Loophole That Makes Assault Rifles Legal in California Still Open
Jerry Brown may be ripping into gun laws in Arizona and Nevada in the wake of San Bernardino, but his state is not as good as it sounds.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated thorough to clarify that Gov. Brown’s veto would not have prevented the sale of assault rifles that were later obtained by Syed RIzwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik.
To hear Gov. Jerry Brown of California condemn Arizona and Nevada for lax gun laws that provide “a gigantic back door through which any terrorist can walk,” you might forget that he personally kept open the back door that had long made the weapons such as were used in the San Bernardino killings legal and readily available in his state.
But he did exactly that with a veto two years ago , when he vetoed a bill that would have closed “the bullet button loophole.”
That is the nickname for a well known technicality in the 1989 assault weapons ban that California passed as part of what otherwise remain among the toughest gun laws in the country.
Brown’s office points out that the assault rifles Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik used to in San Bernardino were obtained at least a year before the veto.
Brown’s office also notes that the killers had illegally modified the guns.
His office rightly says that Brown cannot be blamed for the killers being able to get their hands on those guns.
But the fact remains that the guns were only available for legal sale in the first place because of the bullet button loophole.
And because Brown subsequently vetoed the bill that would have closed it, the loophole persists even after the San Bernardino killings.
As a result, weapons that are just a technicality short of being assault rifles are for sale in gun shops across California at this very moment.
Under the longstanding California ban, a rifle is not an assault weapon if it has a fixed as opposed to a detachable magazine. A fixed magazine is defined as one that cannot be removed without either dissembling the weapon’s working parts or employing a tool.
But gun manufacturers quickly came up with a button that released a magazine by pushing it with the tip of a bullet, which was deemed a non-tool.
The hundreds of thousands of weapons the “bullet button” made “California legal” include the Smith & Wesson M&P-15 and the DPMS AR-15 that a onetime neighbor of Syed Farook is thought to have purchased at local gun stores sometime between 2007 and 2012. The rifles somehow passed from the neighbor, Enrique Marquez, into the possession of Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik.
After 20 youngsters and six staffers were murdered with an assault rifle at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, the bullet button circumvention became an issue in California. The legislature passed Senate Bill 374, which, among other things, would have closed the loophole. SB 374 also would have required anybody who had secured a “California legal” assault rifle between Jan. 1, 2001, and Jan. 1, 2014, to register the weapon.
All that was needed for the bill to become law was for Brown to sign it.
He instead sent an Oct. 11, 2013, veto letter to the state Senate:
I am returning Senate Bill 374 without my signature.
The State of California already has some of the strictest gun laws in the country, including bans on military-style assault rifles and high-capacity ammunition magazines.
While the author’s intent is to strengthen these restrictions, this bill goes much farther by banning any semi-automatic rifle with a detachable magazine. This ban covers low-capacity rifles that are commonly used for hunting, firearms training, and marksmanship practice, as well as some historical and collectible firearms. Moreover, hundreds of thousands of current gun owners would have to register their rifles as assault weapons and would be banned from selling or transferring them in the future.
Today I signed a number of bills that strengthen California’s gun laws, including AB 48, which closes a loophole in the existing ban on dangerous high-capacity magazines. I also signed AB 1131 and SB 127, which restrict the ability of mentally unstable people to purchase or possess guns.
I don’t believe that this bill’s blanket ban on semi-automatic rifles would reduce criminal activity or enhance public safety enough to warrant this infringement on gun owners’ rights.
Edmund G. Brown Jr.
The veto would not have prevented the San Bernardino killers from getting their hands on the assault rifles that they then modified to make even more deadly.
But there is no disputing that the veto perpetuated the bullet button technicality and the legal sale of what was by all appearances an assault rifle. The San Bernardino killers seem to have felt free to take the assault rifles to local shooting ranges and practice their marksmanship. They seem to have no more worries of running afoul of the law than when Farook plunked away with his little .22 target rifle. They just blazed away.
“Within days of this incident,” FBI Assistant Director in Charge David Bowdich told a press conference on Monday.
Farook and Malik also must have practiced changing magazines, for they are said to have reloaded smoothly not only while they were murdering 14 innocents at a holiday party but even during the subsequent running gun battle with the police. Malik must have reloaded at least twice as she fired out the back of their SUV at the pursuing cops.
Afterward, the police made public a photograph of the two recovered assault rifles. The neighbor believed to have originally purchased them is said to have checked himself into a mental hospital. His legal status is unclear.
“I’m not prepared to discuss Mr. Marquez at this point,” Bowdich told reporters.
Meanwhile, Brown expressed horror at the carnage and accused Arizona and Nevada of allowing terrorists to arm themselves. Never mind that the murder weapons were purchased in California thanks to a loophole that Brown himself subsequently declined to close because it was too much of an infringement on the rights of gun owners.
In response to a request for comment from the governor, a spokesman directed The Daily Beast to a CNN interview in which Brown defended his veto of the measure ending the bullet button loophole. Brown said the bill was “overbroad,” affecting such things as “collectibles.”
“The devil is in the details,” Brown said.
He would have done better just to say that the murderous devils in San Bernardino had proven him tragically wrong in one detail even as the rest of California’s gun laws were indeed so much better than those in Arizona and Nevada.
“Regarding future legislation… he’ll seriously consider any bill that reaches his desk,” said the spokeswoman for Bullet Button Brown.