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Lungren, Roberti OK Rewriting of ’89 Gun Law

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren and Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti agreed Wednesday to rewrite portions of California’s highly publicized ban on military-style assault guns to correct flaws that authorities say makes enforcement all but impossible.

Representatives of the Republican attorney general and the Democratic legislative leader expressed optimism that an overhaul of the 1989 gun control law would pass both houses of the Legislature and be signed by Gov. Pete Wilson.

For months, Roberti and Lungren had been unable to resolve their differences over how best to make the law enforceable. In June, Lungren told local law enforcement authorities that the manner of identifying banned guns under the present law was so flawed that “enforcement is not practical.” He urged them to use caution when attempting to enforce the ban.

The new legislation agreed to by Roberti, Senate author of the 1989 law, and Lungren has the potential to reignite the assault-gun-control fight. But Lungren spokesman Dave Puglia said, “We hope that the power of persuasion of the Republican attorney general and the Democratic president pro tem of the Senate can carry the bill through.”

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The cleanup legislation, which would take effect next Jan. 1, would correct major flaws in the list of nearly 60 outlawed semi-automatic assault weapons. At least one identified firearm does not exist; descriptions of two others are too vague to identify the guns and typographical errors make proper identity of others impossible.

The bill also would give gun owners an extra 90 days, also starting Jan. 1, to register their assault weapons, provided they were legally acquired before June, 1989. The mostly unheeded registration deadline expired last Dec. 31, putting perhaps thousands of owners in jeopardy of being charged with possession of an illegal gun.

But until the new bill could take effect, those who failed to register the banned weapons would remain in legal jeopardy, according to Roberti assistant Donne Brownsey. On his own initiative, Lungren is accepting registrations despite passing of the deadline. But his action does not appear to relieve a tardy registrant of criminal liability, some attorneys said.

Over major opposition of the National Rifle Assn. and other gun-owner organizations, the Legislature enacted the nation’s first prohibition of high-capacity paramilitary firearms two years ago. Included was a ban on their manufacture, sales, importation and possession, except for those that had been legally acquired.

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Throughout the 1989 debate, the NRA and other opponents charged that the bill was so technically flawed that it would be unworkable and collapse under the weight of its own defects. They charged, for instance, that the Chinese-made AK-47 fired by Stockton school-yard murderer Patrick Purdy was not even included on the banned list--an assertion denied at the time by supporters.

The new legislation, in the form of amendments to a Roberti bill introduced last winter, is intended to more specifically identify AK-style guns and includes Purdy’s model on the list, Brownsey said.

The bill originally proposed a unique 90-day amnesty for owners who did not register their assault arms by the Dec. 31 deadline. Some complained that they never knew about the registration requirement or forgot about it. One NRA official suggested that gun owners might be deliberately refusing to register as a protest against the law.

But the measure ran into a brick wall in the Assembly when liberal Assemblyman John Burton (D-San Francisco), an advocate of stronger gun controls, demanded that more assault guns be added to the list as his price for letting the bill advance.

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A source said Burton made the demand at the request of former Assemblyman Mike Roos (D-Los Angeles), Assembly author of the 1989 gun control law. Roos had made clear last January that in exchange for the 90-day extension he wanted additional guns put on the list. He privately asked Burton to block the bill.

Roos retired from the Legislature in March and the bill has barely crept forward since then. A source close to Roos said the former assemblyman now fears that without the new legislation by Roberti and Lungren, the entire law would collapse.

To save the law, the source said that Roos a few days ago called Burton, his longtime friend, and asked him to drop his insistence that new guns be added. Inclusion of new guns would likely doom the new bill.

Lungren earlier had tentatively identified five firearms as potential candidates for the banned list. However, his agreement with Roberti appears to contain no new guns beyond the expanded AK-47 category.

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