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Should Calif. Cops Turn In Assault Weapons They Own At Retirement?

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A Vallejo police cruiser. (CBS)

A Vallejo police cruiser. (CBS)

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VALLEJO (CBS 5) — After a bloody incident 15 years ago, California lawmakers allowed police officers to arm themselves with assault weapons. But the rule didn’t consider what happens when an officer retires.

In 1997, Los Angeles police officers were outgunned during a confrontation with two robbers, forcing them to borrow extra firepower from a nearby gun dealer just to fight back. 11 officers and 7 civilians were injured.

One of the bloodiest days in U.S. police history would lead California lawmakers to make an exception to the law that bans the sale of assault weapons.

The weapon of choice: The AR-15. It fires as few as 20 or as many as 45 rounds.  It’s still illegal for most Californians to purchase, but police officers can buy them. Around the state, sales are brisk.

Officer Alan Caragan with the Vallejo Police Department not only bought an AR-15, he never patrols without it. “To know you have additional resources when confronting an armed suspect…helps us out,” he said.

Caragan is not alone. 70 percent of Vallejo’s officers now carry the AR-15. And just like Caragan, the officers dipped into their own pockets to buy it. The weapon, which costs around $1,200, is the officer’s personal property and not the department’s.

“We just don’t have the money to purchase AR-15′s for all our officers,” said Vallejo police spokesman Sgt. Jeff Bassett.

Bassett said safeguards are in place, starting with written permission from the chief. “In our case the officers went to a 3-day, 10-hour-a-day school,” he said.

California cops paying to pack the high-powered guns have been on a steady increase. The State Department of Justice documents more than 7,600 assault weapons registered to peace officers over the past decade.

In the Bay Area, most of the registrations are in Alameda, Santa Clara, Contra Costa, and Solano counties. But one city stands out: Oakland.

Why? Because OPD is dealing with more high-powered weapons seized from the bad guys than any other Bay Area city.

It’s a deadly reality that played out in 2009 at the trigger of ex-con Lovell Mixon. “We lost four officers on one day,” said Oakland Police Chief Howard Jordan. “Two by handguns, the other two by assault weapons.”

Jordan supports his officer’s buying their own assault rifles. And since they own them, they’re allowed to use them off duty. “I think we owe it to our officers to make sure they are properly equipped. We also owe it to the residents of Oakland to make sure that the police officers that are here in the city have the equipment to protect them,” Jordan said.

But what happens when those officers retire? The assault weapon they bought with their own money suddenly becomes illegal.

“By this quirk of the law, have we made them a criminal?” asked Ron Cottingham, president of the Police Officers Research Association of California.

Cottingham said for years the law was unclear, until then Attorney General Jerry Brown released an opinion just over a year ago. It stated a retiring officer is not permitted to keep that assault weapon. “It does not serve law enforcement purposes,” according to the written opinion because the goal of the state is to eliminate the availability of assault weapons generally.

“So now we are kind of in a conundrum of what do you do,” said Cottingham. Because if cops paid to pack, who’s going to pay them back?  “If the department couldn’t afford to buy this weapon in the first place how is the department going to afford buying it back from the officer when he retires?”

That’s why he supports a new bill that would allow cops to keep their guns. But that bill is far from bulletproof. In fact it’s in the crosshairs of second amendment rights groups such as the Calguns Foundation.

“At some point there is going to be a big stop sign on this,” said Calguns Vice Chair Bill Wiese.  He lobbies to keep guns in the hands of citizens like himself. So why is he lobbying to keep assault rifles out of the hands of retiring cops? “I just don’t think a retiree gets special privileges,” he said.

He argues if retired cops can own an assault weapon, so should he. “What’s fair is fair,” he said.

Cottingham disagrees. “I believe they are special people. We will lobby the bill heavily, to see that it can pass and go to the Governor’s desk and be signed,” he said.

In cash-strapped Vallejo, police hope the bill will go through because scores of cops will retire soon, and the department and they can’t buy back those guns.

“It’s definitely a pressing issue. So hopefully Sacramento is going to be able to resolve it,” said Bassett.

Wiese predicts however that it’s going to be a tough call, because Brown was the one that wrote the opinion paper that said retired officers can’t keep the guns.

(Copyright 2012 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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