California has long been one of the states with the strictest gun laws, and in 1989, it became the first state to implement an assault weapons ban. That eventually led to the creation of the bullet button, a device that allowed Californians to own modified versions of rifles that the state considered an assault weapon, including the popular AR-15.
In July of 2016, Governor Jerry Brown signed several bills that expanded the state’s gun control laws, with SB 880/AB 1135 addressing the bullet button. That hasn’t stopped California’s large population of gun enthusiasts from coming up with new ways around those expanded laws.
How Bullet Buttons Followed California’s Assault Weapons Laws
When California set up its assault weapon laws, it included specific features for a rifle to be considered an assault weapon.
The rifle would need to have a removable magazine along with any of these features:
- A flash suppressor
- A pistol grip
- A forward pistol grip
- An adjustable/collapsible stock
The above features are common with AR-15s and many other rifles. Gun owners and manufacturers in California found a solution with the bullet button. This is a device that gets installed on the gun’s magazine release.
A traditional magazine release is a button that the shooter can press with their finger, dropping the magazine and allowing them to load a new one. When the gun has a bullet button installed, the only way to release the magazine is to press the button with an appropriate tool. The tip of a bullet will work for this, hence the name.
Under the definition set by state law, if the shooter needed to use an external tool that wasn’t attached to the gun to release the magazine, then it fit the definition of a fixed magazine and not a removable magazine. And state law also said that a bullet was considered a tool.
Rifles that would have otherwise been assault weapons and illegal in California were legal as long as they had bullet buttons.
Changes to the Law Made in 2016
After the terrorist attack in San Bernardino on December 2, 2015, California lawmakers decided that stricter gun control was necessary. The two shooters were armed with AR-15s and 9mm pistols for that attack. They obtained the rifles from a neighbor, who purchased the weapons legally but didn’t file for a transfer when he gave his neighbors the guns.
Those AR-15s were illegally modified to have their bullet buttons removed. Despite that, lawmakers still wanted to have rifles with bullet buttons included in the definition of assault weapons. The SB 880/AB 1135 bill which Brown signed into law changed the definition of what fixed and removable magazines are. Now, California state law only considers a magazine fixed if the firearm action must be disassembled to remove the magazine.
The change went into effect on January 1, 2017. On that day, it became illegal for California residents to purchase or build rifles with a bullet button and any of those aforementioned assault weapon features.
If a California resident had a bullet button rifle purchased or built by December 31, 2016, and they wanted to keep the rifle, they had two options. The first was registering the gun as an assault weapon with the California Department of Justice (DOJ). The second was to modify the rifle so that it no longer fits the definition of an assault weapon.
Going the Featureless Route
California hasn’t made registration easy for gun owners. The California DOJ’s website didn’t even have an assault weapon registration available until August 3, 2017. The registration process isn’t as simple as punching in a serial number, either. Besides requiring all the owner’s personal information, it also requires quite a bit of information on the weapon itself, including pictures. And once a gun is registered as an assault weapon, the owner must comply with strict assault weapon laws.
Many gun owners are understandably wary of registering their guns, and compliance with these types of registrations is typically low. When New York required assault weapon registration through the 2014 SAFE Act, there were only 44,485 firearms registered, compared to an estimate of almost 1 million firearms that weren’t.
Of course, given the choice between registering a gun as an assault weapon and committing a felony, most California gun owners would prefer neither option. That’s why many are going the featureless rifle route.
A featureless AR-15 is one that gets rid of all those features that makes California consider it an assault weapon. That means it needs a fixed stock, and it can’t have a flash suppressor, a vertical grip or a pistol grip. If the rifle doesn’t have any of those assault weapon features, then it can have a normal magazine release with removable magazines.
If a gun owner has a bullet button AR-15, they can convert it to a featureless rifle to keep it legal without registering it. The new California gun laws have led to many manufacturers making featureless rifles since it’s legal for people to purchase these rifles. They can also buy the parts and build their own, like so.
Stricter Gun Laws Often Have the Opposite Effect
The irony in California’s gun control laws, and gun control efforts in general, is that they end up leading to more gun purchases. When people think that their right to bear arms will be threatened, it’s often just the motivation they need to purchase a gun, since they worry that they won’t be able to in the future.
Since the election of President Donald Trump, gun sales have gone down. The reason is simple – when Barack Obama was in office, he often called for stricter gun control measures. People felt the need to stock up in case gun control measures were passed. Trump has been more supportive of gun rights so far, and people feel more secure in their right to bear arms with him in office.
During that same decrease in gun sales, California had a huge spike towards the end of 2016. All those new restrictions on bullet button rifles for 2017 led to people getting their rifles in 2016 while it was still legal. California may now consider bullet button rifles to be assault weapons, but the only effect was a major increase in sales, and now gun manufacturers have simply switched to featureless rifles.
The Future of Gun Laws in California
The song and dance between California’s gun manufacturers and its anti-gun legislators will likely continue, with legislators banning features and manufacturers finding ways to bypass those bans. The situation will change drastically if Republican congressman Chris Collins can get his bill, HR 3576, passed. The bill prohibits states from instituting gun laws stricter than those of the federal government.
It’s not easy being a gun owner in California right now, although that’s nothing new. The state has passed many laws over the years that give gun owners more hoops to jump through, even though the only people these laws affect are the law-abiding gun owners.
Fortunately, often it just takes a little ingenuity on the part of gun manufacturers to get around these restrictions.
Sam Bocetta is a retired defense contractor for the U.S. Navy, specializing in electronic warfare and advanced computer systems. He now teaches at Algonquin Community College in Ottawa, Canada as a part-time engineering professor and is the ASEAN affairs correspondent at Gun News Daily (https://gunnewsdaily.com).