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FAQ: The California assault weapons ban

The AR-15 assault rifle
Stock photo by betancourt via Flickr Creative Commons
The AR-15 assault rifle

California is a state that is known for its tight gun laws. And after a mass shooting at a Dec. 2 holiday party at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino left 14 victims dead and 22 others wounded, part of the public debate turned to how suspects Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik got their hands on assault-style weapons.

The rifles were legal to purchase in the state of California. However both had been modified to make them illegal under the state's assault weapons ban. Here's a primer on that ban.

What is the California assault weapons ban?

The Roberti-Roos Assault Weapons Control Act of 1989 became law on January 1, 1990. It established the "assault weapon" as a new classification of firearms, and prohibited anyone from buying them without a special permit. Those who already owned a firearm deemed an assault weapon were able to keep it.

Three types or categories of firearms are banned under the law, writes Matt Drange from the Center for Investigative Reporting:

These generic characteristics are outlined in the California penal code:
  • A "detachable magazine" which means any ammunition feeding device that can be removed readily from the firearm with neither disassembly of the firearm action nor use of a tool being required. A bullet or ammunition cartridge is considered a tool. Ammunition feeding device includes any belted or linked ammunition, but does not include clips, en bloc clips, or stripper clips that load cartridges into the magazine.
  • A "flash suppressor" which means any device designed, intended, or that functions to perceptibly reduce or redirect muzzle flash from the shooter's field of vision.
  • A "forward pistol grip" which means a grip that allows for a pistol style grasp forward of the trigger.
  • A "pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon" means 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.
  • A "thumbhole stock" which means a stock with a hole that allows the thumb of the trigger hand to penetrate into or through the stock while firing.

How did the law come to be?

Five people died and 29 others were injured in a school shooting in Stockton in January 1989 leading to California's first-in-the-nation ban on assault weapons. Two Los Angeles politicians, Assemblyman Mike Roos and Senate leader David A. Roberti, were behind that bill. Roos asserted that opposition to his bill was the "last gasp of the NRA."

Has the law faced any legal challenges?

The law was upheld in 1999 via the Kasler v. Lockyer decision. A 2001 decision — Harrott v. Kings County — altered that decision slightly. It required the department of justice to determine which specific makes and models of AR-style and AK-syle weapons are prohibited.

Are there loopholes?

Bullet buttons can render the law basically useless. As described by the Daily Beast: "a rifle is not an assault weapon if it has a fixed magazine" as opposed to a detachable magazine. A fixed magazine means it can't be removed without dissembling a portion of the firearm or without using a "tool." Soon firearms started to feature a button that could release a magazine by pushing it with the tip of a bullet, which was deemed a non-tool.

Why hasn't this loophole been closed?

A 2013 bill that would have closed the bullet button loophole was veteoed by Gov. Jerry Brown in October of that year.