Chapter 3: Assault Rifle

3. Assault Rifle

Excitement spread through the crowd when they saw the plane descend from the overcast sky, and smoothly touch down on the runway. As the jet taxied to a stop, there were over 700 Californians waiting on the tarmac, all of them cheering, ready to welcome their hero back home after an eight-year quest. Some brought signs: one read “Happy Trails Again.” Another: “The King and Queen Return.” This was the moment they had been waiting for.

The door to the jet swung open, and Ronald Reagan appeared, waving to the crowd and flashing his Hollywood smile, his wife at his side. The crowd roared as they descended the staircase, over the brass tones of the Salvation Army’s “Tournament of Roses” Band, performing “California, Here I Come.”

The man they all had come to see was used to thinking of the aircraft behind him as Air Force One, but this had been his first time aboard when that designation would no longer apply; earlier that morning, he had passed the country’s reins to his successor, George HW Bush. Reagan had been a movie star, the governor of California, and the president, but now, he was just a citizen.

    Stepping to a waiting microphone, he thanked his fellow Californians, and told them that his eight years away had left him “in a perpetual state of homesickness.” Asked what his plans were, he joked that he might have a new movie deal in the works — a sequel to Bedtime for Bonzo, the 1951 film in which he had played a psychology professor trying to teach morals to a chimpanzee —  “only this time, they wanted me to play Bonzo.”

A few weeks later, the University of Southern California would host Reagan’s 78th birthday celebration, and it was at this black-tie affair where he gave his first public comments on the tragedy that had unfolded in Stockton, just three days before he left the Oval Office. His immediate focus was on the murder weapon: “I do not believe in taking away the right of the citizen to own guns for sport — hunting and so forth — or for home defense,” the former president told the assembled students and faculty. “But I do believe that an AK-47, a machine gun, is not a sporting weapon.”  

The former president’s remarks were met with applause, but in using the term “machine gun,” Reagan seemed to have drifted from the facts of the Stockton case, since the Norinco rifle that the thin man had fired at the Cleveland school’s playground was not technically a “machine gun.” This was a very common point of confusion (and may have been the result of the many journalists who got the same detail wrong in their early reports from Stockton) but it left open the question of what, exactly, the former president’s stance was on ownership of civilian, semi-automatic versions of military rifles. Ultimately, it would be a problem for the next president to address.


February 16, 1989 — The White House — Oval Office

President Bush was wrapping up a Q&A session with reporters. Most of their inquiries had focused on how the new administration would respond to the developing Soviet withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan, and he was just thanking the press for coming, when a persistent reporter snuck in one final question: he asked what the White House was going to do about Stockton. In his reply, President Bush immediately fell into the same confusion that Reagan had:

The President: You already had laws that prohibit the import of fully automated AK-47’s. That law is on the books. So, are we talking about law enforcement? Are we talking about—

Q. We’re talking about semiautomatic AK-47’s, sir. We’re talking about semiautomatic guns.

The President. What do you mean by semi?

Q. I mean no cocking, pull the trigger, the gun fires each time I pull the trigger.

The President: Look, if you’re suggesting that every pistol that can do that or every rifle should be banned, I would strongly oppose that. I would strongly go after the criminals who use these guns. I’m not about to suggest that a semi-automated hunting rifle be banned. Absolutely not. […] I’m not about to propose a ban on service .45’s or something like that.

Q: On semiautomatics — right?

The President: No, I’m not about to do that. And I think the answer is the criminal. Do more with the criminal. Look, the States have a lot of laws on these things. Let them enforce them. It’s hard, very hard, to do. But that’s my position, and I’m not going to change it.

January 1989 — Traders Sporting Goods  — San Leandro, California

Return customers knew the place by its tacky storefront, painted to look like stone, and its convenient location. Just south of Oakland. But most citizens of the Bay Area recognized “Trader’s” from the ads in their daily newspaper, the ones shamelessly hawking cut-rate AK-47 knockoffs, and deals like “1,000 rounds of ammunition for $120.” It was the most notorious gun store on the west coast, and with good reason: they sold thousands and thousands of guns every year. So many, that whenever there was a shot heard on the streets of Oakland, the police knew there was a very good chance that the gun that fired it came from Traders.

