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Gun Makers Adjust Rifles to Skirt Bans

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 6/21/2019 Zusha Elinson and Cameron McWhirter
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California first banned the sale of guns it calls assault weapons, including AR-15 style rifles, in 1989, then updated the restrictions in 1999 and again in 2016.

An accused shooter used just such a gun last month to attack a synagogue outside San Diego, killing one and injuring three. He bought it earlier this year in California where, despite the state ban, it is legal, according to law-enforcement officials.

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The AR-15 style rifle that John Earnest, who has pleaded not guilty to all charges, is accused by police of using was one of many models the firearms industry has come up with to skirt the regulations put in place by the seven states that outlaw semiautomatic weapons with certain features, which they refer to as assault weapons. These odd-looking semiautomatic rifles operate similarly to ones that are banned, including the ability to rapidly fire.

“They all shoot the same,” said Norris Sweidan, the owner of Warrior One Guns & Ammo in Riverside, Calif., where the walls are lined with AR- and AK-style rifles modified to be legal in the state. “These people that are passing the laws, how many of them do you think have actually shot a gun?”

In response to mass shootings, Democratic presidential candidates including former Vice President Joe Biden and California Sen. Kamala Harris say they want to renew the Federal Assault Weapons Ban that was in place from 1994 to 2004. Governors from Rhode Island and Virginia are pushing them too.

But the proliferation of guns sold legally that operate nearly identically to banned models shows how difficult it can be to make firearm restrictions effective.

California State Sen. Steve Glazer, a Democrat who wrote 2016 legislation to block sales of a workaround, has been working on the issue since 1989, when he was a staffer for the legislator who led the fight for the first ban.

“You try to make progress every year, and so do gun manufacturers and their R&D departments,” Mr. Glazer said.

Representatives for gun manufacturers including American Outdoor Brands Corp., the maker of Smith & Wesson guns including the one allegedly used by Mr. Earnest, and Sturm, Ruger & Co. didn’t respond to requests for comment. Mark Oliva, a spokesman for 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.”

Initially, California banned certain gun models, but manufacturers just changed their names. Now, state law bans certain features that lawmakers say make them dangerous, such as a pistol grip that shooters can wrap their hands around, and adjustable shoulder stocks.

One popular way around California law is a gun called the featureless AR-15. It has a finlike grip that is difficult to wrap a hand around and a fixed shoulder stock. People who use the guns say it is very similar to the original AR-15.

“It’s just as accurate either way”, said Ron LaPedis, a Bay Area shooting instructor who owns a featureless AR rifle.

a row of wooden benches sitting on top of a gun: 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. © Patrick T. Fallon for The Wall Street Journal 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.

Bullet-button guns were long one of the most popular and controversial ways to get around California’s ban, which also attempted to outlaw magazines that could be quickly replaced by mandating that they require a tool to be removed. In response, gun makers came up with magazine-release buttons that could be operated with a bullet, which fit the state’s definition of a tool.

Bullet-button guns sold briskly, including two that were used by a husband-and-wife terrorist duo to kill 14 and injure 22 people in San Bernardino, Calif., in 2015. The attackers had illegally altered the bullet button, but the shooting inspired Mr. Glazer to pass a 2016 law to ban them.

Now, modification kits have hit the market that allow shooters to quickly replace magazines even with the bullet-button ban. These kits fit within the new law, which in effect requires the gun to be opened up and made temporarily inoperable to change the magazine. On a recent day at his store, Mr. Sweidan held up one of these modified AR-15s, pushed a button to break open the gun just a hair, dropped out the magazine, and popped a new one in. It took less than five seconds.

“You’re ready to go,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the state attorney general declined to comment on the modified weapons.

About 16 million AR-15-style and other similar semiautomatic rifles have been made for sale in the U.S. since 1990, according to the NSSF. Production slowed but didn’t stop when the federal ban was in place. Dealers say the modified versions aren’t as popular.

Bob Arthur, owner of Arthur’s Shooters Supply in Berlin, Md., said that in 2014, the year after Maryland’s ban went into effect, his sales dropped 70%. The law “put a lot of gun shops out of business and that I think is what they are trying to do,” he said.

One banned feature gun makers haven’t been able to circumvent is the limit passed by California in 1999 on new magazines that can hold more than 10 rounds.

Some witnesses said it is possible that the 10-round magazine may have limited the damage in the San Diego shooting.

“If you could limit the ability to reload and limit the ammo, those can be significant deterrents to a shooter’s ability,” said Mr. Glazer.

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