On a recent Saturday at the LAX Firing Range in Los Angeles, just a few minutes’ drive from the international airport, an angry man named Joe stood, hands on his knees, inspecting a display of Winchester .223 rifle ammunition that is popular with AR-15 rifle owners like him.
Well over six feet tall, wearing a tank top and with his white hair in a long ponytail, Joe let loose when asked about several new state firearms laws that will, among other things, force gun owners like him to register their military-style rifles with a state agency — or sell or destroy them.
“Fuck ’em!” he said — twice, for emphasis — before quickly adding, “Unless you’re a cop?” Assured that he was not talking to the police, Joe straightened up and declared that he was not planning to register the many weapons he owns that are affected by the new legislation. “Do you know how many I’d have to register?” he asked.
Joe, who declined to answer his own question, is one of many California gun owners who are voicing their outrage at a package of new firearms laws signed into law on July 1 by Governor Jerry Brown. The most controversial mandate is a ban on new sales of semiautomatic rifles and pistols with detachable magazines by the end of the year, and a requirement that current owners of such weapons register them with the California Department of Justice by 2018. Under the law, owners of assault weapons will also have to submit to periodic inspections of those firearms by law enforcement officials.
Also included in the legislation is an outright ban on possession of magazines that hold more than 10 rounds, and a requirement that anyone purchasing ammunition submit to a background check.
The new laws follow devastating mass shootings and other terrorism-inspired assaults in San Bernardino, Paris, Brussels, Orlando, Dallas, and Nice. In all those attacks, except for Nice, where a large truck was used as a killing machine, the main weapons used by the attackers were semiautomatic rifles with high-capacity, detachable magazines.
Governor Brown, a Democrat, vetoed a similar assault weapons registration bill in 2013. But this year the governor went along with Democrats in the state legislature, who have long sought to restrict assault rifles, defined by California law as any centerfire, semiautomatic rifle that is fed by a detachable magazine, and also has any one of several other physical features, including a pistol grip, a collapsible buttstock, or a flash suppressor.
The new measures make California’s gun laws among the toughest in the nation.
“We simply must do everything we can to keep dangerous, high capacity firearms off of our streets and out of our communities,” said Kamala Harris, the California attorney general, in a statement. “The devastation wrought by gun violence on innocent victims, children, and families in this country is an international embarrassment.”
Critics say the some of the same approaches have been tried before, and didn’t work.
In 1994, Congress passed an assault weapons ban similar to the one California just adopted. The federal law didn’t ban a specific class or brand of firearm; rather, it prohibited the sale of weapons with certain mechanical features typically found on AR- and AK-platform rifles.
After the federal assault weapons ban took effect, sales of those guns actually increased, as manufactures customized weapons to make them compliant. The California law also prohibits certain mechanical features, and the expectation is that gun makers and sellers in the state will adapt in the same way as before.
“All the new law does is demonstrate how little the libtards in Sacramento know about how rifles actually work,” said one popular post on the Calguns.net online forum recently, where many members refer to the state government as the DPRK, the acronym normally used for North Korea, redefined by gun owners here as short for “Democratic People’s Republic of Kalifornia.”
Many owners of AR-15 and other military-style rifles are already pledging to defy the law, which expands California’s 1989 assault weapons ban and registry that already has roughly 150,000 rifles, pistols, and shotguns on it.
California gun-rights groups predict the vast majority of owners won’t register, citing what has occurred in New York and Connecticut since 2013, where a very low percentage of military-style rifle owners appear to have registered their weapons as required by state laws.
“I don’t think you’re going to find a compliance rate above 10 percent,” said Brandon Combs, president of the Sacramento-based Firearms Policy Coalition, a gun-rights organization that vehemently opposes the new state laws. “Part of the reason for that is that there was no money allocated for outreach,” he said.
Combs added, “We’re still having problems with people being aware of the assault weapons law from 1989.”
A spokeswoman for Harris declined to answer a question from The Trace about how her office would respond to low compliance with the new law, saying via email that “it would be premature to speculate about registration issues at this point.”
Interviews with gun owners around Los Angeles seem to bear out Combs’ prediction that gun owners will defy the registration requirement imposed by the the new assault weapons ban.
