A statewide lobbying group for police officers said Thursday it will pursue legislation next year that would allow officers to keep assault weapons after they retire, seeking to overturn an opinion issued last year by the state attorney general's office.
Peace officers can own assault weapons that are illegal for civilians to buy, even for officers' off-duty use. The Associated Press reported Wednesday that more than 7,600 officers have bought such firearms since the state began allowing the practice a decade ago.
Officers who buy assault weapons must give them up when they retire or leave law enforcement because they no longer qualify as peace officers under California law, then-Attorney General Jerry Brown said in an official opinion issued last December.
Brown based the decision on several court rulings, state law and lawmakers' intent when they exempted law enforcement from the state's assault weapons ban in 2001. He issued the ruling days before he was sworn in as governor.
"We think that an officer that extends himself and buys this for his department and his community is being unduly punished as they go out the door," said Ron Cottingham, president of the Peace Officers Research Association of California.
City police officers, county sheriff's deputies, California Highway Patrol officers, state game wardens, school police officers and other law enforcement personnel can buy assault weapons with their own money, at a cost often exceeding $1,200.
The proposed legislation is still being written but likely would allow officers to re-register their weapons once they retire, similar to the registrations required for those who owned assault rifles before California's ban became law in 1999.
The peace officers group is a federation of more than 900 local, state and federal law enforcement associations representing 62,000 public safety employees in California. It bills itself as the state's largest law enforcement organization.
The group successfully lobbied for the exemption that was added to state law in 2001, which allowed individual officers to buy semiautomatic assault weapons.
Cottingham said the intent was to let officers buy weapons their departments could not afford as a way of keeping up with criminals' increasing firepower. The intention was that officers have the weapons available for law enforcement emergencies around the clock, whether they were on- or off- duty, he said.
Cottingham said retired officers still could use their assault weapons to battle criminals or terrorists in an emergency.
"They're obviously not for official use once you're retired," he said. "You have it for target practice, you have it for safety. I would agree the arguments are probably not as strong to have the retired officer have this weapon."
Some agencies now provide all the weapons their officers need on the job while still letting officers buy assault weapons for their own use as permitted by state law, the AP reported Wednesday.
The legal exemption for peace officers came under scrutiny after federal authorities served search warrants in November on officers with several Sacramento-area law enforcement agencies. That ongoing investigation focuses on officers selling weapons that are not available to the general public, but it is not known whether assault weapons are involved. No charges have been filed.
The bulk of assault weapons purchased by individual officers this year were in the Los Angeles Police Department, where officers registered 146 weapons, the state said in response to the AP's Public Records Act request.
Officers in the San Diego Police Department, Riverside County Sheriff's Department and Long Beach Police Department were also leaders in buying the 861 weapons registered statewide this year. The guns have high-capacity magazines and may have other features that are generally banned in California.
The number of weapons bought by officers dropped nearly 25 percent after Brown's ruling, likely because officers often didn't want to buy weapons they couldn't keep, state Department of Justice officials said. Officers bought 1,431 weapons in 2009, 1,166 in 2010, and 861 through November 2011, the department said in responding to a public records request by the AP. State law requires that officers get their supervisors' written permission to buy the weapons, and that they be registered with the DOJ.
The AP sought the information after the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives served search warrants last month as part of its ongoing weapons-trafficking investigation.
The federal investigation and AP's findings prompted state Assemblyman Roger Dickinson to consider introducing legislation tightening California law to make it clear the weapons are for on-duty use. Dickinson, D-Sacramento, questioned PORAC's push to let retirees keep their weapons.
"What's the justification, in the event of retirement, that would suggest an officer or a former officer would need such a weapon?" Dickinson asked. Having thousands of assault weapons in the hands of former police officers "only increases the risk, it would seem to me, that such weapons would find their way into the hands of people who don't have a legitimate law enforcement purpose."
Cottingham said he is not worried that retirees would sell their weapons or that they could fall into the wrong hands when retired officers die. Families would be required to turn in the weapons or sell them in another state where possession is permitted, he said. Some weapons could also be easily converted so they no longer meet California's assault weapon definition.
He said PORAC would oppose Dickinson's bill tightening the exemption, though he acknowledged the law currently is ambiguous.
The Calguns Foundation, which supports gun owners' rights, plans to use the peace officer exemption in a lawsuit next year that will attempt to overturn California's ban on civilian ownership of assault weapons, said foundation attorney Jason A. Davis of Mission Viejo.
The foundation will argue that California's assault weapons ban violates the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution, because before the attorney general's opinion, retired officers were able to keep weapons not available to the general public.
Davis said one of the plaintiffs may be a retired police officer who currently must give up his or her gun upon retirement.