How Gunmakers Tweak Rifles to Get Around Assault Weapon Bans
California has tried three times to ban what lawmakers call assault weapons. Each time, gunmakers have made tiny tweaks to the offending rifles, and gun shops have continued selling guns that operate nearly identically to the banned models. WSJ explains how guns have evolved in the state, and why it can be difficult to make firearm restrictions effective.
Photo: Michael Kofsky/Andria Chamberlin for The Wall Street Journal
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- [Narrator] Take a look at these two guns. One is an AR-15 Style Rifle, that's been altered with something called a Juggernaut Tactical Hellfighter Kit. The other is a classic Colt AR-15. The two guns look kind of different. But they have a lot of the same features. And a lot of similarities in how they shoot. The biggest difference you actually can't see. One has been illegal in California for more than 30 years, which is why we had to use a photo. The other you can buy at a local gun store. Over the past few decades lawmakers in California have repeatedly tried to ban what they define as assault weapons. And each time gun manufacturers responded by making small changes so they could continue selling that style of gun in the state. One of these guns, an AR-15 style rifle was used in April in a shooting at a synagogue near San Diego. Despite California's bans, the gun the shooter was using was perfectly legal in the state, according to law enforcement officials familiar with the investigation. To understand how this happened, you have to look at how guns in the state have evolved. First here's the Colt AR-15 again. This is approximately what AR-15s looked like back before the state's first ban in 1989. And what they still look like in states that haven't passed bans. It has a pistol grip and a flash suppressor, features that California lawmakers have since said make the weapons particularly dangerous. This type of gun was banned in 1989 after a gunman entered a school in Stockton, California, and opened fire. He killed five, and injured 32 others, using an AK-47. After that, the state passed the Roberti-Roos Assault Weapons Control Act, which bans certain guns by name. - There was a lot of outrage, and this was the impetus for the first assault weapons ban in the nation, in California. - [Narrator] In response, gunmakers started developing similar guns with different names. That meant that guns like the Colt AR-15 were changed slightly and resold with names like the Colt Sporter. Then, in 1999, lawmakers amended the law to ban weapons with specific parts. Such as semi-automatic rifles with detachable magazines, pistol grips, thumbhole stocks, folding stocks, grenade launcher, flash suppressors, and forward pistol grips. But there was a way around this. Guns with fixed magazines could keep these features. - One of the areas they focused on was making it harder for mass shooters to reload and have as many rounds of ammunition in their magazine. The definition of a fixed magazine was that you couldn't remove it without a tool. And the manufacturers realized that a tool could be a bullet. - [Narrator] So gunmakers modified guns so the magazines could be changed with a single bullet, which met the state's definition of a tool. This allowed them to keep the banned features and still sell guns with magazines that could be changed without much trouble. This became known as the Bullet Button Loophole. This bullet button modification was legal in California for around a decade. Then, in 2015, two shooters stormed a holiday gathering in San Bernardino, California, and killed 14 people. They were carrying AR-15 style rifles with bullet buttons they had bought in California and then illegally altered. After the shooting, lawmakers tried to pass new legislation. This time they focused on closing the Bullet Button Loophole. - This incident caught the attention of a state lawmaker by the name of Steve Glazer. And he decides he wants to try to close this so-called Bullet Button Loophole. And so he does something to ban these bullet button guns, and what he does is changes the definition of a fixed magazine to one that cannot be removed without the disassembly of the firearm action. - [Narrator] The law passed, which meant bullet button guns were banned. And yet again modifications were made so that more AR style features could be kept. Remember the AR style rifle with the Juggernaut Tactical Hellfighter from the beginning? The Juggernaut Tactical Hellfighter is a kit that alters an assault style rifle so that users can change the magazine by cracking open the action just a hair, like this. Gun dealers say this legally counts as disassembly of the firearm action. So gunmakers started here. And decades later, after multiple assault weapon bans, they ended here. - If you talk to any gun dealer or person who shoots guns, they'll tell you a California compliant AR-15, as they are called, shoots just the same as a normal AR-15. The bullet's going just as fast. - [Narrator] Smith and Wesson, Ruger, Colt, and Juggernaut did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson from the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade group for gun manufacturers, said of the state laws, "They're basing the bans strictly on cosmetic features that have no bearing on the operation or the function of the firearm." A spokesperson for the California state attorney general declined to comment on the modified weapons.