California to set new window for assault weapon registration following lawsuit

California
In this Aug. 15, 2012 file photo, three variations of the AR-15 assault rifle are displayed at the California Department of Justice in Sacramento. (Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press)

In this Aug. 15, 2012 file photo, three variations of the AR-15 assault rifle are displayed at the California Department of Justice in Sacramento. (Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press)

California will give gun owners more time to register their legal assault weapons under a settlement announced Thursday over what critics charged was the state’s botched registration system in 2018.

The settlement with the state attorney general’s office means no owners will be held liable for missing the July 1, 2018, registration deadline. The state will eventually provide a new 90-day window to register the guns after a new hearing and notification process.

Gunowners rights’ groups sued the state Department of Justice alleging that its system for registering so-called bullet-button assault weapons was unavailable for most of the week before the deadline.

The bullet buttons allow users to rapidly exchange ammunition magazines on an assault-style weapon by using a small tool or the tip of a bullet.

The Calguns Foundation, Second Amendment Foundation, Firearms Policy Coalition and Firearms Policy Foundation argued the faulty registration website left owners who were unable to register by the deadline potentially vulnerable to prosecution through no fault of their own.

The settlement applies only to those who legally owned the “bullet button” weapons at the time and tried but failed to register them because of technical difficulties.

“We’ve always believed that this was about giving gun owners a reasonable opportunity to comply with the law and not be made felons at the stroke of midnight because the State couldn’t operate a website,” one of their attorneys, George M. Lee, said in a statement.

Transporting an unregistered assault weapon, even to a shooting range, can be charged as a felony under California law, with a prison sentence ranging from four to six years.

Assuming the federal judge overseeing the lawsuit agrees, Lee said, “the injunction will afford significant legal protections for possibly tens of thousands of gun owners.”

The deal was announced the same day the U.S. Senate confirmed California Attorney General Xavier Becerra as President Joe Biden’s health secretary. His department will pay $151,821 for the plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees and costs.

“The Department believes the proposed settlement is in the best interest of the people of California, and will ensure that lawfully owned assault weapons are registered with the Bureau of Firearms,” his office said in a statement.

Gun groups said owners tried repeatedly to register their weapons during the state’s registration window in 2018 using different web browsers, hardware and multiple devices. But they couldn’t because the system repeatedly crashed or timed out before their applications were completed.

Their lawsuit contended that state officials knew the registration system was flawed and understaffed despite a temporary infusion of nearly $2.6 million and 27 employees.

Aside from the website, this time the department is also agreeing to accept paper registration applications postmarked through the last day of the upcoming registration period.

The settlement comes as a different federal judge is considering whether to throw out California’s assault weapons ban, which opponents said deprives law-abiding Californians of weapons commonly allowed in most other states.

The same judge, U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez of San Diego, last year rejected California’s attempt to require ammunition buyers to have background checks, citing extensive problems with the state’s system. That ruling is now before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

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