SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ A college student with a criminal record received too stiff a sentence when he was sent to prison for 15 years because he owned an Old West six-shooter that didn't work, a federal appeals court ruled.

Kevin Sherbondy, 23, of San Clemente was arrested in 1986 on the day the federal ''career criminal'' law went into effect. The law mandated a 15-year sentence, with no possibility of parole, when a person with three convictions for violent felonies was found guilty of being an ex-felon in possession of a gun.

The unanimous decision Thursday by a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals came 25 months after Sherbondy was sent to Lompoc penitentiary. The 30-page opinion upheld the gun-possession conviction but ordered a new sentence hearing in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.

Sherbondy's attorney, Dennis Riordan, said he will argue that his client be released.

Trial testimony showed the gun did not work and that Sherbondy never used it after it was given to him as a gift when he was 16. His grandparents, who reared him, said he kept the gun strapped to his bedpost as a souvenier.

The judges ruled that only two of Sherbondy's previous convictions, both robberies, qualified as violent crimes. In the third, Sherbondy was placed on three years probation for urging a friend not to testify in a cocaine case.

Riordan said Sherbondy held two part-time jobs while making the honor roll in college before his conviction on the gun charge.

Riordan was hired to represent Sherbondy by a group of people concerned about his plight. The group included former San Francisco Police Chief Con Murphy and state Court of Appeals Justice William Newsome.