“All of my rifles will go dark,” said Mike, a lanky AR-15 owner in his forties, who spoke to The Trace outside a gun shop in Los Angeles. “This is, like, the absolute worst state to own a gun in,” he added, before politely ending the conversation.
An employee of a gun shop in Burbank, just north of Los Angeles, said many of his customers are bitter and defiant after the legislation was signed. “A lot of guys are saying they won’t register. They just don’t want to do it.” Asked if his clients knew that violating the registration law would be a felony, the employee shrugged. “Everyone’s an adult,” he said. “They have to make their own decisions.”
Not every rifle owner hates the new registration law. Outside a popular gun shop in Culver City, west of Los Angeles, two men in baseball caps had just purchased two $8,800 Barrett 82A1 sniper rifles that have an effective range of just under two miles. They are among the types of rifles retailers will be prohibited from selling in California after December 31.
One of the men said he was aware of the year-end deadline to buy the rifles. “That’s why we got them now,” he said. Asked if he planned to register the guns, he said, “You have to, if you want to shoot them.”
Inside the gun store, sales of AR-platform rifles have been brisk, an employee said. So many people were buying stripped lower receivers — the part of the rifle on which the serial number is etched, the essential element for building a custom AR-15 — that the store had to create a new shelving system to keep track of them.
“It’s been overwhelming and ridiculous,” the employee said.
Assault-style weapons have gained notoriety for their use in high-profile mass shootings, but most gun deaths and injuries are caused by handguns. Some experts believe that magazine capacity and the ease of reloading, not gun type, might be a better indicator of a weapon’s lethality. Many of the shooters in recent mass attacks have used extra-large magazines that allow for more bullets to be fired without reloading.
One of the new California measures imposes an outright ban on possession of “high-capacity” magazines that hold more than 10 rounds.
Another new California law enhances restrictions on who can sell and buy ammunition. It effectively ends, starting in 2018, sales of ammunition through the mail. After that date, ammunition buyers will need to register with the state and undergo a background check at the point of purchase — the first such requirement in the country. Individuals looking to sell ammunition will be required conduct the sale through a licensed dealer.
In late July, Brown also signed a bill into law that requires all homemade guns to carry a serial number registered with the state.
The new legislation is also intended to close loopholes in existing gun regulation. One of those loopholes allows gun owners a quick workaround to a state law that requires the use of a “tool” to physically detach a magazine from a rifle.
The tool requirement was supposed to make changing magazines slower and more cumbersome, decreasing the rifle’s appeal to as a weapon of choice in mass shootings. But manufacturers and firearms dealers created a work-around: a $12 “bullet button,” which allows an easy magazine change by pressing with the pointed end of a bullet — or a pen, or a small twig.
Irked by the workaround, California lawmakers this year sought to close the bullet-button loophole, once and for all. Under the new law, semiautomatic rifles that have either a pistol grip, collapsible stock, or flash suppressor are required to use magazines that are “permanently” attached. The only way to reload such a weapon would be to open the rifle’s action — separating the lower receiver from the upper receiver — and adding bullets into the fixed magazine from above.
Many California gun owners say the new law will only encourage more workarounds unforeseen by naive lawmakers.
They may have a point. A few, relatively simple cosmetic changes to a rifle’s exterior features, costing less than $100, are all that is needed to make any semiautomatic, military-style rifle legal even under the new law, without impeding its operator’s ability to fire and reload. For instance, to make a standard AR-15 a “featureless” and entirely legal rifle under the new California law, its owner need only pin its collapsible buttstock in place and remove its pistol grip and flash suppressor — what California AR-15 owners sardonically call “evil features.”
There are other workarounds to keep rapid-fire rifles California-legal after the end of this year. They include installing another newly developed device, called a magazine lock, which is thought to render the magazine “permanently” attached as defined by the new law.
California’s current legislature is still in session, and some owners of semiautomatic rifles fear lawmakers will push through even more bills that outlaw the locks.
For now, though, they are easily available online, for about $50. Once installed, the locks allow a magazine to be detached from a rifle after the gun’s action is opened — a three-second maneuver for any experienced shooter.
[Photo: AP Photo/Jae C. Hong]