Seeking to roll back several state gun control measures passed in the wake of the deadly 2015 San Bernardino shooting, California’s National Rifle Association affiliate filed the first in a planned series of lawsuits in district court Monday challenging California’s ban on assault weapons.
“There is nothing new or unusually dangerous about semiautomatic, centerfire rifles with detachable magazines,” contends the lawsuit, which was brought by the California Rifle and Pistol Association alongside several Californians who say they are worried about their ability to own, buy, and transfer assault weapons. “Such rifles have been in safe and effective use by civilians in this country — including in California — for over a century. As a general matter, they remain lawful in all states today.”
Add an extra feature, such as a pistol grip, and those rifles can become “assault weapons.” California has long regulated their sale and possession: In 1989, it passed the nation’s first law restricting gun dealers from selling firearms deemed “assault weapons” by the state, expanding those restrictions in 2000 to include several other classes of weapons, including the popular AR-15 assault rifles. Today, several states have similar regulations and bans.
However, gun manufacturers in California managed to skirt those regulations by creating so-called “bullet buttons,” Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence Litigation Director J. Adam Skaggs told VICE News. Bullet buttons make gun users use a device — typically a bullet — to press on a block releasing a magazine, much in the same way one might use the point of a pen to access a cell phone’s SIM card. In theory, because users must use a bullet and not their finger, it takes a few extra seconds to reload the magazine, diminishing mass shooters’ ability to inflict damage.
But after the shooters in San Bernadino used those weapons, including AR-15 rifles, to kill 14 people within minutes, California lawmakers passed several laws effectively clamping down on bullet buttons.
Skaggs applauded the measure. “An assault weapon by any other name should be treated like an assault weapon,” he said. “All that California did last year was make these guns with so-called bullet [buttons] regulated the same way that they’ve been regulating assault weapons the past couple of decades.”
California lawmakers also enacted a bill banning high-capacity magazines, which typically hold more than 10 rounds, among other gun control provisions. Chuck Michel, a lawyer representing the gun rights groups, told the Los Angeles Times that they plan to soon file another lawsuit challenging this ban. VICE News could not reach Michel for comment.
Though assault weapons equipped with high-capacity magazines are not used in the majority of gun massacres — incidents where six or more people are shot to death — massacres that do involve them tend to be much deadlier, Rampage Nation author Louis Klarevas told VICE News in February, after a federal court upheld Maryland’s ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. In fact, several courts have ruled that states are allowed to regulate such firearms due to an overriding interest in public safety.
“The likelihood of this lawsuit succeeding is slim, unless there are major changes in Supreme Court precedent,” Skagg explained. Even with Neil Gorsuch — whose ascension to the Supreme Court was championed by the NRA — on the bench, he isn’t too worried. Gorsuch’s judicial philosophy has frequently been compared to that of the late Justice Antonin Scalia, Skagg pointed out, and the Supreme Court failed to issue definitive rulings on assault weapons during his tenure.
The National Rifle Association’s annual convention is this weekend in Atlanta, Georgia.