A Higher Fire Power

In June 13, Maurice Gerard Steskal allegedly walked out of a Lake Forest 7-Eleven, aimed a knockoff AK-47 assault rifle at an Orange County Sheriff's deputy, and fired without warning. Deputy Brad Riches, who had just pulled into the convenience-store parking lot in his patrol car, died instantly in a hail of 31 bullets.

Many law-enforcement officials might have seized the occasion to point out the need for tougher gun laws. The alleged assailant has a history of mental illness. He had also cultivated a well-established grudge against cops. And still he managed to buy a high-powered assault rifle perfectly legally under California's leaky gun-control regulations.

Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona ignored all that in a press conference following Riches' death. Instead, he used the cold-blooded ambush of his deputy—the first to die on patrol in 40 years—as an opportunity to announce that he'll be shopping for thicker bulletproof vests and more powerful assault weapons.

It was a bizarre response for the sheriff, whose only previous policy statement on guns was to announce earlier this year that he favors extending a concealed-weapons permit to any citizen who can pass an FBI background check and show a legitimate need for the handgun. Carona's arms race would not have helped Riches, who was shot without warning; at most, it would have allowed him to die with an AR-15 rifle locked in the trunk of his car.

If anything, Riches' murder illustrates the stupidity of California's current gun laws. Hoping to satisfy the well-heeled gun lobby, state lawmakers have written weapons laws that attempt the impossible: to identify by name guns that are illegal.

The regulations, embodied in the 1989 Roberti-Roos bill, are circumvented almost as quickly as they are signed into law. Roberti-Roos bans only models of weaponry that are actually identified by brand name in Section 12276 of the California penal code.

Want to get around the law? Make modest changes in your weapon, call it something not specifically banned in the penal code, and you're street-legal, said David La Bahn, a lobbyist with the California District Attorneys Association. “If you have a list like that, with a TEC 9 [Uzi-style automatic pistol], you can go out and create a TEC 10, which is not on the list. That's what a lot of gun manufacturers have done.”

With such loopholes in mind, state Senator Don Perata (D-Oakland) has reintroduced an Assembly bill that passed the legislature last year, only to be vetoed by then-Governor Pete Wilson. Perata's new bill, Senate Bill 23, plans to add to the list of prohibited firepower all weapons that fit the basic definition of an assault rifle—not just specific models or brand names. Most important, the proposed law would also ban semiautomatic weapons.

“Don has carried this bill for three years,” said Mark Capitolo, a spokesperson for Perata. “It has been lobbied to death. A lot of the lobbying has been by the National Rifle Association and other groups, who have thrown up a lot of frivolous issues to delay it. You work with them to eliminate one issue and then they just throw up another.”

Capitolo said that, much like the original Roberti-Roos legislation, Perata's proposed ban on assault weapons enjoys the support of virtually every law-enforcement group in Sacramento. Because Governor Gray Davis and Attorney General Bill Lockyer have promised to support it, Capitolo said SB 23 could become law as early as next month. Currently, the bill is scheduled for examination by the Assembly's Public Safety Committee on July 6.

Illegal or not, assault weapons are still remarkably easy to purchase, a fact made evident by a sting operation at a Pomona gun show carried out by Lockyer's office between April 30 and May 2. “We were able to buy prohibited machine guns without any background checks or any other hurdle other than having a heartbeat and a wad of cash,” said Nathan Barankin, a press spokesperson for Lockyer.

Since that sting, Barankin said, Lockyer's office has received requests from local law-enforcement agencies across California begging for advice—as well as logistical support—on how to crack down on the sale of illegal weapons. Strangely absent among those callers is Carona.

“Sheriff Carona is obviously interested in protecting his officers,” said Barankin. “But I don't recall that Orange County has contacted us.”

According to public information officer Lieutenant Ron Smith, investigators with the county's Sheriff's Department routinely monitor local gun shows and dealerships, making use of confidential informants to ensure that no transactions involving illegal weapons take place. Firearms investigators also confiscate weapons from people's homes, in many cases acting on tips from patrol deputies who have responded to domestic violence calls.

But what about lobbying for tougher gun laws? Despite the brutal slaying of one of its own members, the Orange County Sheriff's Deputy Association says it has no plans whatsoever to lobby for increased gun control.

Telephone calls asking the same question to Carona and Assistant Sheriff George Jaramillo were diverted to the department's public information office, which had yet to respond at press time.

In Sacramento, meanwhile, Barankin promised that Lockyer intends to work closely with local law-enforcement agencies throughout the state to help rid California of high-powered assault weapons. Said Barankin, “We anticipate working closely with Sheriff Carona and his department's efforts to enforce gun laws in Orange County.”

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