The bell over the door jingled. A customer walked in with a few hundred dollars, and minutes later, he walked back out with a brand new Uzi carbine. Traders collected another healthy profit.

The sales clerk turned and marked the now-empty shelf space behind the counter: SOLD OUT. He stopped again at the slot for semi-automatic AK-47s. Only a few left. The price tag read $399. He marked it up, to $895.

“The guns are moving very, very good because of the current publicity,” said the store’s proprietor, Tony Cucchiara, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. It was all because of Stockton; before the shooting, he sold maybe a half-dozen AK-47s a week. But ever since the attack on the playground, those sales had increased fivefold. No matter how fast he ordered them, he just couldn’t keep the big guns in stock, thanks to all panic-buyers: California tried to pass an assault weapons ban the year before, and it failed, but everyone could tell that this time, things were different. All the political arithmetic had changed. For now, nobody was better positioned to profit from it than Tony. Still, he didn’t like the prospect of new gun laws actually passing; he was having enough trouble just obeying the ones already on the books.

It wasn’t always crazy like this. When Tony first opened Traders Sporting Goods in 1958, the only real gun laws he had to worry about were from the 1930’s, and they pertained to the sale of fully-automatic machine guns — not a problem for Traders, which at that time mostly sold shotguns and hunting rifles, along with a few revolvers, for target-shooting or self defense. But things started to change in the late 1960’s. Violent crime rates began to increase dramatically, and a series of high-profile political assassinations brought the Gun Control Act of 1968, which imposed stricter record-keeping standards for gun dealers, and prohibited selling guns to felons. It also banned all interstate firearms transfers, except between dealers with a valid Federal Firearms License (FFL). Four years later, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was officially created, and tasked with enforcing the new gun control act.

And that was when Tony’s problems started: the ATF would audit his records, and send him “irregularities statements,” saying there were hundreds of guns shipped to his store that his records couldn’t account for, and many documented sales that they determined were made to “ineligible purchasers.” These including obvious “straw buyers” — people purchasing a gun for someone else, who could not make the purchase for themselves. Under the rules of the 1968 act, these violations could only get Traders shut down if they were found to be “willful,” but due to the sheer number of guns going missing from Traders or ending up in the wrong hands, it was getting hard for the ATF to give Tony the benefit of the doubt. When he went to to renew his license in 1974, the ATF rejected his application, citing his “gross disregard of or indifference to legal requirements.” They were putting Traders out of business.

Tony fought back. He sued the ATF for five million dollars, claiming that the bureau was violating his civil rights, and engaging in a conspiracy “to vex, annoy and harass [him] in his sporting goods business and individual capacity.” The ATF settled, agreeing to renewed Tony’s license, provided he signed an agreement stating that Traders would “fully comply with all recordkeeping requirements imposed by law and regulation.” In addition, they made Traders agree to shut down… for thirty days. The federal attorneys figured that was the best they could get. The laws were just too weak.

Traders was in the clear, and some normalcy returned to Tony’s life after that. Society continued to change around him; on July 18th, 1984, California experienced a terrifying new phenomenon, as a man in San Ysidro walked into a McDonald’s restaurant, in broad daylight, carrying a long-barreled Uzi, a 12-gauge shotgun, and a 9mm pistol, and just started shooting. The human beings in the restaurant were just random people, nobody the gunman had ever even met before. The oldest was 74 years. The youngest was an infant. The gunman didn’t care. He kept on shooting for over an hour, until finally a police sniper caught him in his crosshairs, and ended his life.

The McDonald’s attack was a shock to the system for many Californians, but politically, it passed with little consequence.

