The history of California’s assault weapons ban is also the story of a cat-and-mouse game between Sacramento and gun makers and owners. Legislators struggled to implement the ban in a meaningful way for years, modifying it repeatedly, long before a federal judge overturned it this summer.
The ban is so divisive, in part, because the types of firearms it seeks to keep out of the hands of Californians (like the Colt AR-15) are popular among gun enthusiasts, while also being weapons of choice, time and time again, in some of the most high-profile mass shootings in the country. As things stand today, the future of the ban is uncertain.
The tension traces back to January 1989, when a gunman walked into a Stockton schoolyard and fired more than 100 rounds in a span of three minutes, killing five children and injuring 29 others. The gunman, a 24-year-old with an extensive criminal record, used a variant of the AK-47, a semiautomatic rifle first used by the Soviet military.
A year later, the Roberti-Roos Assault Weapons Control Act — California’s landmark assault weapons ban — became law.
Three decades later, that law remains at the heart of California’s debate over how to regulate guns.
The state is appealing U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez’s June ruling that declared the ban unconstitutional. California is allowed to enforce the law during the appeals process, which will probably last at least through the end of the year. (A federal assault weapons ban expired in 2004.)
Still, California’s assault weapons ban is a likely candidate to make its way up to the now-conservative-leaning Supreme Court, which is primed to take on more Second Amendment cases. Some see the case as a crossroads for gun control in California.
The original 1989 legislation identified as assault weapons a list of gun makes and models, which then — with some narrow exceptions — could not be purchased anywhere in the state. There was a major caveat: Assault weapons bought before the law was passed were grandfathered in. People could register and legally own them.
Not long after, gun manufacturers simply began selling Californians firearms very similar to the ones on the prohibited list. They were generally legal to sell in the state. The difference? These firearms had new names.
Thus began a game of legislative whack-a-mole. The state would tweak the law, only to see gun manufacturers promptly produce and sell workarounds to stay compliant.
In 1999, lawmakers targeted copycat guns, expanding the ban to include not only named firearms but also categories of semiautomatic firearms that combined specific “features,” such as pistol grips for both hands. A California Supreme Court decision allowed the expansion of the ban to go into effect the next year. But, again, those who already owned them were allowed to register and keep the targeted guns.
Lawmakers had hoped that listing features, rather than just the names of gun models, would make it harder for gunmakers to manufacture firearms they understood to pose a “threat to the health, safety, and security of all citizens of this state.” But soon after the law was passed, manufacturers were selling firearms with modifications to pass the “features test,” as that piece of legislation became known. Those firearms largely looked and felt similar to ones that were newly banned in the state.
In 2016, in the aftermath of the San Bernardino Inland Regional Center shooting that killed 14 people and injured 22 others, legislation evolved again, with the intention of making it harder for operators to rapidly switch out magazines (the ammunition storage and feeding devices for firearms). Not long after, gun sellers and owners were creating mechanisms to keep the reloading process relatively seamless and quick.
Combinations of restricted features could give an active shooter the ability to maintain more control of a firearm during sustained, rapid fire of a large number of rounds, said Ari Freilich, state policy director of San Francisco’s Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
This is a semiautomatic rifle with features that may be restricted in California.
According to U.S. law, the term “semiautomatic” means the gun needs one trigger pull for each round to fire. The gun illustrated here would be illegal for sale in the state because it combines the ability to accept a detachable magazine with several restricted features. In addition, semiautomatic rifles shorter than 30 inches are prohibited. This gun also has a “bullet button” now restricted by the law. Keep scrolling, we’ll explain.
(Note: There are firearms and categories of firearms not described in this graphic that are also classified as assault weapons in California.)
This is a semiautomatic rifle that is legal to own in California.
It looks and feels similar to the one in the previous image, but there are some key differences. Over the years, gun manufacturers responded to legislation that restricted sales of certain features by creating relatively close alternatives to those features.
This graphic shows a few examples of features California includes in its definition of assault weapons, and the alternatives gun manufacturers created over the years.
