The day after a disgruntled Caltrans employee killed four people with an AK-47 assault rifle in Orange County, a state appeals court weighed arguments Friday on whether California’s precedent-setting law restricting such weapons is unconstitutional.
The hourlong hearing marked a significant step in a case that has put the landmark law in legal limbo for six years, allowing the spread of copycat versions of 75 weapons that are specifically restricted, including the AK-47.
In an animated half-hour presentation before an attentive three-justice panel, Colt Manufacturing Co. lawyer Don Kates said the Roberti-Roos Assault Weapons Control Act of 1989 “epitomizes why gun control is so stubbornly resisted.”
Saying it unfairly criminalizes law-abiding gun owners because of its vagueness, Kates described the term “assault weapon” as gibberish.
At issue is the Colt Sporter, a weapon that the attorney general alleges is an illegal copycat of the restricted Colt AR-15 assault rifle and should be added to the list of restricted weapons.
In defending the Sporter, Kates argued that the law unfairly penalizes manufacturers and owners of the AR-15 and the other 74 weapons while not affecting those who make weapons that look and function almost the same.
To illustrate what he described as the arbitrariness of the law, Kates held up a 30-round ammunition magazine, which he noted fits both the illegal Colt AR-15 and the legal Ruger Mini-14.
Responding to Justice Fred Morrison’s comment that the public is afraid of assault weapons, Kates said: “I don’t think public fear would be a legitimate reason to ban anything if the fear is irrational.”
The justices peppered Kates and lawyers for Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren with numerous questions in a hearing that was punctuated with occasional humor and sharp exchanges.
Acknowledging that legislators did not write a perfect law, Assistant Atty. Gen. John Gordnier argued that legislators made a “constitutionally adequate and acceptable attempt” to determine which weapons should be listed and which shouldn’t.
He said legislators, recognizing that they could not list every conceivable weapon in the law, included a legal process for adding clones or copycats of the restricted weapons.
But Justice Robert Puglia, questioning whether the law was vague, said: “There are a whole lot of weapons out there that are utterly indistinguishable” from the restricted versions.
“They have created a whole lot of criminals . . . that we didn’t have before,” Puglia said.
The case has blocked enforcement of the Roberti-Roos law since early 1991 after Colt and Lungren agreed to a preliminary injunction barring the attorney general from adding more weapons to the list of restricted firearms, pending a court decision.