A version of this article originally appeared on the Trace.
Beneath the taxidermied deer and bighorn sheep heads, some of the display racks at San Diego's SoCal Gun sit bare. "There are no AR-15s for sale anymore," manager Greg Kerrebrock said. An end-of-year crush cleaned out the shop's inventory as customers gobbled up models affected by a new law that kicked in on January 1.
Part of a sweeping package of reforms pushed by Democrats in 2016, the regulations clamped down on a gun industry innovation, known as the bullet button, that flouted an earlier statute meant to regulate rifles with detachable, quickly reloadable ammunition magazines. Under the revised rules, Californians in possession of assault weapons that incorporate a bullet button and certain other features have until the end of this year to register them with the state, a step that some gun owners are loathe to take. Stores like SoCal can't sell new bullet button-equipped guns, and don't yet have an alternative that they can be sure will comply with the enhanced restrictions.
But all that could soon change. Just as they did the last time California updated its longstanding assault weapons law, enterprising gunsmiths are ready with new products that could render the tighter restrictions largely moot.
On the same day that Governor Jerry Brown signed the new law, Darin Prince, the inventor of the original bullet button, announced the release of a gun add-on called the Patriot Mag Release, or, as he dubbed it, the "Bullet Button Reloaded." Other companies offer similar products, such as the AR Maglock, developed in response to an assault weapons law passed in 2013 in New York State. The mechanisms, which can be purchased online, are designed to meet legislators' rules for detachable ammunition magazines, while still allowing shooters to blast away with minimal interruptions. As such, the products "undermine the spirit and effectiveness of California's gun safety reforms," said Ari Freilich, an attorney with the San Francisco-based Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
Standing between the workarounds and California gun buyers is state Attorney General Xavier Becerra, a former congressman appointed to the post in December by Brown following ex-Attorney General Kamala Harris's election to the US Senate. Though the Department of Justice has issued preliminary guidance on the refined assault weapons ban, Becerra has not yet handed down a formal ruling on rifles modified with the devices produced by Prince and his counterparts. A spokeswoman for the office would not provide a timeline for when that decision might come.
Until Becerra weighs in, it won't be clear what gun designs will remain on the right side of the law—setting up a decision that will reverberate through one of America's largest firearms markets.
The expanded assault weapons ban now in place in California came as a response to the horrors of the December 2015 San Bernardino massacre. The perpetrators of that mass shooting used AR-15s outfitted with bullet buttons to kill 14 and wound 22 in a matter of minutes and fire dozens of rounds at police officers during the subsequent standoff.
Twenty-six years earlier, another mass shooting prompted politicians in Sacramento to passed the country's first law banning the sale and controlling the possession of certain military-style semiautomatic rifles. In that 1989 incident, a drifter armed with an AK-47 killed 5 children and injured 30 others at an elementary school in the city of Stockton.
The 1989 law made it illegal for California gun dealers to sell firearms designated as "assault weapons" by the statute. Owners who already had those firearms had to register them with the state and have not been allowed to resell, trade, or give them away to other California residents. But the 1989 statute contained a loophole: It applied only to individual makes and models spelled out in the text of the legislation. Functionally identical guns, made by different companies or under different names, could still be sold—and soon were, by the thousands. The lookalikes also eluded the registration requirement.
In 2000, the state expanded the list of banned assault weapons to include whole classes of AR-15 and AK-47 style weapons, along with any center-fire semiautomatic rifle with a detachable ammunition magazine and (the "and" is crucial) any of six features:
- A pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon.
- A thumbhole stock.
- A folding or telescoping stock.
- A grenade launcher or flare launcher.
- A flash suppressor.
- A forward pistol grip.
The gun world responded to the updated regulation with fresh workarounds. Many companies introduced so-called featureless rifles that have a detachable magazine, but none of the other attributes that would qualify a firearm as an assault weapon under California's rules. Taking the opposite route was the mechanism that would come to be known as the bullet button.
In singling out detachable magazines, California lawmakers were attempting to curb a design feature that makes it possible for a shooter to eject a spent magazine with the flick of a finger, then quickly reload a new one. Still allowed, according to the 2000 regulation, were magazines that required a tool to remove.
Introduced by Prince in 2006, the bullet button is just what it sounds like—a button that can be activated by the tip of a bullet or other simple implement—and it makes reloading as simple and fast as possible, within the confines of the law. Because a rifle with a bullet button did not technically have a detachable magazine, it could be customized with all the other features that for assault weapons fans are key to their appeal. Soon, big manufacturers like Smith & Wesson, Ruger, and Stag Arms were incorporating the bullet button into their products. Under the 2016 law, the bullet button is no longer acceptable, as the new regulations regard weapons with the mechanism as having a detachable magazine. Guns with bullet buttons and at least one of the other banned features can no longer be sold. Californians who own such guns have until January 1, 2018, to register them with the state.
