SACRAMENTO – Owners of assault weapons have only through Sunday to register their firearms. However, gun groups plan to sue to block a deadline they say is confusing and was poorly publicized.
Final regulations over what defines an assault weapon weren’t approved until Dec. 5. That didn’t give firearm owners enough notice to meet Sunday’s deadline, said attorney Chuck Michel.
He represents groups including the National Rifle Association, California Rifle and Pistol Association, and California Sporting Goods Association, as well as gun dealers and owners who want the deadline extended.
The groups also complain that the law and regulations don’t give firearm owners enough direction on how they can modify their weapons so they won’t be considered assault weapons.
Nathan Barankin, a spokesman for Attorney General Bill Lockyer, countered that firearm owners have had a year to register, alter or get rid of their weapons since the law took effect.
“The law’s been very clear from the beginning,” Barankin said. “The regulations are basically a regurgitation of what the statute requires.”
He said the law clearly defines as assault weapons firearms with military-style characteristics like a pistol grip, folding stock, or flash suppressor.
Lockyer’s Department of Justice ran newspaper and radio ads, notified gun dealers and organizations, and set up a Web site and toll-free number to publicize the law, in addition to a series of public hearings on the regulations.
However, NRA spokesman Steve Helsley worries many assault weapons owners still are unaware of the law, or mistakenly think they complied when they registered their weapon at the time they purchased it.
Failing to register an assault weapon could subject the owner to a $500 fine along with a jail or prison term.
California has had three separate assault weapon registration deadlines that Helsley and Michel said are confusing to gun owners:
—A 1989 law named specific weapons that had to be registered by March 31, 1992. Californians registered 67,000 assault weapons under that law.
—The California Supreme Court in August upheld Lockyer’s right to register variations on the AK and AR-15 assault weapons named in the 1989 law. Owners of those weapons have until Jan. 23 to register their guns.
—The 1999 law defines assault weapons based on their characteristics, rather than naming specific firearms. The deadline for registering is Dec. 31.
“You’ve got eight million gun owners in California who don’t have a lawyer in their closet (to explain the laws),” said Michel. “We’re just going to have a whole slew of accidental felons.”
More than 10,000 assault weapons owners have registered under the new law this year, 6,500 of them since mid-November. On Tuesday alone the department received 1,500 registrations, Barankin said. Each registered owner can possess more than one weapon.
Helsley and Barankin expect many owners have modified their weapons rather than registering them. That allows them to avoid restrictions on how assault weapons may be used, transported and sold.