These may be restricted in California under the assault weapons ban. The function of the flash suppressor is to burn off excess gun powder, so it does not produce muzzle flash, according to Alex Lopez, co-owner of Western Firearms Inc., a gun store in Los Angeles County. He said the device helps him have better visibility when target shooting in low-light conditions.
Gun control advocates contend that flash suppressors make it difficult to detect the direction of an active shooter.
These are not restricted in California. The muzzle brake is a device connected to the end of a barrel that redirects muzzle gas, and could be used partially as a replacement for a flash suppressor. According to Lopez, muzzle brakes reduce muzzle rise — that’s when the muzzle rises, before settling back down into the operator’s sight.
Both the flash suppressor and the muzzle brake help mitigate muzzle rise, according to Lopez, though the muzzle brake does not help with suppressing flash from the muzzle.
Pistol grip that “protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon”
These may be restricted in California under the assault weapons ban. They allow the gun operator to wrap their thumb around the grip. California law defines them as “a grip that allows for a pistol-style grasp in which the web of the trigger hand (between the thumb and index finger) can be placed below the top of the exposed portion of the trigger while firing.”
This variation on the grip is not restricted in California. It prevents the operator from wrapping their thumb around the grip.
Telescoping stocks, like folding stocks, may be restricted in California under the assault weapons ban. State law defines them as “a stock which is shortened or lengthened by allowing one section to telescope into another portion.”
The appeal of the feature, according to Lopez, is the ability to adjust the gun to the operator’s body.
Ari Freilich, state policy director of San Francisco’s Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said folding stocks and telescoping stocks allow for a large-sized rifle to be made more concealable in public, making it more dangerous.
Fixed stocks, which cannot be shortened or lengthened in any way, are a regular part of most rifles and are a California-legal alternative to telescoping or folding stocks.
Firearms with a combination of bullet buttons and restricted features have been banned for sale in California since a 2016 legislation change. Before 2016, California law allowed manufacturers to sell firearms equipped with buttons that allowed the gun operator to use a tool (such as a bullet — hence the name bullet button) instead of their finger to release the magazine. That way, loading a new magazine was a two-step process — press the button to release the old magazine, and load a new one. That process could be accomplished very quickly.
In 2016, California enacted a law to provide a statutory definition for the term “detachable magazine” to clarify that firearms outfitted with bullet buttons are restricted. People who lawfully obtained these types of guns before Jan. 1 2017 could retain them as long as they registered them with the California Department of Justice in time.
Californians have the option to keep bullet buttons on their rifles as long as they go “featureless” — removing all of the restricted features listed above as well as some other features not included in this graphic.
Magazine replacement via partial disassembly of the firearm
After 2016, gun manufacturers devised alternative ways to quickly release the magazine to comply with new California laws, in which operators would need to partially disassemble their firearm to release the magazine.
Different manufacturers came up with various mechanisms to accomplish this. This process is more involved than releasing a magazine with a bullet button.
If a California gun owner goes this route with their firearm, they may be allowed to keep the restricted features listed above, as well as some others not listed here. That type of gun is known as a “California-compliant build.”
In most states across the U.S. there are no stipulated limits on magazine capacity, but magazines that can store more than 10 rounds are banned for sale in California. The state sought to make possession of these magazines illegal as well, which would require owners to dispose of them, turn them over to a law enforcement agency, alter them to accept only 10 rounds, or sell them to gun dealers. That change is now tied up in the courts.
California is one of nine states and the District of Columbia that regulates magazine capacity. A federal law that expired in 2004 restricted the sale and manufacture of large-capacity magazines and assault weapons. Research shows that limiting magazine capacity could have an effect on driving down mass shooting deaths by up to 15%.
Today, the AR-15 style of rifle is popular among gun enthusiasts because of its light weight and ease of use. Gun policy expert Adam Winkler, a UCLA law professor, said he has heard this type of gun described as “the iPhone of firearms.”
They are also often regarded as the civilian counterpart to the military M-16. The most significant difference between the M-16 and AR-15-style rifles is that, in addition to having semiautomatic capabilities, the former may also be designed with a three-round-burst capability, while the latter is semiautomatic only. Firearms with fully automatic and burst-fire capabilities have been regulated in the U.S. since the 1934 National Firearms Act.
