California banned the sale of guns it calls assault weapons, including AR-15 style rifles, in 1989, updated the restrictions in 1999 and again in 2016. An accused shooter used such a gun last month to attack a synagogue outside San Diego, killing one and injuring three. He bought it this year in California where, despite the state ban, it is legal. The AR-15 style rifle that John Earnest is accused by police of using was one of many models the firearms industry has devised to skirt the regulations put in place by the seven states that outlaw semiautomatic weapons with certain features, which they refer to as assault weapons, the Wall Street Journal reports. These odd-looking semiautomatic rifles operate similarly to ones that are banned, including the ability to fire rapidly.
Gunmakers make workaround weapons that don’t include the banned features or adhere to the letter of the law on fixed magazines. “They all shoot the same,” said Norris Sweidan, the owner of Warrior One Guns & Ammo in Riverside, Ca., where the walls are lined with AR- and AK-style rifles modified to be legal in the state. “These people that are passing the laws, how many of them do you think have actually shot a gun?” In response to mass shootings, Democratic presidential candidates including former Vice President Joe Biden and California Sen. Kamala Harris want to renew the Federal Assault Weapons Ban that was in place from 1994 to 2004. The proliferation of guns sold legally that operate nearly identically to banned models shows how difficult it can be to make firearm restrictions effective. Mark Oliva of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade group for gun manufacturers, said of the state laws, “They’re basing the bans strictly on cosmetic features that have no bearing on the operation or the function of the firearm.”