In 1986, the Firearms Owners Protection Act was passed, which significantly weakened the ATF’s authority. Most significantly to Tony, it narrowed the definition of what qualified as a “willful” rule violation, so that it now would apply only to gun dealers that “knew of a legal duty, and engaged in the conduct knowingly and in intentional disregard of the duty.” This was good news; if a store “lost” a gun, it would be practically impossible to prove they did anything with it on purpose. Tony’s had some room to operate.

But now, just when the federal pressure was easing off, the California lawmakers were talking gun control again: either taking certain guns off the streets, or adding a 15-day waiting period, or making the owners register their guns. “I don’t know why they should have to register them,” Tony said. “They bought them legally. They’re law abiding citizens. The criminals won’t register them.”

Once, someone asked Tony who was to blame when a criminal got their hands on a gun that came from Traders. He responded “it’s the mother and father, or people on welfare that aren’t keeping their guns locked.”

State Task Force on Assault Weapons — Sacramento

A who’s-who of California’s law enforcement brass crowded into the meeting room: there was the Attorney General, the Sheriff of Los Angeles County, the District Attorney from Oakland, and representatives from a dozen city police forces. Everyone had assembled there to help draft legislation: a new law that would deal with “the proliferation of military-type semi-automatic firearms among street gangs and drug dealers.” It would be their Plan B for banning assault weapons in the state, after last year’s bill had fizzled out.

The LAPD spoke first: things hadn’t improved since last year. In September, an undercover officer had witnessed a drive-by shooting in Hyde Park, and when he gave chase, the suspects drove to a parking lot, and opened fire on him with 30 rounds from a Colt AR-15 rifle. He was the first LAPD officer to have fallen to a drive-by gang shooting, but not the last. Then, three months later and just a few blocks down Crenshaw Boulevard,  two officers were chasing suspects in another speeding car, and then found themselves in a rolling shootout with the gang members inside. Suddenly, one of the suspects leaned out the passenger window with what looked like AK-47; the cops, armed only with pistols, hit the brakes and ducked down under the dash. They saw the bullets piercing holes through the cruiser, just overhead. Sure enough, when the chase resumed and they finally ran the suspects off the road, they found a smoking semi-automatic AK-47 in the car, next to several spent 30-round magazines.

The D.A. from Oakland said he had witnessed the same trend. In all of 1986, the Oakland PD had picked up a total of 56 assault rifles from the various crime scenes around the city. By 1988, the number tripled. And as the guns got bigger, it seemed, so did the crimes: one of the recovered guns was an AK-47 that two teenage gang members brought onto a county bus that year, to settle some grudge they had against the bus driver. They shot their target — but then they just kept right on shooting, spraying bullets at the passengers. Total strangers, in broad daylight, apparently for no better reason than because they had ammo to spare. Meanwhile, much to the Oakland PD’s frustration, any 18-year-old with an ID could just walk into Traders Sporting Goods and buy a semi-auto AK-47, over the counter. The 15-day waiting period was only for handguns.

Initially, the “Task Force On Assault Weapons” wanted just to shore up that discrepancy: expand the waiting period to cover assault rifles, too. But as the high-profile gang shootings mounted, the task force’s goals changed. “The 15-day waiting period, in our opinion, can be easily circumvented,” a spokesman for told the LA Times in December of 1988. “If law enforcement doesn’t attempt to do something about it now, we are just going to have a whole higher level of arms race in California, and it is going to be extremely dangerous for innocent people.” The task force decided they needed to ban the big guns entirely, before things got totally out of control.

Then, they ran into the problem. A riddle, almost: if an “assault rifle” had always referred to a fully automatic rifle —  like Reagan and Bush had interpreted the situation— then what exactly was a “semi-automatic assault rifle?”

The same guns were often called “military style”rifles; accordingly, the task force first drew up a short list of guns, which focused on the semi-automatic versions of rifles used in major foreign armies, like the Soviet AK-47, or Israel’s Uzi carbine. But even this short list proved far more complicated than they expected: guns like the Norinco that the Stockton shooter carried were variants of the original arms, made in different countries and with different model names, and often slightly different features. Furthermore, there were other guns on the market that were just as powerful, and that would remain legal if they only banned the short list. So the task force returned to the riddle: what exactly made something an “assault rifle,” if not fully-automatic fire? What was it they wanted to stop?

