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California Law Enforcement Unclear On Legality Of 'Bullet Button'

PLEASANTON (CBS 5) - California's gun laws are so complicated, even many police departments don't know how to interpret them. Case in point: the story of Mark Haynie.

In 2009, Haynie was headed to a firing range when a Pleasanton police officer pulled him over for a cracked windshield. But it quickly got much more serious. "He said what was in the cases that I had, and I said they were rifles. The one they decided to demonize was my AR-15.," said Haynie.

It was a military-style, semi-automatic rifle that - despite the state's strict assault weapons ban - is extremely popular at the range, and legal in California. But Pleasanton police weren't so sure. "There were multiple cops on the scene, all making phone calls, talking, books on top of hoods, on the back of the cars, everyone's got paperwork out," said Haynie.

The cops decided the gun was illegal and Haynie was hauled off to Santa Rita jail in Dublin. "I felt threatened," said Haynie. "I have a family to provide for. Something as simple as this can ruin my career as a provider for my family."

How could Haynie be arrested for purchasing a legal gun from a licensed store? It all comes down to a little device called a bullet button, and a disconnect between California "law" and the state's firearm "regulations" which are written to interpret the law.

Under California's assault weapons law, military-style guns that have detachable magazines in combination with other features are illegal.

But under the state's firearm regulations a bullet button makes a magazine "fixed" and, therefore, legal. Because with a bullet button you need a tool to release the magazine, and as the name implies a bullet can activate the button, and quickly detach the magazine.

And according to the state Department of Justice's own regulations "a bullet is considered a tool."

So which is it, legal or illegal? CBS 5 tried to get answers from Attorney General Kamala Harris for months. Finally, we were granted an interview with her press secretary Lynda Gledhill.

"If someone is found with a gun that's assembled and the bullet button on the gun, that is an illegal gun in the state of California," she told us. Within seconds, however, she said the opposite. "But a bullet button is legal, right?" we asked her. "Yes."

Confused? So were we. "So do the regulations need to be rewritten to comply with the law or does the law have to be rewritten to comply with the regulations?" we asked her. Her response: "Well, again, I understand that is a complicated ... it's a complicated question because obviously we want to make sure that whatever we do is foolproof, so we don't have loopholes like this crop up again."

So why couldn't the Department of Justice simply plug the loophole, by fixing it's own regulations? "The regulatory process is fairly ... could be long and protracted," said Gledhill.

But Don Perata, the man who wrote the state's assault weapons law, disagrees. "To use it as a functioning excuse for not doing something is just wrong-headed," he said. "Try it first by just saying this is the intent of the law, call me I'll tell you what I had in mind, change the regulation. If there is ambiguity, lets clear it up."

He said lack of action over the bullet button is putting Californians at risk. "If you want to use these guns go to Montana. Knock yourselves out. Move there. But this is California and we don't want to have these kinds of guns here."

But Perata does agree that law-abiding AR owners are getting a raw deal. "These people should not be subject to arrest. Right now, the ambiguity of that alone should prevent that from happening," he said.

Mark Haynie meanwhile is playing it safe, for the sake of his family. Soon after his arrest in 2009 he sold his ARs. "It's kind of a sad situation, but the reward isn't worth the risk," he said.

But he's not letting the incident go. Though the Alameda County District Attorney did not file charges against him, and Pleasanton police paid him back his bail, he's suing the DOJ, claiming the law is unconstitutionally vague. "I felt it was my responsibility as a person in this community to stop this from happening to other people," he said.

The lawsuit, originally filed in 2010, now involves three wrongfully-arrested gun owners, and may be one reason why the DOJ is not taking action.

Several police and sheriff's departments have decided to go with the regulations and have actually issued bulletins, helping their own officers recognize a bullet button AR. Pleasanton police are among them, and sent us this statement:

"Following the lawsuit filed by Mr. Haynie et al., the Pleasanton Police Department has taken steps to better educate its officers regarding identification of prohibited assault weapons." That litigation was promptly resolved between the parties with no admission of liability by any of them."

Meanwhile, lawmakers are pushing for answers, too. After seeing our first story Senator Leland Yee introduced a bill to ban the bullet button. Along with Senator Darryl Stenberg he's sent a letter to Kamala Harris giving her an ultimatum: Either fix the regulations, or the legislature will do it for you."

(Copyright 2012 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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