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What assault weapons ban?

Loopholes have weakened the law

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THE GUN :  This part of the gun is called the receiver. By federal definitions this part, and only this part, is a firearm.
  • THE GUN : This part of the gun is called the receiver. By federal definitions this part, and only this part, is a firearm.

On paper, California has among the strictest prohibitions of assault weapon-style guns in the nation. First passed in 1989 in response to a mass murder of elementary school children involving an AK-47, the state law bans the sale of weapons with certain militaristic features and bans other weapons and parts specifically by name. 

The law has been vilified by gun enthusiasts and heralded as an example to the nation by gun opponents.

But does the law still have teeth?

Following a recent sheriff’s news conference during which deputies displayed an arsenal of apparently illegal weapons as they announced the arrests of two individuals on related charges, New Times reporters focused on the state of the law. What’s legal? Can a person own a weapon that looks and fires like an AK-47? In other words, despite the name of the law, is there really an assault-weapons ban in effect in California?

We found that gaps in the original law, combined with successful legal challenges and the ingenuity of manufacturers, render the original law ineffectual if not obsolete.

It’s not that anything goes in California. As in the rest of the nation, it’s illegal to traffic in machine guns—weapons that, when their triggers are pulled and held, fire repeatedly.

But when it comes to assault weapons, a term many gun enthusiasts reject as vague and biased, the spirit of the original law was clearly to ban the sort of weapons that look like those from a Rambo movie: semi-automatics with pistol grips and detachable magazines, which can fire as fast as a person can pull the trigger.

And that spirit appears to be full of so many holes it has little meaning.

“We feel like we’ve made very large progress in allowing Californians to own really any firearm they want to own,” boasts Gene Hoffman Jr., an entrepreneur and chairman of the Calguns Foundation, which has led several challenges to the original state law.

If you doubt him, take the case of the AK-47, that iconic Cold War weapon developed by Mikhail Kalashnikov. It was the clearest target of the original ban and is specifically banned by name.

Despite the law, Hoffman asserts, people in California are free these days to purchase, from a variety of federally licensed gun dealers, a weapon that would look and perform essentially the same as an AK.

Because it’s listed by name on the state’s ban, a person can’t own an AK-47 per se. But in 2007 the law was changed so the state no longer updates the list of banned weapons.

New parts have since been manufactured under serial numbers and names that are not on the list. Thus, the person who wants an AK-47-like weapon that is legal in California would only have to make one choice: Do they want a “pistol grip”—that handle-style grip near the trigger that allows the gun to be held and fired from the hip? If so, then they can’t have a “detachable magazine.”

The detachable magazine is that clip of ammunition that can be quickly taken out so a new one can be put in its place. (In either case, the magazine can hold only 10 rounds in California.) Under the state law, if you want a pistol grip, the magazine must be “fixed.” Theoretically, that would preclude someone from quickly changing out one magazine for another, since they’d need a screwdriver to remove the magazine.

Yet there is an option. Hoffman notes there are manufacturers who sell what’s called a “bullet button.” This is a magazine that can be removed with the press of a bullet, but theoretically not with one’s finger. Since it needs a “tool” to be removed, it’s legal, Hoffman insists. (In fact, gun enthusiast websites include discussions of triggering the bullet buttons by wrapping a finger with a paper clip.)

THE GRIP :  A key focus of California’s so-called assault weapons ban is the pistol grip. If a semi-automatic weapon has one, it can’t legally have a quick-release magazine—although clever part manufacturers offer ways to get around this stipulation.
  • THE GRIP : A key focus of California’s so-called assault weapons ban is the pistol grip. If a semi-automatic weapon has one, it can’t legally have a quick-release magazine—although clever part manufacturers offer ways to get around this stipulation.
If the person does not want a pistol grip, the decision is even easier: They can have a gun that acts exactly like an AK-47, with a detachable magazine, but simply has a grip that would make it look more like a sporting rifle than an assault rifle.

And even here clever manufacturers are offering grips that, while not proper pistol grips, look like a hybrid between the stock of a traditional rifle and the pistol grip. One of these is called a MonsterMan grip. The maker of the grip boasts that “thousands of MMGs have been sold in California” and quotes verbatim from the law.

Do the grips definitely make the guns legal? That’s ultimately for the buyer to decide, according to the company, which says on its website that the grip has neither been approved nor disapproved by the state Department of Justice.

To Hoffman, it’s clearly legal—if barely. But that’s good enough for him.

“One way we like to say it is we walk right up to the line, but not past it,” he said.

Irwin Nowick is a senior consultant to the California Senate Rules Committee and someone who has been involved with making state gun laws for two decades.

He cautioned that Hoffman’s line-walking approach could get him in trouble.

“If he wants to go up to the line, he assumes the risk he’s going to cross it,” Nowick said. “These guys think they’re being cutesy but they’re going to find themselves in a lot of trouble.”

