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First Registration, Then Confiscation By: Tanya Metaksa
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, July 12, 2001

AMERICA PRIDES ITSELF ON BEING A COUNTRY OF LAWS. Yet, laws are written by biased legislators. When those biases distort meanings and redefine objects it becomes difficult for ordinary citizens to comply, leading to mass confusion and non-compliance. California firearms statutes are a prime example.

In 1989 an insane drifter walked into a schoolyard in Stockton, California and shot his AK-47 randomly at the children playing during recess. When Patrick Purdy’s rampage ended, five children were dead, 29 children and one teacher were wounded, and Purdy committed suicide.

That incident changed gun control politics not only in California but in Washington, DC as well. A new politically-inspired definition entered the debate: "assault weapons." A true military assault weapon is a firearm that is capable of fully automatic fire, like a machine gun, in which one trigger pull shoots multiple bullets. Current U.S. military firearms fire three bullets with one pull of the trigger.

The civilian ownership of machine guns, for all intents and purposes, has been prohibited since the passage of the National Firearms Act of 1934 (NFA). The NFA was passed by the Congress as a belated response to the mob warfare that was rampant during the Prohibition era, as dramatized by the TV show and movie, The Untouchables.

After the Stockton massacre, the term "assault weapons" became the pejorative term to classify any long arm that gun prohibitionists desired to ban. The weapon used by Patrick Purdy was a semi-automatic rifle, not the Soviet fully automatic military firearm, which is not for sale legally in the United States. Yet, his semi-automatic firearm became the gun-banners’ symbol for "assault weapons."

In response to the furor over Patrick Purdy and his firearm, the California legislature defined and banned the "assault weapon." In 1989, it passed the Roberti-Roos bill, which listed roughly 70 firearms, generally identified by make and model and required owners of these guns to register them with the state. Additionally the legislature further defined "assault weapons" to include guns with specific characteristics such as pistol grips, magazine capacity, and other cosmetic features. The law was so draconian that even after gun-owners registered their rifles, the guns could not be sold or bequeathed.

By the 1991 cut-off date, only 34,000 firearms were registered, from an estimated 250,000 to 1 million firearms, and manufacturers renamed their firearms to avoid those named guns.

The gun banners responded to the renamed firearms and in 1991 amended the "assault weapons" law declaring that AR-15 and AK-47 "series" guns (defined as other models, regardless of manufacturer, "that are only variations, with minor differences") were "assault weapons" too.

Those amendments led to more unwitting "assault weapon" violators. People like Desert Hot Springs Police Officer Steven O'Connor was arrested and prosecuted by his own department just last year for possessing a Maadi RML rifle, incorrectly deemed an AK "series" gun. It isn't. It took ten months for the case to be dismissed; but he still isn’t back on the job.

Due to poor registration compliance, the legislature also included money for an "education campaign" and extended the grace period for registration until March 1992. If a gun owner was caught with an unregistered gun after that date and prosecuted, it was possible for him to register the offending firearm, thereby reducing the felony to an infraction, and get his gun back. Former Republican Attorney General Dan Lungren, not wishing to further alienate gun owners, as he was planning to run for Governor in 1998, extended the registration date, causing Handgun Control, Inc.(HCI) to file suit.

When Democrat Bill Lockyear, an avowed gun prohibitionist, became Attorney General in 1999, he dropped opposition to HCI’s lawsuit, thereby invalidating every post-1992 registration and causing all those legally-owned firearms to become illegal.

This wasn’t happening in some Third World country, but in our most populous state: California. Honest, law-abiding citizens complying with a gun registration law were told to either turn them into the police, render them inoperable, or get them out of state. It was California’s version of firearms confiscation -- gun registration leading to ipso-facto gun confiscation.

In late June, the California Supreme Court recognized some of the 1991 law's flaws and partially limited the laws’ application in Harrott v. County of Kings. The Court simply stated that the DOJ must give folks notice of specifically what guns are 1991 AK or AR "series" guns.

The decision, however, in no way affects the original 1989 list and the 1999 amendments. Since the legislature passed the 1999 amendments and the new Attorney General unilaterally declared 140 guns to be AR and AK "series" firearms, this decision is too little, too late.

It’s easy to see why California gun owners believe their government is out to get them. They have borne the brunt of arbitrary and capricious definitions, and have watched gun owners arrested for mere possession of legally acquired firearms. Thus there grows among American gun owners, as with Americans during Prohibition, a vanishing respect for both the law-making process and the legal system.

Tanya K. Metaksa is the former executive director of the National Rifle Association's Institute for Legislative Action. She is the author of Safe, Not Sorry a self-protection manual, published in 1997. She has appeared on numerous talk and interview shows such as "Crossfire," the "Today" show, "Nightline," "This Week with David Brinkley" and the "McNeil-Lehrer Hour," among others.

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