Updated August 16, 2012

California’s assault weapons ban is the strongest law of its kind anywhere in the United States. It is a critically important measure that protects law enforcement and the public from military-style firearms that have no place in our communities. Now, this law is under attack, as firearm manufacturers have begun to reintroduce assault weapons into California, including a version of the Smith & Wesson assault rifle used in the recent massacre in Aurora, Colorado, using a feature called the “bullet button”.

Smith & Wesson M&P 15 Comparison

James Holmes used an M&P15 like the one on the left in the Aurora, Colorado massacre. Displayed on the right is a virtually identical weapon, equipped with a bullet button, that is now available in California.1

California’s Assault Weapons Ban

California law defines prohibited assault weapons to include firearms that have both the capacity to accept a detachable magazine and one of a list of specific military-style features. These features help assailants kill as many people as possible by enabling them to spray large amounts of fire quickly and accurately. An assault weapon’s ability to accept detachable magazines helps a shooter quickly reload the firearm in order to commit maximum damage.

California’s assault weapons ban, however, does not define the term “detachable magazine.” Perplexingly, current regulations define “detachable magazine” in a manner that runs counter to both the spirit and the letter of the state’s assault weapons law.2 Under the regulations, if any “tool,” including a bullet, is required to release a firearm’s magazine, then the weapon does not have the capacity to accept a detachable magazine, and is therefore not within the scope of the ban.

The Bullet Button

Using these regulations as cover, firearm manufacturers have begun to introduce “California compliant” weapons that are equipped with the “bullet button,” a button that a user may depress, using a bullet, to trigger the release of the gun’s ammunition magazine. Bullet button-equipped firearms are functionally the same as illegal assault weapons. It is just as easy for a firearm user to use a bullet to depress a button and trigger the release of a magazine as it is to use a finger to complete the same task. As a result, these weapons represent a serious and immediate threat to California’s assault weapons ban and to the safety of Californians statewide.

Legislation to Clarify State’s Assault Weapons Law was Introduced in 2012

Introduced by State Senators Yee and Steinberg, SB 249 would have addressed this pressing problem. The bill would have provided a statutory definition of “detachable magazine” in order to clarify that firearms with features like the bullet button are, as common sense and the statute’s plain language would indicate, illegal assault weapons. SB 249 would have also empowered the Department of Justice to adopt new regulations to block any further attempts to subvert the assault weapons law. The bill was supported by the California Department of Justice, the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, and a wide variety of state gun violence prevention groups.

Although SB 249 was initially set for hearing in the Assembly Appropriations Committee, the bill was held in committee. The Law Center remains committed to solving this issue moving forward.

  1. For more information on the bullet button, see the May 2012 Violence Policy Center study, Bullet Buttons: The Gun Industry’s Attack on California’s Assault Weapons Ban. ⤴︎
  2. Cal. Admin. Code tit. 11, § 5469(a). ⤴︎