Brave new world: The tech future of guns

California is often considered the innovation hub of the United States. Why should it be any different for guns?

The state’s tough firearm laws have led “many entrepreneurs to ‘innovate’ ways around the law,” said Ari Freilich of the Giffords Law Center To Prevent Gun Violence.

Consider the case of the bullet button.* In 2001, California expanded its ban on new “assault weapons”* to include any modern semi-automatic rifle* with a detachable magazine* and at least one of a handful of other features, including a protruding pistol grip* or an adjustable stock*. To get around the ban, many gun owners came up with a solution: install a small lock on the magazine that can be easily opened with a small tool (or the tip of a bullet). Legally speaking, that tiny bit of hardware would transform a contraband assault weapon with a detachable magazine into a perfectly legal rifle with an ever-so-slightly-less detachable magazine.

In 2017, California lawmakers caught on and amended the law. That prompted the development of yet another workaround device: the Patriot Pin. And so the arms race over arms design continues in California.

With so many regulations now in place on newly manufactured firearms, many gun enthusiasts are simply building their own guns—or at least, they’re putting together the final pieces.

One of the most popular firearm products in California are “80 percent” or “unfinished” receivers.* Receivers are the central frame of a firearm onto which all the other components are connected. “Unfinished” simply means it lacks a few cavities and holes. But legally, that makes all the difference. Under both federal and California law, an unfinished receiver is just an elaborately shaped piece of metal. Under a law passed in 2016, Californians with home-finished receivers were given until January 1st of 2019 to register their gun with the state. It’s not clear how widespread compliance has been.

Still, plenty of lawmakers are worried about the spread of unidentifiable “ghost guns.” In 2017, a man with two home-built semi-automatic rifles killed five people and shot up an Elementary School in Tehama County. In 2019, a man killed a highway patrol officer in Riverside County with a home-assembled AR-15-style rifle. A student at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita also used a kit-assembled weapon to murder two fellow schoolmates before killing himself. Last year, a proposal to designate unfinished receivers as legal “firearms” passed both the Assembly and Senate, but was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown.

“By defining certain metal components as a firearm because they could ultimately be made into a homemade weapon, this bill could trigger potential application of myriad and serious criminal penalties,” Brown wrote in his veto message.

But the bill will be back.