One of the things that has pushed the issue to the fore is the weapons have become so easy to build through parts ordered via the Internet.

Take this example: A recent issue of Guns & Ammo magazine—a special issue devoted entirely to the AK 47, “The world’s most popular battle rifle”—features an in-depth article on how to build an AK-47, from items easily obtained at gun shows or the Internet.

The article wouldn’t shock gun enthusiasts much. The same information is easily available from many websites, but it does concisely describe what is needed to purchase and build an AK-47 from parts.

Essentially, a person needs three things:

First, they need a “parts kit.” Despite the innocuous-sounding name, these kits are in many cases full semi-automatic imports of foreign assault rifles with one small exception: One part called the “receiver”—the part the trigger would hang from—has been cut in two with a blow torch, making it unusable. Under federal law, this means it’s not a firearm. A receiver is the firearm—the rest is just parts.

Second, obviously, they need another receiver. These can be purchased on the same sites—or in the same gun shows—as the parts kits. If they buy a receiver that can be used immediately, they would have to ship the part to a federally licensed firearms dealer, where they would have to go through a background check.

But if a person is willing to do some work themselves, they could purchase a plate with holes predrilled and broached that is nearly a receiver, without going through a dealer. They would simply buy the flat plate and do the bending themselves to form it as a working receiver.

The Guns & Ammo magazine article offers two pictures of receiver parts: one is bent and one is flat. The caption reads, “The top one is a firearm. The flat steel plate isn’t, yet.” The article goes on to state that, if you bend the plate yourself, you don’t even need a federal firearms license, although in that case the owner would never be able to legally sell it.

The third thing a person would need is a bag of U.S.-made parts. In order to comply with U.S. import law, a certain number of parts on the gun have to be U.S.-made rather than imported. This can simply apply to rivets, the trigger system, and the receiver.

Why would someone want to build their own AK-47 if they could buy one very similar through a gun dealer?

“It’s really no different than someone who wants to knit their own sweater,” Hoffman insists. After all, sweaters can be bought at the store. He notes that car guys also like to build their own cars from kits.

There is, however, another aspect to consider. If someone were to build their own AK-47, they wouldn’t have to go through a federal firearms dealer, wouldn’t have to wait 10 days, and wouldn’t have to go through a background check.

Nowick, though, scoffed when told about the “sweater” analogy.

THE MAGAZINE :  California’s law only allows 10-round magazines, not larger ones such as this one.
  • THE MAGAZINE : California’s law only allows 10-round magazines, not larger ones such as this one.
“When you make your own sweater, the likelihood of you dying is not so great,” he said. “When you fire one of these homemade things, they may well blow up on you.”

So what’s the state of the law? Nowick acknowledges that gun enthusiasts have been working diligently against the law, but he insists that anyone who builds up their own assault weapon-style gun, from parts, is still running afoul of the law.

He notes that under former Attorney General Bill Lockyer in 2006, the law was amended at the same time the decision was made to stop updating the list, to allow DAs to seek civil injunctions against weapons holders that would have their weapons declared nuisances, in which case they would lose the weapons and possibly be vulnerable to felony prosecution.

Hoffman countered that under Attorney General Jerry Brown there doesn’t seem to be much interest in aggressively prosecuting those who purchase parts to make their own kit guns. Nowick acknowledges that that is how Brown has been perceived, but he believes that, if push came to shove, Brown would enforce the law. Brown’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment. ∆

Automatic arsenals

In 1989, two men in Paso Robles were arrested for making their own machine guns from parts using instructions from a magazine. Twenty years later, not much has changed.

When bounty-hunter Rick Dunbar knocked on Howard Krinsky’s door in Arroyo Grande, he was only seeking information. Dunbar was looking for Alan Garrison, who had skipped a court date after he was charged with possessing, converting, manufacturing, and selling machine guns. While there, Dunbar discovered Krinsky had a lot of guns, too (some were his and some he said were Garrison’s). It was basically dumb luck that Dunbar stumbled upon them.

Dunbar notified the Sheriff’s Department, which dispatched deputies to Krinsky’s house with a search warrant who found 209 guns in the house, including 10 unregistered assault weapons, five unregistered machine guns, and three unregistered machine-gun receivers, according to court documents. There were boxes of ammunition, two smoke grenades, and a “dummy” fragmentation grenade. There were also gun parts and gunsmith tools in the house, which indicated someone knew how to modify and make guns, according to legal records. The capper: a World War II-era, 20-mm anti-tank cannon.

Garrison and Krinsky have known each other for about 30 years, and Garrison sometimes stayed at Krinsky’s house, which is what led Dunbar there in the first place.

Krinsky is scheduled to return to court July 16 and has yet to stand trial for various felony charges of possessing, selling, and transporting machine guns and assault weapons as well as converting semi-automatic guns into fully automatic weapons.