California's assault weapons laws are controversial with gun owners because they heavily restrict firearms that are wildly popular, readily available in most other states, and rarely used in crimes, compared to handguns. Many gun-rights advocates say the features that qualify a rifle as an assault weapon are arbitrary and do not meaningfully affect its lethality. They chafe at the rules against reselling or giving away the guns, noting that if an assault weapons owner wants to get rid of his or her guns, or dies, the rifle must be surrendered to police, transferred out of state, or sold only to select dealers.
"When I die, my guns die—if it were registered, I couldn't leave it to my kids," explained Sam Paredes, the executive director of Gun Owners of California.
The biggest bugbear, however, is the registration requirement itself, which is viewed conspiratorially by ideologically committed gun owners who disdain government involvement in their affairs. As Joel Persinger, a California gun writer and YouTuber puts it, "There is no compelling reason for a government to register firearms except as a necessary step toward confiscating them."
The rush by California assault rifle fans to stock up ahead of the new regulations was stunning. In December alone, the FBI processed more than 93,000 checks on long gun sales in the state, nearly double the 48,000 processed in December 2015. In the category of products that includes receivers (the part of a semiautomatic rifle that receives ammunition and is often the base for customized AR-15s), the FBI saw background checks in California jump from just shy of 10,000 in December 2015 to almost 78,000 in the last month of 2016.
Californians who didn't pick up an assault rifle before the tougher ban kicked in are out of luck. Those who did are still supposed to register the weapons.
And that, at last, is why so much rides on the latest workarounds.
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Central to California's expanded assault weapons ban is its revised definition of a detachable magazine. Now, if you have a semiautomatic rifle that comes with any of the other banned features and can be reloaded "without disassembly of the firearm action"—the part of the gun that moves ammunition into the firing position—you have a gun that can't be sold and must be registered.
Neither Prince's Patriot Mag Release nor the AR Maglock is quite as efficient as the bullet button when it comes to contravening the law that inspired it. Whereas it takes two motions to reload a rifle with a bullet button—press the release node, slide in a new magazine—with the new products, it takes all of four.
On many AR-style rifles, disassembling the action is a simple as popping the hood of a car. The shooter pulls a pin, and the two halves of the rifle—its upper and lower receivers—swing apart on a hinge. Ordinarily, one would do this to clean the gun, replace a part, or add lubricant. The Patriot Mag Release and AR Maglock alter the gun so that it only releases an empty magazine when the action is open—which the products' proponents interpret as complying with the disassembly mandate. The shooter then slaps in a fresh magazine and closes the action. After a momentary interruption, the rifle is ready to resume firing.
In the wake of the San Bernardino attack, Marc Levine, the Democratic state assemblyman who sponsored the law revising California's assault weapon statute, got firsthand experience with rifles altered to skirt California's rules. During a visit to the California Highway Patrol's shooting range, Levine squared a rifle equipped with a bullet button against his shoulder, took aim at the bullseye, and started pulling the trigger.
"I could empty ten rounds into a target and reload a magazine in a couple seconds," he said. "And I have almost no training."
Levine was not surprised to see products like the Patriot Mag Release appear after his bill passed.
"There's always a hardware race," he said. "We will continue to struggle with this." In the meantime, he said he hopes that the new rules will yield at least incremental progress toward reducing the death toll of mass shootings in the state. "My goal is to at least slow down the carnage."
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As at SoCal Guns, the Fowler Gun Room in Orange isn't offering workaround products before the state Department of Justice makes its move. A representative of Greta's Guns in Simi Valley said that store is taking a similar approach.
Meanwhile, gun owners modifying their weapons with the Patriot Mag Release of AR Maglock are doing so in a legal gray area.
Walter Ponce, a 28-year-old EMT from Azusa, northeast of Los Angeles, installed the latter device on his rifle in November. He could have instead opted for a "featureless" rifle, but that would have meant giving up the pistol grip that he finds makes a semiautomatic long gun easier to hold when shooting. There were also appearances to consider: Ponce believes featureless rifles look ungainly compared to kitted-out AR-15s.
"I'm going for looks," he said.
If the AR Maglock is deemed to violate the new assault weapons ban, however, Ponce says he will register his weapon with the state.
Sam Paredes, the executive director of Gun Owners of California, opted to make at least one of his rifles featureless because of the law change. He's planning to experiment with the Patriot Mag Release or AR Maglock on the rest of his rifles to see which configuration he likes best, so he'll be ready to retool his assault weapons collection when the attorney general's decision arrives. He said many of his peers are similarly biding their time: "We're all keeping our powder dry, so to speak."
Prince, the designer of the Patriot Mag Release, declined to comment for this article, citing the pending DOJ decision. (The maker of the AR Maglock also declined an interview request.) In a statement he issued while revealing his latest invention, he signaled a willingness to wait out new business opportunities.
"We have had the Patriot Mag Release in the wings for many years," he wrote. "Together, we will weather this storm and come out shining."
Records show that Prince filed a patent for the device in 2013.