The impact of assault weapons bans
If Californians are still able to buy firearms that are largely similar to the assault weapons available in most states, what has the ban accomplished?
Researchers have found it difficult to assess the overall impact of assault weapons bans, though there is some evidence about the effects of certain regulations. For example, there is growing evidence that restrictions on large-capacity magazines may play a role in reducing the carnage from mass shootings. Christopher Koper, a criminologist and law professor at George Mason University, found that restrictions on magazines could reduce mass shooting deaths by 11% to 15%.
Large-capacity magazines, defined by the state as holding more than 10 rounds, are illegal for sale in California. But an effort to ban their possession, too, is tied up in the courts.
The assault weapons ban’s impact on gun sales and ownership is also difficult to evaluate. There is no definitive research showing how many fewer assault weapons there are in California as a result of the ban.
There was a large number of assault weapons in the state even before the ban. Californians who already owned guns classified as assault weapons in 1989 — and in subsequent years as the legislation evolved — could register their firearms with the California Department of Justice and keep them legally. Today, more than 185,000 assault weapons are registered with the state, according to Judge Benitez’s June ruling, which cited state data.
Assault weapons also get into the state from out of California. State Sen. Steve Glazer, D-Orinda, who was involved in writing the legislation for the original assault weapons ban and subsequent legislation in 2016, noted that people can smuggle assault weapons from neighboring states with less restrictive laws, such as Nevada and Arizona.
Still, there is reason to believe the assault weapons ban may have played a role in reducing sales of California-compliant and featureless builds. It’s harder to get the kinds of firearms some gun consumers are looking for in the state.
Mark Oliva, a spokesperson for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, said California’s restrictive laws deterred him from purchasing any guns while he was stationed in the state as a Marine. In particular, he was put off by legislation that made it harder to quickly switch out a magazine, something he said is not conducive to competitive shooting. Today he lives in Virginia, a state with a small fraction of California’s gun laws, and owns several guns, including an AR-15-style rifle, that he said he uses for hunting, target shooting and home protection.
He said other California gun owners probably share in his hesitancy to buy California-compliant and featureless builds. If the ban were to be lifted, he said, we could expect to see a large increase in the sales of firearms currently classified as assault weapons by the state.
The center of the debate
Although assault weapons are often at the center of California’s gun debate, some argue they should not be.
Assault weapons are not involved in most cases of gun violence. Research from the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy finds that assault weapons are probably used in 2% to 9% of gun crimes overall, with most estimates indicating they are used in less than 7% of all gun crimes. Assault weapons and other semiautomatic firearms with large ammunition capacities generally account for 22% to 36% of guns recovered by police. (The research has some caveats. National data on the types of weapons used in gun crimes is not collected, so the researchers made these estimates based on a selected group of large cities that collected this data from 2014 to 2016.)
It’s also difficult to estimate the frequency of use of assault weapons and large-capacity magazines in mass killings because of limited data on guns and magazines used in those crimes. The information available suggests assault weapons and other semiautomatic firearms with large ammunition capacities are involved in up to 57% of these attacks. Since a federal assault weapons ban expired in 2004, large-capacity firearms have grown significantly as a share of guns recovered by police.
Through incremental legislation over decades, California lawmakers have realized that the real issue with a firearm may be with its potential to shoot several rounds of ammunition rapidly, gun policy expert Winkler said.
Given their relatively small role in overall gun violence, why are assault weapons, and particularly AR-15-style rifles, still often at the center of the gun control debate?
First, because they have been a weapon of choice in several high-profile mass shootings, including the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, the 2018 high school shooting in Parkland, Fla., and the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut.
Second, the ban may be about more than just assault weapons. Gun control advocates also see it as a way to build political momentum. Sen. Glazer said that before the Stockton shooting in 1989, there was little enthusiasm in Sacramento for advancing gun reform. That massacre and the subsequent legislation, he said, changed the course of gun control in the state.
If the Supreme Court decides to take on the state’s assault weapons ban, for many it will be about more than just whether some Californians can go out and legally buy an AR-15-style rifle with a detachable magazine and a pistol grip. It may set a precedent for the future of gun control, both in the state and nationwide.