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Gun Lobby Fights Legislative Assaults On Semiautomatic Rifles

March 5, 1989

Undated (AP) _ Outrage over a schoolyard massacre led five California cities to ban semiautomatic rifles, but legislative attacks on so-called assault weapons elsewhere in the nation are facing stiff opposition from gun advocates.

Bills to ban or restrict military-style assault rifles have surfaced or are planned for introduction in Congress, 11 states and at least a dozen cities following the Jan. 17 shooting spree at an elementary school in Stockton, Calif.

Five children died, and 29 others and a teacher were injured, when drifter Patrick Purdy opened fire with an AK-47 assault rifle on a crowded playground. He fired 106 bullets in two minutes, and then killed himself.

The shock and anger that erupted, combined with concerns over the mounting use of assault weapons by drug gangs, prompted bans in the California cities of Stockton, Los Angeles, San Diego, Carson and Compton. Outside California, Cleveland has banned the weapons.

But elsewhere, the outrage seems to be losing some of its persuasive power.

Bills to ban or restrict assault weapons have died in the Maryland, Indiana and Washington legislatures; in Hutchinson, Kan.; Summit County, Ohio; Los Angeles County, Calif., and New Orleans.

In Hutchinson, city commissioners rejected a ban on assault rifles after facing an angry crowd of 150, only one of whom spoke in favor of the ban.

The issue has revived familiar gun-control arguments. One side says the bloodshed must stop, while the other says Americans have a constitutional right to own guns.

″We think America is tired of picking up the newspaper or watching TV and seeing kids and police officers lying in pools of blood,″ said Jim Scutt, National Sheriffs Association spokesman.

″We share the grief of the tragedy in Stockton,″ said National Rifle Association lobbyist James Baker. ″But the answer does not lie in restricting the rights of law-abiding citizens. The answer lies in getting the criminal off the street.″

The NRA has challenged the California cities’ bans in court, arguing that only the Legislature has the power to regulate firearms in California.

The biggest legislative battles are still to come. Congress is considering four bills to ban or restrict assault weapons. Bills are pending or expected to be introduced in California, Florida, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Oregon and Rhode Island.

Debate on all the bills focuses on how to define assault rifles.

An automatic weapon, or machine gun, fires bullets as long as the trigger is pulled. A federal permit is needed to own one.

Semiautomatic rifles, which can be bought over the counter in nearly all states, fire one bullet for each pull of the trigger but do not need to be cocked or loaded between pulls. Most states allow such rifles in hunting but usually limit the size of the ammunition magazine, or clip.

Distinguishing assault rifles such as the Soviet-designed AK-47 from semiautomatic hunting rifles can be difficult.

″They all function the same way,″ said Tom Hill, spokesman for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. ″All that changes is you take off the wood stock and put on a plastic or metal folding stock, or you put on a banana clip, rather than a small hunting clip, or you put on a bayonet.″

Some legislation would ban specific brands of guns, but the NRA argues that is useless. ″The AK-47 this year will be the AR-48 next year, and they’d be out from under the regulation,″ Baker said.

While the debate bogs down in detail, the issue remains clear to Janet Geng, a Stockton teacher whose leg has a hole ″the size of a grapefruit″ from Purdy’s shooting spree.

″These people against a ban - I’d like to have had them standing out there next to me,″ she said. ″I don’t believe there is any reason for that type of weapon to exist in our society.″

Hill said imports of AK-47s, which at $250 to $350 are among the cheapest assault rifles, have increased tenfold in the past four years. More than 40,000 were imported during the 14 months ending Nov. 30, he said.

If anything, Hill said, debate over banning assault rifles has boosted sales. Demand is reported especially high in California. And when a store in Menomonee Falls, Wis., ran a ″get ’em-before-you-can’t″ sale on AK-47s, it sold out and had to order 150 more.

In Stockton, meanwhile, police are relying on the honesty of gun owners to turn in their now illegal semiautomatic rifles. They’ve received seven.

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EDITOR’S NOTE - David Foster is the AP Northwest regional reporter, based in Seattle.

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