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City looks to ban assault weapons

Columbus plan likely would face court test

Mark Ferenchik

The Columbus City Council will try to pass an assault-weapons ban by the end of July that officials think can withstand legal challenges that shot down two earlier proposals.

And though the National Rifle Association said such a ban could force the organization to consider moving its national convention out of Columbus in 2007, the proposal’s sponsor said the ban would be in the city’s best interest.

"They’re not going to dictate the policies of this city," said Columbus City Councilman Michael C. Mentel, who sponsored the legislation. He expects the council’s full support.

Mentel plans to introduce the legislation Monday, then hold a public hearing June 30.

The proposal is geared toward taking high-powered, semiautomatic assault weapons off the streets. Anyone who bought the firearms before the ban took effect would have 90 days to register them.

"Police officers are fearful of these weapons," Mentel said.

Opponents said they’ll see the city in court.

"I feel very sure there will be some legal challenge. When and what is still open to study at this point," said lawyer David Buda, who represents the Peoples Rights Organization, which won court cases against Columbus’ bans in the 1990s.

City Attorney Richard C. Pfeiffer Jr. thinks the city can give "a credible defense."

Pfeiffer said the city’s lawyers have better defined assault weapons. The definition is based on a model created by the Legal Community Against Violence, based in San Francisco. It’s model in turn is based on other bans.

In 1994, a federal court overturned Columbus’ 1989 ordinance, ruling the city’s attempt to ban 46 makes and models was unconstitutionally vague. That’s because it excluded similar guns from the list but didn’t explain why.

Columbus passed another ban in 1994, but a federal court shot that down as well because it didn’t do a good job in defining an assault weapon by its general characteristics.

The new Columbus proposal defines an assault weapon as a semiautomatic rifle with a detachable magazine with any of these five components: a protruding pistol grip, a grip for the nonshooting hand, a thumbhole stock, a shroud covering a hot barrel and a muzzle brake to reduce recoil.

Laura Cutilletta, senior staff attorney for the Legal Community Against Violence, said that’s a better definition.

But she said, "You can’t predict what the court is going to do."

Buda, who hasn’t seen the proposal, thinks the proposal would ban some hunting rifles.

Mentel said the ordinance would not prohibit "legitimate sporting weapons."

Mentel, who leads the council’s safety and judiciary committee, thought Columbus needed a weapons ban after the 10-year-old federal law expired last September. The federal ban prohibited the sale of 19 kinds of semiautomatic weapons, including Uzis, Colt AR-15s and AK-47s.

Mayor Michael B. Coleman received a copy of the legislation yesterday and supports some sort of regulation, said Mike Brown, his spokesman.

Last month, the National Rifle Association announced it would hold its 2007 convention May 18-20 in Columbus, an event expected to draw 60,000 to the Greater Columbus Convention Center.

Asked if the proposal would prompt the group to relocate to another city, NRA spokeswoman Kelly Hobbs said, "All options are on the table. We would have to consider that.

"We’ll certainly come out with a more official position if and when it’s passed."

Experience Columbus, the area’s convention and visitors bureau, expects the convention would bring $12 million to $15 million into the city’s economy.

"All indications to us is they’re very committed to Columbus," Experience Columbus spokesman Brent LaLonde said.

Mentel said police and antigun groups support a ban. That includes the Fraternal Order of Police Capital City Lodge No. 9, which represents Columbus police.

Lodge President Leif Bickel said he hopes the law would give authorities the ability to seize weapons from criminals, although he thinks some people would illegally keep them.

Columbus police say they are facing more semiautomatic assault weapons on the West Side.

Mentel said the ordinance could be tweaked depending on what comes up at the public hearing.

The proposal does not regulate or restrict stun guns. Mentel said police told him they have not seen cases of stun guns being used in crimes.

Dublin updated its ordinances in February to ban manufacturing, importing, buying, selling or transferring assault weapons. While it hasn’t been challenged in court, it doesn’t prohibit possessing the weapons, as Columbus’ proposal does.

Dublin city attorneys thought that would be difficult to enforce.

*FW Note:

This is registration to identify owners for an eventual total ban, the same way they did it in CA.

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