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S.D. Bans Assault Weapons : Joins Growing List, Against the Advice of City Attorney

Times Staff Writer

The City Council, brushing aside the demands of a vociferous throng of gun enthusiasts and the advice of its city attorney, voted 7 to 2 Monday to ban the sale and possession of semiautomatic assault weapons.

The citywide ordinance will not take effect for 45 days, but, in a separate, unanimous vote, the council gave the Police Department immediate authority to seize and hold an assault rifle for 72 hours unless its owner can prove the weapon was being used lawfully.

If it eventually takes effect, the ban would force owners of the outlawed weapons to turn over their guns without compensation, move them out of the city or sell them elsewhere, officials said.

The votes added San Diego to the growing list of California cities that have banned the weapons since gunman Patrick Purdy killed five elementary schoolchildren with an AK-47 rifle last month in Stockton. At least six California cities and Santa Clara County have adopted the measures in recent weeks.

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“When the chief of police says he needs this that, to me, is the bottom line,” said Mayor Maureen O’Connor, who voted for the ordinance. “He is our chief. He is trying to make it safe for all of us . . . and I must back our chief.”

“Assault weapons have one purpose, and that’s to murder human beings,” Councilwoman Abbe Wolfsheimer said. “That’s the only reason.”

The votes did not, however, seal the future of local gun-control efforts, because the council members agreed to amend or rescind the sale and possession ordinance if the state Supreme Court upholds a National Rifle Assn. challenge to bans adopted by Los Angeles and Stockton. Final adoption of the San Diego ban requires a second City Council vote in two weeks.

The NRA, which filed suit last week, is hoping the high court will rule on a temporary stay of those ordinances Wednesday, said Richard Gardiner, assistant general counsel for the group.

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The San Diego council also agreed to defer to bills pending before the Legislature that would establish a statewide ban on the weapons. The 45-day waiting period, which is the normal interval between introduction of an ordinance and the date it takes effect, will allow time for the Legislature to determine the fate of two bills on the matter and give the courts time to hear the NRA legal case, council members said.

The two bills go before separate Senate and House committees today.

City Atty. John Witt strongly warned the council two weeks ago that only the state has the authority to regulate the sale and possession of firearms. His legal opinion stated that any local ordinance “very likely” would be invalidated by a court.

But, with the exception of Councilmen Bruce Henderson and Ed Struiksma, members voted Monday to pass the measure over Witt’s objections. Wes Pratt, an attorney and one of three council members who had called for the gun ordinance, disagreed with Witt’s legal opinion.

The council adopted Los Angeles’ ordinance in its entirety, adding only the provision that police officers be trained to recognize the outlawed weapons.

The ordinance prohibits the sale or possession of semiautomatic assault weapons capable of accepting detachable magazines containing 20 rounds or more, including the increasingly notorious AK-47, AR-15, Uzi and Ingram Mac-10 that police say are often used by street gangs and drug dealers.

When it takes effect, the ordinance will require current gun owners to turn in their weapons to police, move them out of the city or sell them outside the city, said Police Chief Bob Burgreen, who urged the council to adopt the measure.

There is no provision in the law for compensating gun owners who give up their weapons. Burgreen estimated their value at $350 to $500 each.

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The emergency ordinance allows police to seize an assault weapon without making an arrest and to hold it for 72 hours. During that time, they would attempt to determine if the firearm was stolen or if its owner had a history of mental illness or a felony conviction.

If the owner passed those tests, the weapon would be returned within three days.

Burgreen pledged to train officers to recognize the weapons and to avoid seizing rifles being transported by gun dealers or enthusiasts traveling to and from rifle ranges, where semiautomatics are routinely used in target practice.

The measure is primarily targeted at street gangs and drug dealers, and gives police one more method of controlling the high-powered, rapid-fire weapons, Burgreen said.

Eight people were killed with semiautomatic assault weapons in San Diego last year, a small fraction of the 74 who were killed with other weapons. Thirty-four others were stabbed to death, 15 were beaten to death, 8 were strangled and 5 were killed by other means.

Of the 4,800 weapons seized last year by police, about 50 were assault rifles.

‘Selectively’ Popular

Nevertheless, Burgreen has testified that the weapons are becoming “selectively” popular with gangs and drug dealers and said that his officers, packing less firepower, frequently find themselves facing the weapons.

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Gun enthusiasts, who packed Monday’s three-hour council session and two Feb. 15 committee hearings on the ordinances, immediately condemned both measures.

Brad Boswell, an NRA member who organized the turnout at both hearings, promised that the 20,000 NRA members in San Diego will be told which council members voted for the ordinance, and might work against them in September’s elections.

Councilwomen Gloria McColl, Judy McCarty and Wolfsheimer--who voted for the measure--are running for reelection this year along with Struiksma, who voted against it.

“The violent felons in San Diego are rejoicing, because it means the cops are going to be busy arresting everybody else,” counsel Gardiner said in an interview from the NRA’s Sacramento office.

Gardiner called the emergency ordinance “flatly unconstitutional” and said “the city has opened itself up to huge liabilities.” He said a recent appellate court decision makes it unlawful for cities to seize private firearms, and he urged San Diego gun owners to sue if their weapons are taken.

Deputy City Atty. John Kaheny testified that the emergency measure was adapted from state law, which allows police to seize weapons when they intervene in domestic disputes, even if they make no arrests.

But the small group who turned out to support the measure praised the council for standing up to the vocal gun enthusiasts.

“I think we saw today public officials doing what they are charged to do, and that is protect the public,” said Stanley Foster, a member of San Diegans Against Handgun Violence.


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