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Andy Lopez-inspired gun restrictions now law

Nearly a year after 13-year-old Andy Lopez was fatally shot by a Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy in southwest Santa Rosa, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation Tuesday that will impose the most stringent restrictions on BB guns and toy or replica firearms of any state in the nation.

The new law, co-authored by state Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, essentially bans weapons like the one Lopez was carrying on Oct. 22 when the teen was killed by Deputy Erick Gelhaus, who reportedly mistook the airsoft rifle for a real assault rifle.

Barring a successful legal challenge, the law, which takes effect Jan. 1, 2016, will require BB, pellet and airsoft guns to be brightly colored or to feature fluorescent strips prominently on parts of the gun to make them easily distinguishable from the real thing.

Evans on Tuesday said the law could have “made a difference” had it been in effect when Gelhaus spotted Lopez walking on a sidewalk on Moorland Avenue, outside city limits, carrying what turned out to be a plastic gun designed to look like an AK-47 assault rifle.

Authorities said Gelhaus, who was with a deputy trainee, shouted at Lopez to drop his weapon, opening fire after Lopez turned and the barrel of the gun rose toward the deputies. Gelhaus fired eight shots at the boy, hitting him seven times.

“I wasn’t there, and I can’t second-guess what a lot of other people have concluded, including Sonoma County’s district attorney,” Evans said, referring to the decision by Jill Ravitch’s office to clear Gelhaus of criminal wrongdoing in the incident. “But it’s my strong belief that this legislation will prevent this from happening again.”

Lopez’s death became a rallying cry for supporters of what officially became the Imitation Firearm Safety Act, after previous attempts to pass new restrictions on the replica weapons failed to gain traction in Sacramento.

Evans speculated that Brown signed SB199 because law enforcement supported the legislation and because “it was the right thing to do.”

“A toy should look like a toy,” the senator said. “It shouldn’t look like an authentic weapon that gets children killed.”

Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas on Tuesday said the new law will make it easier for law enforcement and the public to distinguish toy or replica firearms from the real thing. Freitas declined to comment on whether or not he thought the law might have prevented Lopez’s death. But he said in general, the new coloring restrictions “can’t hurt.”

An attorney for the Lopez family did not return a phone call Tuesday seeking comment.

Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch announced in July she would not seek criminal charges against Gelhaus, who has returned to patrol duties. Ravitch, who supported Evans’ bill, did not return a message Tuesday seeking comment.

As it did with previous legislative efforts, the gun lobby again came out in force against SB199, calling it a de facto ban on replica guns and warning that criminals will simply skirt the new rules by painting real guns to make them look fake.

Despite supporting the legislation, Freitas said he was disappointed it did not include penalties for people who are caught with having a real gun painted to look like a toy.

Evans on Tuesday said such a provision may be included in future legislation. She co-authored SB199 with Sen. Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, who attempted to get similar legislation passed in 2011 after police shot and paralyzed a 13-year-old Los Angeles boy carrying a BB gun modeled after a real handgun. That bill stalled in committee amid resistance from gun manufacturers and the gun lobby.

A handful of cities have enacted ordinances similar to the legislation Brown signed Tuesday. New York City passed an ordinance prohibiting look-alike or imitation firearms unless the entire exterior of the device is colored brightly or made entirely of transparent or translucent materials. The New York State Court of Appeal upheld the ordinance on the grounds that additional regulations at the local level “complement” federal law.

But Ryan Podesta, who owns Thirty First Outfitters and Playland in Cotati, predicted Tuesday that people will easily get around the new law’s coloring restrictions. He also anticipates losing money to online retailers who aren’t subject to California’s laws.

“I can’t sell them what they want, so they’ll order it online,” Podesta said.

State law currently prohibits imitation firearms such as the one Lopez carried from being displayed in public unless the weapon meets color guidelines. Federal statutes also require that weapons that expel plastic pellets, such as airsoft guns, be equipped with orange tips.

Lopez appeared to have been violating both state and federal statutes by openly carrying an airsoft gun that did not have an orange tip and was not entirely colored a certain way or translucent. He also had a clear plastic replica handgun with an orange tip at the end of the barrel tucked in his waistband.

The new law signed by Brown takes things a step further by requiring that all BB, pellet and airsoft guns made and sold in California be entirely colored a certain way or feature a 2-centimeter-wide adhesive band with fluorescent coloring on the weapon’s prominent features, such as the buttstock.

Paintball guns are exempted.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. ?On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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