California gun sales surge to beat new gun control limits

With new laws taking effect Jan. 1 for semi-automatic rifles, rifles with soon-to-be banned features have been flying off the shelves, driving statewide sales up 40 percent by early December.|


With a little extra money on hand after holiday shopping, Steven Serna came into Pacific Outfitters sporting goods store in Ukiah on Wednesday to buy a semiautomatic rifle before new gun control legislation limits the gun’s features in California.

He was out of luck.

Rifles with bullet buttons for the quick swap of ammunition magazines and other soon-to-be banned features have been flying off the shelves, driving statewide sales up 40 percent by early December.

Serna said he went straight to the North State Street outdoor gear store and firearm dealer after he learned Dec. 21 was the last day to purchase a gun with bullet buttons, because of the 10-day wait for a background check. He said he’d shot his first deer several months ago, and wanted to expand his arsenal.

“So where can you buy an AK?” Serna said, referring to an AK-47 rifle.

“You probably can’t,” hunting sales employee Amy Taglio said.

“Shoot, I knew I should have bought one earlier this year,” Serna said.

The new gun control legislation, six bills signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in July, was a boon to 2016 gun sales already on an upward trend. Nearly one million firearms were purchased in California as of Dec. 9, the most recent state data available, compared with just over 700,000 guns sold in all of 2015. Sales have likely soared beyond one million guns since then.

Semiautomatic rifle sales have more than doubled. The California Department of Justice reported 364,643 semiautomatic rifles had been sold by Dec. 9. Only 153,931 rifles were sold last year.

Pacific Outfitters managing partner Chris Ostrom said they haven’t had any semiautomatic rifles in stock for weeks, and before that they’d sell out the day a shipment came in.

“Compared to a normal year, sales are up one thousand percent, it’s ridiculous,” said Petaluma firearms dealer Gabe Vaughn, who owns Sportsman’s Arms on Bodega Avenue. “Pretty much the second we got them they were gone. A lot of them were presold before they arrived to the store.”

Vaughn said he sold 60 semiautomatic rifles just on Dec. 21.

California lawmakers pushed for the new gun controls after a mass shooting in San Bernardino last year. Armed with AR-15 rifles and 9mm pistols, a married couple inspired by foreign terrorist groups shot and killed 14 people and wounded 22 others at a county health department holiday party.

The new gun controls reclassified semiautomatic rifles that have what are called “evil features” as assault weapons, which have been banned in California since 1989. The features added to the prohibited list include a protruding or forward pistol grip, a thumbhole stock, a folding stock or a flash suppressor.

The law was meant to address what’s often called the “bullet button” loophole developed as a workaround to an earlier ban of detachable magazines. The bullet button enables a shooter to use a bullet or small tool to depress a button to eject spent magazines. There’s a way gun owners can keep their so-called “evil features,” but it’s an unpopular one, according to Ostrom and others.

California residents can register the assault weapon with the state, which costs $15. Ostrom said the gun cannot be sold or gifted and must be destroyed if a person no longer wishes to have it or when the owner dies.

“The theory is the state is building a list so they can someday take people’s guns away,” said Ostrom, echoing a common concern among gun owners protective of their Second Amendment right to own guns.

There are two ways to modify a rifle to make it lawful under the new regulations and avoid the registration requirement, Ostrom said.

The first method uses what’s called an AR Mag Lock, a fixed magazine lock-and-release kit that makes the magazine release button inoperable and forces the shooter to partly disassemble the gun - by opening the receiver - to reload a magazine.

Another option is to replace the pistol grip with a fixed stock, which so far has been the more popular option, said Ostrom. He outfitted his AR-10 with a fixed stock and uses it as a display in the store to show customers what to do. The change does impact comfort and accuracy, he said.

“What the state calls an ‘evil feature’ is nothing more than ergonomics,” Ostrom said.

Todd Lyly, who owns Lyly’s Radiators and Mufflers on Ukiah’s North State Street, came into Pacific Outfitters that same morning during a break to talk with his friends behind the gun sales counter about the new laws.

Lyly said he will convert his weapons so they comply with the new regulations, most likely by installing a fixed stock. But he said it’s a superficial change that he expects will mostly impact law-abiding people and not violent criminals already disinclined to follow the law.

“It’s frustrating,” Lyly said.

The impact of a federal assault weapon ban aimed at limiting military-style features and large ammunition capacities enacted in 1994 that expired in 2003 were mixed, according to a 2004 study conducted for the National Institute of Justice, part of the U.S. Department of Justice.

The share of gun crimes involving assault weapons declined by between 17 and 72 percent in six large cities studied during the ban, researchers said.

But researchers reported that change was offset by an increase in the use of large-capacity magazines in gun crimes during that time period, a finding possibly due to exemptions in the law.

Vaughn said while he has doubts whether gun control deters criminals, he might support gun legislation “if there was a correlation between public safety and gun laws, but we never see any change.”

The state gives a one-year grace period for gun owners to register the weapons or convert them before 2018. Other new laws include a requirement starting July 2019 for people buying ammunition to undergo background checks and more stringent rules for loaning firearms outside a family.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or On Twitter @jjpressdem.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.
Send a letter to the editor