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San Bernardino Shooting Suspects Got Around Gun Laws

December 5, 2015

 Illegally Modified AR-15s Highlight Workarounds To California’s Weapons Restrictions

by Ashby Jones, Dan Frosch and Ben Kesling

California’s gun restrictions weren’t enough to keep illegally modified assault-style rifles out of the hands of two attackers who killed 14 people and injured 21 in San Bernardino this past week.

The couple carried rifles that had been legally purchased and unlawfully altered—highlighting an illicit flow of guns underground and workarounds to the law that can help people make their weapons more dangerous.

Making modifications to a gun “is not particularly difficult…and is really pretty common,” said Mark Jones, a former special agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

While strict, California’s gun laws are among the most complicated in the nation, according to legal experts.

For instance, California law bans semiautomatic weapons with detachable magazines. But state law allows semiautomatic guns equipped with a hard-to-access mechanism known as a “bullet button” that releases a magazine from the rest of the gun.

Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, the suspects in the shooting, were armed with four guns purchased more than three years ago, according to a law enforcement official. The two .223-caliber semiautomatic weapons ultimately used in the attacks were originally bought by an associate of Mr. Farook’s. All four guns were purchased legally.

But alterations were made to two of the weapons, which made them unlawful in California.

It’s a strong law with a really easy workaround,” said Kristen Rand, a legislative director at the Violence Policy Center, a gun-control advocacy group.

Complicating matters in California: Manufacturing or selling high-capacity magazines is illegal, but simply owning one isn’t.

One of the semiautomatic rifles—made by DPMS Panther Arms—had been changed to more easily accommodate a large-capacity magazine, according to Meredith Davis, a special agent with the ATF.

There was also an attempt to alter the other—a Smith & Wesson M&P model—so it would fire automatically, according to the ATF, a process that takes some expertise to get right, according to gun experts.

The AR-15 reloads and recocks itself automatically after every shot is fired. The only thing keeping the gun from firing again on its own is a sear, a piece in the gun that stops the cycle from continuing. By replacing the sear, and a few other key components, an AR-15 can become fully automatic.

The replacement parts aren’t difficult to find. But once installed, they have to be calibrated to work properly.

In this case, the attempt to convert one of the rifles from a semiautomatic to fire automatically was unsuccessful, according to the ATF.

It was unclear on Friday who subsequently modified the guns for the couple. The identity of the person who bought the rifles hasn’t been released.

California also has among the strictest background-check laws. It goes further than federal law by requiring background checks during all private gun transfers, including sales at gun shows.

But there are ways to get around that. A person can lend another a gun for as long as 30 days without having to run a background check.

Many transfers between close family members are also exempt from background-check requirements.

The workarounds pose a further challenge for law-enforcement officials.

In California, most gun sales and transfers must be reported to the state’s Justice Department. Still, once a gun is sold, it becomes very difficult to keep track of, given that many postsale transfers go unreported, said Mr. Jones of the ATF.

It isn’t clear if records of the sales or transfers of the guns used in Wednesday’s shooting were filed with the state. Calls to the state’s Justice Department weren’t returned.

One or more of the guns at issue were purchased at Turner’s Outdoorsman, a Southern California-based retail chain, according to a law-enforcement official. The official declined to give further details.

Bill Ortiz, vice president of compliance for Turner’s, said the store cooperates fully when law enforcement requests information pertaining to purchases.

States don’t conduct background checks on ammunition purchases alone, and consumers are generally free to stockpile ammunition.

A ballot proposal introduced by California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom in October put forth a sweeping measure to eliminate some of the oddities in California’s gun laws, including making high-capacity magazines illegal to own and mandating background checks on ammunition sales.

Gun-rights supporters object to the proposal, saying that, among other things, running background checks on every box of bullets sold in California would be time-consuming and costly.

Stockpiling ammunition, they say, often makes sense, given periodic shortages.

“Plus, people go through thousands of rounds during a weekend at a shooting range,” said Chuck Michel, an expert on California gun laws and a gun-rights lawyer based in Long Beach. “Keeping 5,000 or 10,000 rounds of ammunition in storage really isn’t that big of a deal.”

Write to Ashby Jones at ashby.jones@wsj.com, Dan Frosch at dan.frosch@wsj.com and Ben Kesling at benjamin.kesling@wsj.com

Corrections & Amplifications
California law requires most gun sales and transfers to be reported to the state’s Justice Department. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the records are kept with gun sellers. (Dec. 6, 2015)

Click here for the original article in the Wall Street Journal.

 Illegally Modified AR-15s Highlight Workarounds To California’s Weapons Restrictions

by Ashby Jones, Dan Frosch and Ben Kesling

California’s gun restrictions weren’t enough to keep illegally modified assault-style rifles out of the hands of two attackers who killed 14 people and injured 21 in San Bernardino this past week.

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