Capitol Alert

‘I can’t be a felon’: Gun owners sue California over faulty weapon registration system

Harry Sharp spent most of the last weekend of June sitting in front of his computer, trying resolutely to register his four newly banned guns on the California Department of Justice’s website.

The deadline to register his bullet-button assault weapons was June 30, and California’s online reporting system kept crashing.

Sharp said he managed to register his Steyr AUG, a bullpup-style rifle, on June 29, a Friday, but was unable to register his other three firearms despite the hours he spent trying.

“I got very little sleep that weekend,” said Sharp, a 52-year-old stay-at-home father and hunter from Redding. “I worked late on Friday, and on Saturday morning, I had a couple pops of coffee and kept going at it the whole day.”

Tens of thousands of gun owners were prevented from registering their bullet-button assault weapons before July 1 through no fault of their own, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday against Attorney General Xavier Becerra. The suit was filed on behalf of Sharp and two other individuals by gun rights groups The Calguns Foundation, Firearms Policy Coalition, Firearms Policy Foundation and Second Amendment Foundation.

“Bullet buttons” are devices that allow a magazine to quickly disengage with the use of a small tool, usually the tip of a bullet. They were designed after California lawmakers, intending to slow down the process of reloading firearms, in 1999 banned assault weapons with magazines that could be detached without disassembling the gun or using a tool.

Then in 2016, lawmakers banned the sale of bullet-button assault weapons, too, because they were used in the 2015 San Bernardino massacre. Californians who owned bullet-button assault weapons had to register their guns or risk prosecution.

Possessing an unregistered assault weapon is either a misdemeanor or felony. Transporting an unregistered assault weapon is a felony punishable by up to eight years in jail.

Sharp said he called a Department of Justice service line on July 2, the following Monday, to ask what he should do. The person responding told him that the registration was his responsibility, Sharp said, and that they could not extend the deadline further.

The lawsuit alleges that the Department of Justice received many other similar requests for assistance but did not respond until after the deadline, when staff told the callers that it was too late to register. The suit asks the judge to give those who had website issues, and other gun owners, a reasonable amount of time to register their firearms through a functional system.

“As much as I don’t agree with what they’re doing, I had a responsibility to my wife and children to register,” Sharp said. “I can’t be a felon. I can’t go to jail. I’ve never been arrested or been in handcuffs. I had a couple of speeding tickets when I was younger. But all of a sudden, like with the other bans, I became a bad guy.”

The Department of Justice did not respond to questions about problems with the registration system, how many people were able to successfully register and whether they would prosecute individuals who were unable to register their guns.

The lawsuit also alleges that the department did not properly conduct a public education program to notify bullet-button assault weapon owners that they had to register their firearms.

Gun owners had around 11 months, starting in August 2017, to find out about their legal obligation and register their guns. The suit claims that was not an adequate amount of time.

Nearly 5,000 applications to register bullet-button assault weapons had been filed by February, according to data from the Department of Justice. But Sean Brady, attorney for the California Rifle and Pistol Association, believes many more Californians did not even know that they had to register. Legal compliance was “largely left to ‘word of mouth,’” the suit alleges.

“This law has created thousands of criminals, if not tens of thousands, of people who became unwitting criminals who didn’t know they had to register their guns. They’re felons now,” Brady said.

The figures from the lawsuit are an estimate, based on records of sale that California gun purchasers are required to fill out when they buy a gun through a licensed dealer. More than 5 million long guns have been sold in California since 2000, and the lawsuit estimates that a substantial number of those firearms are bullet-button assault weapons.

Sharp owned assault weapons in California during the last registration period in 2000, when gun owners were similarly able to keep their weapons as long as they registered them with the government. He recalls that he filled out an application that he received in the mail, sent it back and then received a letter saying the gun was successfully registered. It was quick, he said, unlike using the online registration system.

“The government probably thought it was just a few NRA members buying guns up, so that’s probably why they were not prepared for number of people trying to get on the website,” Sharp said.

For some, the system timed out during access, whether at the beginning of the process or at the end, after they tried to click the “submit” button, the lawsuit alleges. Sharp said he tried to access the website at least 50 times, but it did not allow him to upload images of his firearms, the final step before submitting.

“The ironic part that our clients are the people who are trying to comply with the law,” said attorney George Lee, who represents the plaintiffs. “The reason we’re suing is because we want to know what the parameters of the law are and that the gun laws are fair. That’s why we feel the need to take action.”

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