LOS ANGELES Fresno District Attorney Ed Hunt is taking the unusual step of suing the state attorney general to overturn the regulations behind California’s stringent 1999 ban on assault weapons.
Mr. Hunt, in his 19th year as chief prosecutor, says that the rules are so vague that police, gun dealers, prosecutors and gun owners cannot figure out which weapons are banned.
“It’s a matter of due process,” said Mr. Hunt. “If I don’t understand the law, how can Joe Sixpack?”
The 1999 act bars the sale or import of weapons loosely known as “assault weapons,” almost all of them civilian semiautomatic rifles and shotguns of various types. The law was a major expansion of the state’s original 1989 assault weapons ban.
It gave Californians who already owned such weapons one year from January to December 2000 to register them with state authorities. Anyone possessing an unregistered assault weapons after that date must either surrender the gun to police or face a felony charge.
But unlike previous assault weapon laws passed in California and other states, the 1999 law and the resulting regulations by the state Department of Justice did not specify particular makes and models of guns that were banned.
Instead, the law defined “specific generic characteristics” and banned particular features such as folding or telescoping stocks or any magazine that accepts more than 10 rounds. The legislation also bans flash-suppressors, devices designed to hide the bright flash coming from the muzzle as the round explodes and sends the bullet hurtling out of the barrel.
Critics such as Mr. Hunt contend that the law and resulting regulations are so badly written, and so at odds with the standard definitions used by gun makers and federal regulators, that it is very difficult to tell whether a gun is legal or illegal in California.
“I am confused, and I have been around guns a long time I am a Vietnam vet,” Mr. Hunt said.
Mr. Hunt’s suit, filed Sept. 18, asks the court to send the regulations back to the California Department of Justice for clarification. The suit does not directly attack the law, which has been upheld by state courts in previous challenges.
Until the regulations are clarified, Mr. Hunt said, he will not press charges against anyone in Fresno under the new law.
“I have instructed my filing deputies not to do anything until we figure out what this law means,” he said.
State Attorney General Bill Lockyear and supporters of the law scoff at Mr. Hunt’s suit, saying he had never asked for help before the lawsuit.
“It appears to be just another political attack on the assault weapons ban,” said Hallye Jordan, spokesman for Mr. Lockyear. “It’s the same people who have been fighting it all along.”
Although they are not officially part of the suit, both the National Rifle Association and the California Rifle and Pistol Association are actively supporting the effort to overturn the regulations.
Luis Tolley, West Coast director for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Handgun Violence, said all three California assault weapons laws, starting with the first in 1989, have withstood court challenge and Mr. Hunt’s suit, which he dismissed as a publicity stunt, should be no more successful.
Gun-rights advocated have “played cute” by attacking the regulations rather than the law and by getting a district attorney to lead the charge, he said.
But Fresno gun dealer Barry Bauer, who joined Mr. Hunt in filing suit, said the issue is no joke for dealers and gun owners.
“This is serious stuff; if you haven’t registered your gun already, you’re a felon right now,” he said.
There are probably many well-intentioned and law-abiding California residents in possession of an illegal gun, he said, simply because they misunderstood the confusing regulations.
Critics say the state tacitly admitted the confusion with a recent bill, signed by the governor last month, which extended the period for police officers to register their assault weapons with the state.