As 1988 drew to a close, the state’s Attorney General asked for a briefing on the status of the task force’s work. He was not impressed; the numbers from Oakland notwithstanding, he did not see these supposed “assault weapons” as an urgent problem. Judging by the stats, the real scourge of the streets was still the simple, cheap, handgun — “Saturday Night Specials.” The military-style weapons were something new, but that didn’t make it a priority.

As of January 16th, 1989, California’s assault weapons bill was going nowhere in the state assembly, just as it had the year before. Then, the Stockton shooting happened.  

February 13, 1989 California State Capitol Building

The Attorney General entered the assembly chamber carrying an AK-47. He stepped to the podium, and gestured with the unloaded weapon, showing it to the crowd — all 120 members of both houses, a rare “Assembly of the Whole” — and trying to make each of them feel a fraction what the teachers and schoolchildren in Stockton had felt. “You are lucky that I am the attorney general and not a nut. Because, if I had the ammunition, I could shoot every member of the Assembly by the time I finish this sentence — about 20 seconds.”

The Stockton outrage was felt on the streets, and on the editorial pages. “Assault Rifles Assault Common Sense,” read one headline, while the Sacramento Bee ran a political cartoon depicting a thoughtful politician scratching his chin, pondering the gun bill, with the faces of the child victims of Stockton projected above him, each counted as a “good reason to outlaw assault weapons.”

Hearings continued through to the spring. Deferential statements from the White House added more wind behind the sails of the still-unwritten gun ban: one of the champions of California’s Assault Weapons Act urged his deeply divided colleagues to help “change the culture of violence” in the state, and — having heard the president’s remarks on state power — assured them that “the Bush Administration has made this safe to do.”

Across the capitol mall, the state senate was holding a series of public hearings about the ban, and as the controversy built, the crowds grew. One citizen testified to the state’s lawmakers about his belief that the Stockton shooter “has a smile on his face right now… from the grave, he has the ability to rob us all of our Second Amendment rights.” This was lockstep with the National Rifle Association’s talking points; in fact, they had invited the man there to say it.

As one of the most powerful lobbying organizations in American politics, the National Rifle Association was the one group everyone expected would fight the California Assault Weapons Ban. They had just demonstrated their power in getting the Firearms Owners Protection Act of 1986 passed, their proudest legislative victory to date. No one was sure, though, how strong their influence would be after Stockton. The whole atmosphere had changed.

At first, the NRA tried to shift the public focus away from guns, and more to the shooter; particularly, California’s failure to stop him. The lobbying group began airing an ad featuring the shooter’s many mugshots, fading over a lengthy, scrolling criminal record. “Seven times, he faced serious criminal charges, and the courts dropped or plea-bargained away federal charges,” a narrator intoned. “Honest Americans didn’t let this maniac roam free. The criminal justice system did.” When this approach proved ineffective, the lobbyists instead seized on the ambiguity of the ban — and especially its provision to add more guns to the prohibited list on a regular basis going forward — in their mailings to association members, writing unequivocally that the bill’s supporters “want to create an unelected, uncontrolled, and unimpeachable commission [with] the power to ban all semi-auto hunting firearms.”

The riddle of the semi-auto assault rifle was never going to be solved, in other words, and so the new law could be exploited to restrict far more guns than the voters intended, or even to disarm California completely. It would be up to the Task Force on Assault Weapons to design a bill that would prove these fears wrong.

By now, California’s task force recognized that they weren’t going to solve the riddle by themselves. So they called in the feds.

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms — Los Angeles Field Office

When the big gun control act of 1968 became law, it initially gave authority over gun sales to a special branch of the Internal Revenue Service, known as the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division. This is why, even after the ATF was established as its own individual bureau in 1972, it is still up to the Secretary of Treasury to authorize a foreign gun to be imported into the United States; the law says that they are only to approve the import if the firearm is of a “type” that is “generally recognized as particularly suitable for or readily adaptable to sporting purposes.” The ATF has been making the call between “good guns” and “bad guns” ever since.

