Disarming Approach

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Thousands of otherwise law-abiding Californians became criminals on January 1. That was the deadline for owners of firearms classified as "assault weapons" to register them with the state. Residents of California own an estimated 300,000 such guns: only some 18,000, about 6 percent, had been registered by the end of the year. The rest are now legally subject to seizure.

The state Department of Justice initially gave local police the names of those who tried to register their guns after the deadline. But Attorney General Daniel E. Lungren, who took office in January, wants to give gun owners more time. He has asked the state legislature to extend the deadline set by the Assault Weapons Control Act of 1989, passed in response to the Stockton schoolyard massacre.

Senate President Pro Tem David Roberti, cosponsor of the law, has introduced a bill that would allow a 90-day window of opportunity for gun owners who have not registered their weapons to do so. The bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in February. Meanwhile, the state does not plan to actively enforce registration.

Lungren attributes the registration fiasco to poor publicity. It's clear, however, that many gun owners are deliberately disobeying the law. T.J. Johnston, chairperson of the Gun Owners Action Committee, says that, judging from his personal contacts, most of those who missed the deadline are refusing to register as a matter of principle. "They're very aggressively resisting," he says.

The assault-weapon law, which covers 56 firearms with "military-style" characteristics such as large magazines and folding stocks, requires registration of guns owned prior to June 1, 1989; it bans ownership after that date. Violators face fines and prison terms of up to 12 years.

Johnston worries that Lungren's leniency may encourage resisters to change their minds. "I'm afraid that some people will fold," he says. "But I hope they'll remain strong in their convictions." He notes that the disobedience is spontaneous rather than organized.

Pam Pryor, a spokesperson for the National Rifle Association, says the California experience may not affect the prospects for assault-weapon laws in other states. After the California ban was passed, gun-control advocates predicted that many states would follow suit. So far only New Jersey has, but its law covers more weapons and allows fewer exceptions than California's. The New Jersey deadline for registering or surrendering guns is still months away, so it's too early to assess compliance.

In any case, Pryor notes, "there's mass noncompliance with gun-control laws all over the country. I'm not sure that the effectiveness of these laws makes any difference."

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