapons.” Various gun control measures probably will start being considered by regular committees late this month.

Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp, leader of a law enforcement effort to prohibit the manufacture and sale of assault weapons, conceded that no series of new laws would guarantee that such firearms would disappear.

“But,” said the Democratic gubernatorial contender, “over time their numbers will diminish, and we will all be the safer for it.”

As Van de Kamp stepped to the microphone holding an AK-47 that he said he purchased Sunday in less time than it takes to buy a tank of gasoline, the attorney general hefted the weapon and told the legislators:

“You are lucky that I am the attorney general and not a nut. Because, if I had the ammunition, I could shoot every member of the Assembly by the time I finish this sentence--about 20 seconds.”

However, Dist. Atty. Edward Jagels of Kern County, a leader of the successful movement to remove Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird from the state Supreme Court in 1986, questioned whether legislation could be written that would succeed in banning such weapons as the AK-47 and the Uzi without affecting the right to buy and own sporting firearms used by hunters and target shooters.

Assemblyman Mike Roos (D-Los Angeles), author of major legislation to outlaw the manufacture and sale of semiautomatic guns, has maintained that hunting and sporting guns would not be affected by his bill.

As an alternative to a ban on semiautomatics, Jagels proposed that legislation be enacted to restrict gun clips to perhaps five bullets each, thus reducing a weapon’s firepower capacity. “Get rid of the banana clips. Get rid of the long clips. That is the heart of the problem,” he said.

However, Harold Johnson, a retired military firearms expert, noted that the clips of most semiautomatic pistols now contain many more than five rounds. He said if clip capacity was limited, “95% of the pistol owners would be felons.”

In support of legislation to ban assault guns, Lt. Bruce Haggerty, a Los Angeles police officer who deals with gangs and guns, noted that in the early 1970s street gangs used “fists, clubs, knives and an occasional handgun as their weapons of choice.”

Now they favor military-type rifles, he said. “There is only one reason that they use these weapons and that is to kill people. They are weapons of war.”

However, fellow Los Angeles officer Jimmy Trahin, a weapons expert who heads the department’s firearms unit, testified that criminals are not fussy about guns and that “they will use any kind of firearm they can get.”

Trahin charged that a “media blitz” had overstated the number of semiautomatics that had been illegally converted into fully automatic machine guns. He said of the more than 4,000 guns that the Los Angeles Police Department seized last year, fewer than 120 “would be classified as military-type weapons and, of these, less than 10 were actually illegally converted into full automatic machine guns.”

But Norma Williams, whose police detective husband, Thomas, was killed with an assault gun in a Los Angeles ambush three years ago, told the Assembly that “assault weapons have no place in our society.”

In contrast, however, Colleen Campbell, sister of the late racing promoter Thompson, who was fatally shot a close range 11 months ago with his wife at his Bradbury home, insisted that “gun laws wouldn’t have made a difference. Criminals still would have guns.”

What is needed, Campbell testified, is elimination of “lenient” criminal justice laws and swifter legal proceedings. “You can’t stop the bullet. Bite the bullet,” she told the lawmakers.