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Expanded California Assault Weapon Ban Leaves Thousands Of Gun Owners In Limbo

VACAVILLE (KPIX 5) -- Tens of thousands of gun owners in California are in legal limbo because of the state's newly expanded assault weapons ban. It all has to do with delays in implementing the law, which no one wants to take responsibility for.

For years, AR-15s have been the weapon of choice at the "Guns Fishing and Other Stuff" gun store and shooting range in Vacaville.

Owner Travis Morgan says this year, it's different.

Part 2: Enterprising Gun Makers Create Workarounds To New Assault Weapon Ban

"Nobody is sure what it's going to be, how it's going to be. They all kind of just slowed down buying," he said.

That's because a new law makes many of the guns he once sold, and that many of his customers still use, illegal.

Until this year AR rifles equipped with so-called bullet buttons were exempt from California's assault weapons ban even though they have a detachable magazine along with all the features of a military-style gun.

That's because you need a tool, usually a bullet, to release the magazine rather than just the push of a finger, making them slower to reload.

But that didn't slow down the San Bernardino shooters in December of 2015. Armed with modified bullet button ARs they managed to gun down 36 people in the span of three minutes.

So lawmakers in Sacramento took action, closing what the Department of Justice now calls a "loophole" in the law.

Now bullet button ARs are considered assault weapons.

They can no longer be bought or sold, though people who lawfully owned one before the start of this year can keep it if they register it.

"This law had been out before and last time Gov. Brown vetoed it. This time he didn't. He's a lame duck this season. He can't run again. So he signed it," said Travis Morgan.

There are thousands, if not tens of thousands, of legally owned ARs in California right now.

Beginning January 1, 2018, an AR with a bullet button is either going to have to be modified or registered with the state to remain legal.

The problem is you can't even register an AR right now.

"They don't know how to implement these laws," said Craig Deluz with the Firearms Policy Coalition, a group that lobbies for gun owner rights in California.

He says the new law requires the Department of Justice to come up with new regulations before it can open up an electronic registration system. But so far the agency has failed to do that. That's leaving law abiding gun owners who want to register but can't in a Catch 22.

"At the very end of December, on the eve of New Years Eve, they tried to sneak the regulations past the public through the administrative process, with no public input whatsoever. When they found out they weren't going to be able to get away with that they pulled them back," said Deluz.

But Ari Freilich, staff attorney for the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, says it's the other way around.

"Unfortunately the gun lobby has used their typical delay tactics," he said.

Freilich blames push-back from the gun lobby, including threats of lawsuits, for the delay.

"The California legislature specifically passed a law to say that California's Department of Justice does not have to go through the rigmarole of public comment and red tape every time they want to develop regulations about registering assault weapons," said Freilich.

KPIX 5 spoke to Attorney General Xavier Becerra, the man in charge of implementing the state's new assault weapons law, at a recent event.

We asked him: A lot of gun owners are complaining they can't register them and the holdup is within your office. How do you answer those complaints?

He said, "We will issue regulations. They have been a little delayed, and because of the transition in Attorney Generals it did take a little longer. But we are going to make sure that the process is one that is respectful of responsible gun owners," said Becerra.

Back in Vacaville, Travis Morgan isn't holding his breath and he says neither are his customers.

"A lot of guys are going toward a featureless gun," he said.

He now sells modified ARs, stripped of military style features like a collapsible stock, flash suppressor or forward pistol grip, that are no longer considered assault weapons.

"That way you don't have to register it, you've got your gun and you're done," he said.

Not only that, he says they're faster than ever to reload, because without those features you don't even need the bullet button.

Meanwhile there's late word from Sacramento that the deadline for registering bullet button ARs will most likely be pushed back to July 1st of 2018, because of the registration delays.

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