As a rash of thefts and lax security in recent years makes clear, California needs to impose strict new controls on the Southland's manufacturers of cheap, concealable handguns known as Saturday night specials, a lawmaker said Tuesday.
Assemblyman Jack Scott (D-Altadena), an avid gun control advocate, has introduced a bill aimed at the factory practices of the state's several manufacturers of the weapons.
To drive home his message, Scott held an informational hearing in the Capitol featuring witnesses who told of thousands of guns disappearing by the case from one of the firms, Lorcin Engineering of Mira Loma.
The Lorcin firm is one of six gun makers collectively called Southern California's "ring of fire" by critics. Together, they account for 80% of the nation's production of inexpensive handguns.
Critics contend that the guns they make are composed of inferior material and, because they are cheap--selling from about $80 to $150--wind up disproportionately in the hands of criminals.
First discovered in late 1994, the Lorcin thefts have added up to a confirmed 5,700 guns and possibly several thousand more, according to federal agents. As reported last year in a "Frontline" PBS television documentary and in The Times, all the weapons were carted off the Lorcin premises without being detected--for months--and sold on the black market.
Ultimately, four people were arrested and convicted, in part on evidence produced by an undercover federal agent who purchased several cases of the guns from one of the sellers.
The ease with which the guns were stolen, Scott said, highlights "a huge gap in our state laws." Lack of state control over gun manufacturers, he said, "makes us look like the Wild West or something."
Scott's bill (AB 2188) would regulate the firms more closely than is now required under federal licensing regulations, supporters said.
It would require employees of gun factories to undergo criminal background checks, force the companies to use tight security measures, require company registration with state authorities and allow plant inspections by law enforcement officers.
Lorcin's president was invited but did not attend Tuesday's hearing, Scott said. Company officials did not return phone calls seeking comment. Lorcin executive Jim Waldorf has been quoted in the past as defending the firm's main product, a .380-caliber semiautomatic that retails for about $140.
The company specializes in "affordable self-protection for blue-collar workers," Waldorf has said, and any laws aimed at curtailing his business would be "more discriminatory than slavery."
According to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Lorcin .380 is the gun most often traced in criminal investigations.
In 1993, 39 guns disappeared from another firm. The thefts occurred at Bryco Arms of Costa Mesa and came to light after a gun dealer reported a pistol of suspicious origin to police, according to a Costa Mesa police officer who testified at Tuesday's hearing.
Company officials did not return phone calls seeking comment.
The Scott bill is one of two this year that seeks to make the Southern California gun factories answer to state regulators.
A tougher bill has been introduced by state Sen. Richard G. Polanco (D-Los Angeles). Polanco secured legislative passage last year of a measure that would have banned the sale and manufacture of cheap handguns, forcing some firms to retool or go out of business.
It was vetoed by Gov. Pete Wilson, who said he was unconvinced by claims that the guns posed a significant danger to users by sometimes malfunctioning.
Polanco's latest bill again seeks to ban the weapons as they are now made and uses different criteria to demonstrate their danger when they malfunction.
As for Scott's bill, a spokesman for Wilson said the Republican governor had not reviewed it. There were, however, other signs of GOP opposition.
Assemblyman Larry Bowler (R-Elk Grove) appeared at the hearing uninvited and told reporters the session was "a sham," arranged so that only Scott's allies would testify.