Garrison was sentenced to six years in prison and is confined in a reception facility outside Bakersfield before relocation to serve his term. Of 12 felony counts, Garrison pleaded guilty to one: no contest to converting guns into fully automatic machine guns. Garrison was arrested after he sold an AR-15 assault rifle—which was converted to fully automatic fire—to a confidential informant at a self-storage center in Nipomo.

Neither Krinsky nor Garrison could be reached for comment.

According to court documents, Garrison was selling guns, some of which came from Krinsky. In a transcribed interview, Krinsky told a detective he gave Garrison a couple of handguns to sell and believed they were being taken out of the country. In the same interview he said he sold Garrison a rifle equipped with a silencer and “flash hider” for about $2,400.

Krinsky hardly comes across as secretive about his guns from the transcribed pages of his interview with a sheriff’s deputy. In fact, he was supplementing his retirement by selling guns—a collection he began in 1967.

Krinsky was charged with converting weapons to machine guns. But asked if he was actually making machine guns, he said it was all Garrison. According to a transcript in his file: “I’ve got a pretty good idea, but I’ve never done it.” Garrison, conversely, said it was all Krinsky, according to court documents.

KRINSKY’S COLLECTION :  While searching for Alan Garrison, who skipped a court date when faced with several weapons charges, local law enforcement stumbled on 209 guns in Howard Krinsky’s Arroyo Grande home. - PHOTO BY COLIN RIGLEY
  • PHOTO BY COLIN RIGLEY
  • KRINSKY’S COLLECTION : While searching for Alan Garrison, who skipped a court date when faced with several weapons charges, local law enforcement stumbled on 209 guns in Howard Krinsky’s Arroyo Grande home.
From hobbyists to menaces

There are two types of people who convert guns to full automatic fire or go all out and build their own guns. Whatever their intent, they’re committing felonies. The first is the hobbyist who just wants to build guns for fun; maybe they’ll squeeze off some rounds into a hillside. Then there’s your “standard criminal,” explained David Hamilton, a special agent with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), “and they want these weapons to be additional firepower.”

More often than not, it’s the hobbyist and collector who gets caught with assembled assault weapons or modified machine guns. It doesn’t happen often, Hamilton and ATF Special Agent Michael Hoffman said, but sometimes assembled and modified weapons do turn up amid large collections.

No one can say exactly how many such weapons are in California or elsewhere in the country and there likely won’t be any tracking of such weapons anytime soon. Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center based in Washington, D.C., said much of the crime tracking on guns has been so diluted by lobbying efforts from the National Rifle Association that it’s basically useless: “It’s one of those vast gray areas that illustrates the complete lack of record keeping on specific aspects of the gun industry.”

It’s difficult to buy a fully assembled weapon and bring it into the U.S.; it’s easier to buy the parts legally and build it or buy from someone who has.

“It’s probably going to be hard for you to get it [overseas],” Hoffman of the ATF said. “You’ve got to have some connections to do it. I don’t know where the heck I’d go to get one from out of the country.”

Whether individuals are merely hoarding automatic weapons out of fascination or they intend harm, law enforcement officers consider them a threat.

“The main concern on somebody like that is well, they’ve got all these guns, what are they doing with them?” Hamilton said. “Probably more importantly, are they in turn selling those guns to somebody that shouldn’t have them?”

Spray and pray

Automatic weapons can be more dangerous than other guns but more difficult to steady when fired. Someone firing an automatic AK-47, for example, can have difficulty hitting what they’re aiming at, Hamilton said, but the rain of bullets can be lethal for anyone in the neighborhood.

“Of course, it’s always a concern because law enforcement officers don’t want to face any firearms from criminals, let alone a machine gun because it’s just that much more lead coming down at you,” Hamilton said.

Such was the case in one of the most violent shootouts in U.S. history. In 1997, two men armed to the teeth with assault weapons they had converted for automatic fire, handguns, armor-piercing bullets, and body armor, who were drugged to calm their nerves, held off the Los Angeles Police Department for 44 minutes after a botched bank robbery. It was later called the North Hollywood Shootout.

Larry Eugene Phillips Jr. and Emil Matasareanu brazenly walked toward police, whose 9-mm bullets ricocheted off their body armor like BB pellets. The two men sprayed the area with more than 1,500 bullets. Completely outgunned, police had to commandeer heavier weapons from a nearby sporting goods store. They eventually disabled Phillips and Matasareanu, both of whom died, after six civilians and 11 officers were injured. The incident was the impetus for some police departments arming officers with more powerful rifles.

Editorial intern Marin Kautz contributed research for this story. You can reach Managing Editor Patrick Howe at phowe@newtimesslo.com and Staff Writer Colin Rigley at crigley@newtimesslo.com.

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