At the halfway point in an unprecedented effort to give thousands of owners of military-style assault guns a second chance to avoid criminal risk by registering their weapons with the state, fewer than 500 have complied.
The state Department of Justice reported that by the close of business Friday, 486 owners had registered 810 of the restricted firearms since Jan. 1, the start of the special 90-day amnesty from the state law that makes possession of unregistered semiautomatic assault weapons a crime.
But assistants to Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, sponsor of the extraordinary grace period, said it is too soon to conclude whether the $330,000 registration advertising campaign intended to inform gun owners of the amnesty has failed.
"If we got the information out there and got a lot of inquiries, we have to feel that we have done what we can. We cannot force people to comply with the law," said James Robinson, director of communications for Lungren and an architect of the broadcast advertising effort.
"The key measuring stick is how many people are we reaching with information, not necessarily how many people register their guns," he said.
Robinson said one indicator of gun owner interest is the department's toll-free information line, which has recorded nearly 10,000 calls. About 2,000 other calls went directly to the registration processors.
In all, the Department of Justice reported that as of Friday, 46,062 assault firearms have been registered since the 1989 enactment of the assault gun ban, including the 810 recorded in the second chance grace period.
No one knows how many such guns are privately owned in California. The state Department of Justice has estimated there are 200,000 to 300,000. Others have calculated as many as 450,000 to 600,000.
State Senate Leader David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles), who sponsored the 90-day special registration bill, said the turnout so far "appears to be a little slow" but insisted "it takes time for the advertising to sink in."
Even so, critic Michael J. McNulty, chairman of an organization opposed to controls on assault guns, said that participation in the second attempt to secure registration is shaping up as a replay of 1990, when thousands of owners failed to comply.
"At this stage of the game, compliance with the second request for registration is not meeting with any more success than the first, perhaps less," said McNulty, whose Corona-based California Organization for Public Safety claims several hundred members.
The grace period from prosecution for those who register by March 30 stems from the landmark law that banned the civilian versions of military-style Uzis, AK-47s and other high-capacity semiautomatic rifles, pistols and shotguns.
The law allowed owners who had legally acquired assault guns to keep them if they were registered during 1990. Failure to do so could result in prosecution for possession of an illegal firearm, with penalties ranging from a minimum fine to $350 to a term in prison.
For a variety of reasons, only 8,927 guns were registered in 1990. One National Rifle Assn. executive suggested that the massive failure to comply represented an act of civil disobedience. Some gun owners claimed they forgot, procrastinated, knew nothing of the law or were turned away by police and the state Department of Justice.
Although the first registration period ended Dec. 31, 1990, Lungren, acting on his own, continued accepting late registrations through 1991. Registrants were given no assurance that they were immune from prosecution.
At the same time, Lungren and Roberti, co-author of the 1989 assault gun ban, pushed a bill through the Legislature last year that created the 90-day registration in which criminal liability for those who register is waived. The law also demanded that the second chance be heavily publicized.
At the department, Robinson and other officials said it is their understanding that when the registration ends March 30, late filings will continue to be accepted as they were last year. However, they said, such registrants will no longer be "forgiven" from potential prosecution for possession of an illegal gun.
McNulty said he had heard rumblings that registration would continue "into infinity. This tells us that the (assault gun ban) law is an abject failure when you also consider the number of applicants complying with the registration requirements."