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Flurry of Activity Planned as Century Draws to a Close

TIMES STAFF WRITER

New Year’s Eve marks the last day for Californians to forfeit an illegal brand of assault weapon--and get paid for it.

A yearlong state buyback program offering $230 in exchange for the SKS Sporter assault rifle has resulted in the roundup of more than 600 weapons at police and sheriff’s stations across the state.

With the deadline at hand, some agencies reported a surge in gun returns this week. Statewide, about a third of the surrendered weapons have come in during the last month, officials said.

In Bakersfield, Kern County sheriff’s officials said they had gotten scores of calls after a public service announcement ran in the local newspaper. Deputies took in a dozen guns Wednesday and Thursday.

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“It’s kind of like last-minute shoppers,” Sheriff’s Cmdr. Craig Hatfield said.

The Fresno Sheriff’s Department, meanwhile, received 10 of the weapons Thursday, boosting its take for the year to more than 80. “We have one or two during a normal week,” said Ned Barton, a department spokesman. “You can definitely tell the end is coming.”

But most agencies were reporting only a tepid response. Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and LAPD officials said they were not aware of any boost as Y2K neared. It was much the same at the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department.

In the Bay Area, the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department had more than 30 guns turned in over a matter of weeks after a news conference last summer received widespread TV coverage, Sgt. Jim Knudsen said. Since then, returns have been at a trickle.

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On Saturday the state will begin enforcing a renewed ban on the controversial assault rifle, which has a detachable ammunition magazine and rapid-fire characteristics.

California earmarked more than $1 million to finance the buybacks. State Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, who is overseeing the effort, said it is difficult to gauge the success or failure of the program because no one had any idea how many of the weapons were out there. Estimates ranged from a few hundred to several thousand.

“Every assault weapon we take off the street makes our society incrementally safer,” he said.

The SKS has had a tumultuous history in California. Although it is prohibited under a 1989 assault weapons ban, the gun continued to circulate in the state along with several other types of rapid-fire rifles.

In 1998, the Legislature approved the buyback program, which effectively gave owners of the Chinese-manufactured SKS a one-year reprieve to forfeit the weapons. The program covers any of the guns purchased from 1992 through 1997.


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