April 20, 2023
DISCLAIMER: The following article does not represent legal counsel, nor does it promise to accurately reflect the state of California’s current legal and legislative situation. It is the responsibility of law-abiding gun owners to know and follow all applicable ordinances and regulations. This article, instead, simply represents the author’s personal experiences and perspectives at the time and place of its writing.
California may be called the “Sunshine State,” but its anti-gun legislators bring nothing but doom and gloom to the 2nd Amendment rights of its citizens. In 1989, California became the first state to enact an “assault rifle ban” under the Roberti-Roos Assault Weapons Control Act. The law has since been amended several times with additional restrictions designed to choke out the market for AR-15-style platforms and similar semiautomatics. Although it is illegal to purchase an “assault rifle,” there are legal workarounds that allow an AR-type firearm to be compliant with California law and therefore legal to sell and own. These workarounds are why many manufacturers can offer California-complaint AR carbines.
The Roberti-Roos Assault Weapons Control Act of 1989 went into effect in 1990 and identified 50 firearms by make and model that were considered an “assault weapon” (I’ll quit with the quotes, but you get the idea) and were therefore prohibited from purchase without a special permit. The list included AK variants as well as AR-style guns, in addition to other autos and semiautos. Some of the firearms named were the UZI, MAC-types firearms, Armalite AR180, Colt AR-15, HK-91, Fabrique Nationale FAL, HK-91 and the Steyr AUG. Those who already owned these firearms were able to keep them.
In time, makes and models that were not on the list became popular and anti-gun legislators changed their tactics to cast a wider net, including updating their definition of assault weapon. In 1999, the Roberti-Roos Assault Weapons Control Act was amended (Penal Code section 35015), and named specific features that would make a firearm an assault weapon. The amendment states that a semiautomatic, center-fire rifle that has the capacity to accept a detachable magazine, and any of the features below, is deemed an assault weapon:
- A pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon.
- A thumbhole stock.
- A folding or telescoping stock.
- A grenade launcher or flare launcher.
- A flash suppressor.
- A forward pistol grip.
The list clearly shows that the legislation’s target was the AR platform.
This amendment led firearms owners to seek workarounds in order to remain complaint with the law. A rifle without the banned features became known as a “featureless AR.”
The workarounds are simple. A finned grip replaces the standard pistol grip. This prevents the thumb from wrapping around the grip. The stock ban has several solutions. Obviously, don’t use a thumbhole or folding stock, instead use a fixed stock or pin a telescoping stock so it can’t be adjusted. For grenade or flare launchers, leave them off. In place of a flash suppressor use a muzzle brake. (The law is very specific about this, don’t use a muzzle brake that states that it will suppress the flash.) The once popular forward pistol grip is now verboten. California doesn’t want a vertical handle dangling off the handguard, so don’t install one.
Other Firearms Considered Assault Weapons
In addition to a semiautomatic, center-fire rifle with a detachable magazine, several other types of guns are also be deemed to be assault weapons, including: A semiautomatic, center-fire rifle that has a fixed magazine with the capacity to accept more than 10 rounds; or, a semiautomatic, center-fire rifle that has an overall length of less than 30 inches. Semiautomatic pistols and shotguns can also be considered assault weapons, but the details are outside of the scope of this AR-centric article.
Fixed Magazine Alternatives
Since the law is not detailed about a semiautomatic center-fire rifle’s fixed magazine characteristics, other than capacity, so long as one used a 10-round-or-less magazine, then pistol grips, telescopic stocks, flash suppressors and forward pistol grips were once again legal features. This led firearm owners to seek solutions for converting their standard detachable magazine AR to a fixed magazine.
One of the early popular ways to convert a detachable magazine to fixed magazine was by replacing the standard magazine release button with a bullet button. A bullet button looks like a standard magazine release button but can’t be depressed with a finger. To release the magazine, insert the pointy end of a bullet into button’s center and depress the inner core.
In 2017, the bullet button loophole was closed, and the law became specific to say that a fixed magazine would require disassembly of the rifle as to become inoperable when changing a magazine. Those who wished to keep their ARs with a bullet button were required to register them as assault weapons by June 2018. The online registration was extremely buggy and left many firearms owners unable to register their firearms or unsure whether their application was processed.
Since then, other fixed magazine alternatives have hit the market. One of the popular conversion kits was the AR MagLock and its copycats. The AR Maglock is a magazine release button with an arm that sits on the upper receiver. It can only be depressed when the upper receiver is opened, thus fulfilling the law’s disassembly requirement. A rear detent pin with a ring is part of the kit and makes it easy to pull the rear detent pin to open the receiver. The cons to this conversion are that a failure to feed could prevent the bolt carrier group from clearing the rear of the receiver and thus not being able to open. It would require pulling both detent pins, separating the receivers completely, to clear the malfunction.
Featureless Or Fixed Magazine?
I prefer the featureless route because I can use a standard magazine release and therefore clear a malfunction without disassembling the AR. Since this is a firearm for home defense, time would be critical if a malfunction occurred. A fixed stock is limiting, but with the correct length of pull it’s not going to be a detriment in close quarters. The flash suppressor is a non-issue, I prefer a muzzle brake to reduce recoil and muzzle rise for a flatter shooting AR. The only funky component is a finned grip, but I use a Strike Industries Megafin Featureless AR grip. The grip has a built-in thumbshelf and puts my shooting hand in the same position as the grip on my precision rifle. I install an ambidextrous safety lever to control the safety with my thumb.
Today, many manufacturers offer California-compliant models of their AR-15-style firearms. Springfield Armory, Rock River Arms and Radian Weapons have chosen to go the featureless route and have a fixed stock, muzzle brake and finned pistol grip. Daniel Defense went the fixed magazine route with an AR Maglock. In either case, due to a 2016 ban on “large capacity” magazines, all magazine – fixed or not – are restricted to 10 rounds or less. It’s not ideal, nor is it a model of pro-Second Amendment legislation, but through state-compliant renditions, dedicated firearms enthusiasts in California can still enjoy some of the benefits of Gene Stoner’s innovative rifle.
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