AR-15s in California
The Roberti-Roos Assault Weapons Act of 1989 banned Colt AR-15 rifles by name in the State of California. California's 2000 Assault Weapons ban went further and banned AR-15s made by other manufacturers by name such as Bushmaster, PWA, and Olympic Arms. After the expiration of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban there was a renewed interest in the AR-15 rifle and AR-15 styled rifles.
The term "AR-15" is used loosely and broadly by the non-shooting public to refer to any rifle that represents a semi-automatic (one bullet shot per pull of the trigger) version of the military full automatic (more than one round shot per pull of the trigger) version known as the M16. The M16 is a cosmetically similar military rifle to the AR-15 used worldwide by law enforcement and militaries and in the USA is strictly controlled by the National Firearms Act enforced federally by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. These following descriptions only adhere to the civilian legal semi-automatic versions in California which are under the purview and additional restrictions of California firearms law. Enforcement of California firearms laws are administrated by the California Department of Justice (DOJ) as they incur no federal triggers for firearms violations. There are three legal ways to own an AR-15/AR-15-type rifle in California:
- Registered Assault Weapon: If the rifle was owned before Jan 1, 2000 and registered with the state, it is a Registered Assault Weapon (RAW) under California law. No new registrations are permitted. RAW rifles can have features which are prohibited in unregistered rifles. This category is the only one which allows for the use of the name "AR-15" on the firearm itself, to whom, Colt Manufacturing Company owns the rights to. California has banned the AR-15 rifle specifically by name. Therefore, no other rifles are legal to possess with such a name without having first having been lawfully registered as an assault weapon with the DOJ. Otherwise, one is in felony possession of an unregistered assault weapon for which no legal remedy exists if kept beyond the previously granted DOJ assault weapon registration grace period.
- Fixed-magazine Rifle: This style of rifle is made by combining an AR-15 upper receiver with an AR-15 lower receiver which has not been banned by specific name, and which has a fixed, non-detachable 10-round (maximum, anything above 10 is a felony) magazine. In such a configuration, otherwise prohibited features such as a telescoping stock, pistol grip, and flash hider may be present. While formerly prohibited under the now-expired federal assault weapon ban of 1994–2004, the presence of a bayonet lug is not prohibited by California state law and can be present on firearms without violation. However, the magazine cannot be detachable, so to load the rifle the shooter must either "top load" or use a tool to release the magazine lock (such as the tip of a bullet in "Bullet Button" equipped rifles). To top-load, the shooter pulls the rear takedown pin, hinges the upper receiver on the front pivot pin, and loads the now exposed magazine. Alternatively, several "magazine lock" devices are available which replace the magazine release button with an inset pin that requires the use of a special tool to release the magazine, thereby, disallowing a readily "detachable magazine", to be compliant with California state firearms law.
- Featureless Rifle: If a rifle has none of the prohibited features (pistol grip, telescoping or folding stock, flash hider, grenade/flare launcher, forward pistol grip), the rifle may be used with legally owned large-capacity magazines. There are several products available on the market to configure featureless rifles. The California DOJ Bureau of Firearms has attested under oath that the U-15 stock, the Hammerhead Grip and the MonsterMan Grip do not constitute a pistol grip and are therefore legal when used on a detachable magazine semiautomatic centerfire rifle with none of the features listed in CA PC 30515(a)(1)(A-F).
Off-List lower receivers
Most AR-15 manufacturers now make lower receivers which qualify as "Off-List" Lower (OLL) receivers which are legal to possess and use in the state of California. With regard to high capacity magazine devices, after January 1, 2000, it is illegal to offer for sale, import, manufacture, give, or lend (although it is legal to possess, use, buy, or receive) any detachable box magazine with a capacity exceeding 10 cartridges. The California State Attorney General's website indicates it is illegal to "buy" in their Frequently Asked Questions; however, no such wording exists in the law. It is presumed that such wording was left out of the law specifically because those holding a California State Assault Weapons Permit, an armored car transport/carrier or security company and its personnel are able to purchase high capacity magazines to carry out their duties even if not part of law enforcement entities. Individuals possessing such magazines at a lawful location such as a gun range may only allow use of their lawfully owned high-capacity magazines by another if they are in the immediate vicinity of the person using such items. All magazines acquired after (and including) January 1, 2000 must be limited to 10 rounds or be in felony possession of an illegal high-capacity magazine.
- Sworn testimony of Frank Navarro, California DOJ Bureau of Firearms Special Agent, in the case of People vs. Haack and Haack, California County of Tulare Superior Court, November 3, 2010.
- California Penal Code § 32310.