Politics & Government

For first time in history, California dealers sell more than a million guns in a single year

Nate Woodward, manager at Sacramento Black Rifle, holds an AR-15-style rifle, which is now illegal to sell in California.
Nate Woodward, manager at Sacramento Black Rifle, holds an AR-15-style rifle, which is now illegal to sell in California. rpench@sacbee.com

Pass a new gun control law, watch gun sales explode until the law takes effect.

That pattern has played out several times over the years in California, but never so much as in 2016, related largely to a spike in sales as buyers rushed to beat a ban on certain rifles, new figures from the state Department of Justice show.

In July, state lawmakers passed legislation outlawing rifles equipped with “bullet buttons” that allow for fast reloading. The ban did not take effect until January.

California gun sales rose 50 percent in 2016 as residents rushed to buy the “bullet-button” rifles before they were labeled illegal assault weapons under the Jan. 1 ban. Gun dealers processed 1,331,322 gun sales last year, up by 450,000 from 2015. That’s the equivalent of one gun sold for every 30 California residents.

Last year marked the first time that more than 1 million guns were sold in California in a single year. Long gun sales accounted for the bulk of the rise: Sales doubled from 2015 to almost 760,000. And handgun sales continued what has been a nearly unbroken rise over the decade. Sales rose 18 percent from 2015, to about 573,000.

Wesley Lewis, owner of Guns N Stuff in North Highlands, said the pending “bullet-button” ban caused his sales to boom, particularly toward the end of the year.

“It’s amazing how really dumb the legislators are,” he said. “My sales were up. A lot of (buyers) were pissed because of this stupid law.”

Sen. Steve Glazer, an Orinda Democrat and co-author of the “bullet-button” ban, said the run on guns was inevitable, but that the law, nonetheless, will save lives by restricting future sales of assault weapons. He blamed “false claims about recently enacted gun reforms” by the gun industry for the sharp rise in sales. The National Rifle Association and Firearms Policy Coalition dubbed the “bullet-button” ban and other gun control measures proposed last year as “Gunmageddon” and tried unsuccessfully to place measures on the November ballot that would have overturned them.

“They peddle a false claim. They employ gimmickry,” Glazer said, adding that it’s tough to counteract messaging from such a large industry. “We’re not in the marketing business,” he said. “We are trying to enact laws.”

The gun control measures California lawmakers and voters passed in 2016 impose a range of new restrictions on the state’s more than 6 million firearms owners, from where they can buy ammunition to how they store their guns and who can borrow them. They take effect in stages over the next two years.

The “bullet-button” ban is the latest chapter in California’s attempt to define and ban assault weapons.

Almost 30 years ago, California became the first state to prohibit semi-automatic rifles after Patrick Purdy gunned down five children with a semi-automatic AK-47 in the infamous 1989 shooting at Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton.

In ensuing years, the state issued bans on three major categories of assault weapons: those specified by name, such as the Colt AR-15; the AK and AR-15 series; and semi-automatic rifles with the capacity to accept a detachable magazine. Also banned are semi-automatic rifles with fixed magazines in excess of 10 rounds, and semi-automatic center-fire rifles with overall lengths of less than 30 inches.

The regulations were designed to make it difficult to shoot a lot of rounds fast. But they contained a provision that allowed for changing out magazines using a “tool.”

After the assault weapon bans took effect, gun manufacturers introduced “California-compliant” rifles that exploited the provision. In many cases, there was just one difference between those firearms and what were legally considered assault weapons: Instead of using a finger to quickly detach and reload a magazine, the guns required the shooter to use a bullet to press a button.

In 2013, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a measure, Senate Bill 374, that would have closed the loophole by treating semi-automatic rifles that accept a detachable magazine as assault weapons. A separate effort died before getting to his desk.

One of the two rifles used by Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik to kill 14 people at a San Bernardino County office holiday party in late 2015 featured a “bullet button.” The rifles were further modified, though, and were illegal under California law.

The San Bernardino shootings were a catalyst for passing the latest version of the “bullet-button” ban, which Brown signed July 1.

“These particular kinds of guns that can be reloaded quickly jeopardize public safety,” Glazer said. “Having weapons of war in our communities is very unsafe.”

The effects of the new ban are clear in the state numbers. New gun sales rose about 75 percent in the second half of 2016 compared with the first half of the year.

“I sold more ARs in two months than I did in a year,” Lewis said, referring to November and December sales of one of the most popular rifles to feature a “bullet button.”

Bill Durston, a Sacramento resident and president of Americans Against Gun Violence, said lawmakers erred when they passed the law in July but put off its implementation until January. “The very obvious solution is that you don’t include the grandfather clause,” he said. “We would be much safer if it had no grandfather clause.”

Other gun control measures, including a pending law that will require residents to undergo background checks before buying ammunition, likely also will lead to a run on weapons, gear and ammo because they, too, feature a lag time between approval and implementation, Durston said.

“It’s very predictable,” he said. “The ban always acts as a stimulus.”

It may have been more difficult to pass the “bullet-button” law without the delay in implementation. Gun dealers would have been stuck with millions of dollars worth of merchandise that would be illegal to sell, and state officials would have needed a quick strategy for enforcing the ban. The ban was modified in committee to give residents who own “bullet-button” guns more time to register their weapons.

For now, gun sales have returned to normal, said Lewis, the North Highlands gun store owner. And despite the temporary boost to his bottom line, he wishes the state hadn’t passed the law. He also hopes President-elect Donald Trump will find a way to counter it and other gun control measures in California after he assumes office Friday.

“I hope he does something where he gets rid of these stupid laws,” Lewis said.

Phillip Reese: 916-321-1137, @PhillipHReese