It’s So Easy to Unlock an Assault Weapon, the Buffalo Shooter Did It With a Drill

Nine states allow assault weapons to be sold only if they come with a locked magazine. But it’s shockingly easy to get around that.

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Despite being the type of weapon that’s illegal in New York, the Buffalo shooter’s AR-style gun was perfectly legal when he purchased it.

Nine states with some of the U.S.’ strongest gun laws allow assault weapons to be sold only if they come with a locked magazine, which reduces the number of bullets they can hold and, in theory, the amount of damage they can do in a short amount of time. New York State’s 2013 Safe Act, for example, limited the sale of assault weapons to those modified to hold just 10 bullets at a time.

But the 18-year-old gunman removed the state-mandated magazine lock from the Bushmaster-XM-15 rifle he’d bought and added his own illegal, high-capacity magazine. All he needed—all anyone needs, in fact—is a drill, a cheap gun part easily found online, and a willingness to break the law.

“You can have your gun, watch a video online, and make this modification just as efficiently as [the Buffalo shooter] did in literally a couple of minutes,” said Ryan Busse, a former executive for a firearms manufacturer who’s now a senior adviser for the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “It’s why when these laws are written, gun industry people or people who really know guns just laugh at this stuff. Because with a $2 drill bit, a video, and a couple of bucks for a new kit, you’re over it.”

“It’s why when these laws are written, gun industry people or people who really know guns just laugh at this stuff.”

Removing the lock on a fixed magazine requires a reverse drill bit, which is typically used to remove stripped screws. With some locks, you can even use less-expensive tools, like a small flat-head screwdriver, if you’re patient enough. When that lock is removed, the magazine catch, which holds the magazine in place until pressed to reload, needs to be replaced.

Replacement mag catches range in price. In his rant, the Buffalo shooter described using an Anderson Manufacturing release and spring he purchased online. The kit retails for $19.99.

Popular gun websites like MidwayUSA and Brownells offer replacement parts needed to undo state restrictions openly because they sell, according to Busse. They also create conflict between states that try to limit the use of assault weapons and the gun rights community.

“This customization culture has led to a massive availability of these aftermarket parts,” Busse said. “I’m not saying companies like Anderson Manufacturing started off by thinking this was going to be the byproduct. But when you have millions of people out there who are tinkering with their guns and they are all buying these parts, they’re really easy to get.”

A CompMag fixed magazine conversion kit for an AR-15 rile, installed to make a rifle compliant for restrictive states such as California, is demonstrated at the Crossroads of the West Gun Show at the Orange County Fairgrounds on June 5, 2021 in Costa Mesa, California. (Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)

On May 14, the gunman drove three hours from his hometown of Conklin, New York, to Buffalo, and opened fire on a Tops supermarket because he’d determined the area had a high Black population. He killed 10 people and injured three others. All but two of his victims were Black. The shooter was taken into custody shortly after the tragedy and has since been charged with first-degree murder. He faces up to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Even the most novice enthusiasts can figure out how to modify a gun to its original state, like the Buffalo shooter did, without a tutorial, according to Rob Pincus, a gun rights advocate, educator, and executive vice president for the Second Amendment Organization.

“They could probably pretty easily reverse-engineer it, even if it's not something that's been shown to them,” Pincus said. “They’ll have a working gun and a non-working gun and compare the two.”

The gun customization community, which mostly consists of hobbyists who tinker recreationally, is also a very online group. Countless tutorials for switching up a locked mag can be found on gun rights forums, message boards, and even YouTube.

“Just modified my AR-15 to be featureless which now means I can use a standard mag release and ditch the California bullet button,” one person commented under a YouTube tutorial with over 285,000 views.

“So refreshing that you made it using no special tools or expensive hardware,” another wrote.

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But the vast majority of gun owners, especially those who own a firearm solely for self-defense, probably wouldn’t modify their guns, according to Pincus.

“There's not a magic barrier keeping the gun from being used with an interchangeable magazine in the state of New York or in the state of California. What happens is people obey the law,” he said. “But the kind of guy who's gonna go into a grocery store and shoot a bunch of people, he's not following the law on its face. So it doesn't matter that it's easy or hard to change the gun; it matters that we don't want people to be murderers.”

New York, California, Connecticut, Colorado, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Vermont, and Washington, D.C., all have bans on large-capacity rounds and limit magazines to hold just 10 bullets. (Colorado limits to 15.) But tracking compliance with these laws is virtually impossible. In New York, for example, a law requires assault weapons to be registered, but as of 2022, only 43,356 assault weapons were registered out of an estimated 1 million in the state, the New York Attorney General’s office told VICE News.

Although easy to exploit, fixed magazines have largely been considered satisfactory gun control because of a lack of viable alternatives, according to Adam Winkler, a constitutional law expert and law professor at UCLA.

“The very nature of a magazine is that it has to be removable. Otherwise, you're making a firearm so it's not functional anymore. And there's plenty of lawmakers who'd like to make the firearms not functional anymore,” he said. “But it's not a realistic kind of reform, and especially the way the courts are going these days, not something that's likely to survive judicial review.”

New York’s strict approach to gun ownership isn’t the only law the Buffalo gunman was able to get around. He also skirted the state’s “red flag” law, which allows anyone to file a petition to the court to prevent someone from owning or purchasing a gun if they’re considered to be a danger to themself or others. The gunman underwent a mental health evaluation after threatening, during one of his high school classes last year, to carry out a murder-suicide, but it’s unclear if anyone reported him under the law. 

Gov. Kathy Hochul said the state was investigating the failure of the state’s red flag law, and earlier this week, she issued an executive order requiring law enforcement to use the tool more aggressively.

States like New York and California have spent years trying to pass strict gun control measures and getting nonstop pushback from gun rights groups. That fight will soon be tested by the majority-conservative Supreme Court when it hears a case against New York’s 1911 Sullivan Act later this year. The law became a national model for restrictions on concealed carry, and the justices’ decision could have serious consequences for restrictive open carry laws. 

Tagged:

New York, gun violence, Second Amendment, assault weapons, Buffalo shooting, Bushmaster rifle, magazine lock

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