Police Up in Arms over Revised Federal Gun Law Some Law-Enforcement Officials Are Balking at a New Law That Requires Those with Domestic Violence Convictions to Surrender Their Weapons

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To a police officer, a gun is basic equipment, an essential tool of a cop's trade - like a hammer to a carpenter.

But nationwide, police with a criminal history of domestic violence are being stripped of their weapons, in compliance with a Sept. 30 amendment to the Gun Control Act of 1968. In a move reflecting society's growing intolerance for domestic violence, the revised law bans gun ownership or possession by anyone convicted of a misdemeanor domestic-violence offense. That includes law-enforcement agents, government employees, and military personnel.

Nationally, some 19,000 law-enforcement entities are affected by the law - including the FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration. As of last week, the Pentagon was waiting for advice from the Justice Department on how to apply the law in the military. While few would argue for a batterer's right to bear arms, law-enforcement officials across the country are reeling from the implications. The US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) - charged with enforcing the law - emphasized in a Nov. 26 open letter to law-enforcement chiefs, "If the person was convicted of the crime at any time, he or she may not lawfully possess firearms or ammunition after Sept. 30, 1996." Departments must now carefully review the history of every officer they employ. Already in Denver, one patrol officer and one detective with prior domestic violence convictions have been reassigned to desk jobs; and in Los Angeles, five sheriff's deputies have been disarmed. But some law-enforcement officials nationwide consider the law unconstitutional for its retroactive application and are holding off on applying it. Police Chief Rubin Archuleta in Pueblo, Colo., for one, has refused to screen officers. "I'm going to wait and see what happens in court," he says. Meanwhile, a Denver police union is considering legal action to block the federal law. "The concern we have is that it's going back to 15, 20 years ago," says Denver Police Detective John Wyckoff. "We have to say to officers, 'When we hired you it was okay, but now you can't carry a gun.'" But US Attorney Henry Salono disagrees. "This is not punishment for a prior offense. This is a current standard set for who should be able to carry a firearm." In Congress, future debate will center on congressional intent regarding the bill's retroactivity. After sailing through the Senate under the sponsorship of Sen. …