As this 1968 language was explained in congress at the time, “sporting purposes” was put there to “curb the flow of surplus military weapons and other firearms being brought into the United States which are not particularly suitable for target shooting or hunting.” This wording intentionally leaves a great deal of room for Treasury to interpret just what “type” of gun was supposed to be let through. To guide future interpretations of the law, the Treasury Secretary set up a “Firearms Evaluation Panel” in 1968; but at that time, the department’s focus was almost entirely on handguns: making sure that pistols being imported were designed for accuracy (with hefty construction and long barrels) and not concealability. The panel barely even mentioned rifles. And indeed, for almost twenty years after, when it came to long guns, the standard of “sporting purposes” simply required no clarification.

In 1984, the ATF first encountered what they considered “a new breed of imported shotgun” — the Striker-12. The gun was a “military/law enforcement weapon,” initially designed and manufactured in South Africa for riot control. It fired the same shells that fit in every 12-gauge shotgun barrel, but unlike all the shotguns that had come before it — which required some manual operation by the shooter to load the next round, such as a pump or lever — the Striker operated with a large spring-loaded cylinder, that automatically chambered the next round after each shot. This meant a much faster firing rate, and a magazine capacity that swelled to twelve rounds.

The ATF asked the Striker’s importer why they believed this bulky weapon was appropriate for bringing into the country, under the “sporting purposes” standard. The importer, knowing the gun was explicitly designed for riot control, responded that it “was also suitable for police combat-style competitions.” Not a popular sport, maybe, but as they argued, it was still a sport, and thus justified “sporting purposes.” The ATF rejected their application.

But the Striker was just the beginning. Soon, the ATF started getting applications to import another “new breed” of shotgun, the USAS-12. This one one was manufactured in South Korea, and worked with a detachable magazine —  no different from the Stockton shooter’s box/drum setup, except loaded with shotgun shells instead of bullets. Again, the importer said their shotgun would be useful for police-style shooting competitions, and again the ATF said “no.” But this time, the importer fought back, and sued the ATF; at trial, the feds explained their reasoning: the USAS-12 was not a sporting weapon, because it was too heavy to be practical for hunting, and too cumbersome for target shooting. Further, the gun “contains detachable magazines which permit more rapid reloading,” and “a large magazine capacity and rapid reloading are military features.” And finally, there was still no recognized “sport” that the gun was associated with.

The court sided with the ATF, and the USAS-12 stayed blocked. But the problem wasn’t going to go away.  “It was clear that the assumption that all shotguns were sporting was no longer viable,” the ATF would write. Guns were changing, and as gatekeepers to the American market, the ATF would have to change too. When California called, the bureau said they would help in any way they could.

Task Force on Assault Weapons — Los Angeles

A senior ATF official was present task force’s next meeting in LA, their first since the high-profile tragedy in Stockton. Immediately, he was concerned by what he saw: “as it became clear that the NRA was in retreat,” he wrote back to headquarters, “we experienced what I would describe as a feeding frenzy.” Staffers from each of the task force’s various invitees were feverishly adding guns to the draft bill’s “banned” list — and taking names off just as haphazardly. The Oakland Police Department, in particular, was aggressively changing the list to suit their needs, trying to tailor state law to specifically target Traders Sporting Goods.

At the same time, the task force asked the ATF official to help draft a second list, of “good” guns, which they believed “probably had too large constituency to ever be worth the risk of including [in the ban,] i.e., Ruger Mini 14, M1 Carbine, M1 Garand, etc.” (all three examples were semi-automatic military rifles, or in the Ruger’s case, a “mini” version of the U.S. military’s M-14 rifle.)

As the session dragged on, the ATF official couldn’t help but notice that “most if not all of the principal players in crafting the legislation had absolutely no knowledge of firearms.” When they asked him what he thought of their progress, he didn’t hold back: their ban had serious problems. There were simply way too many versions of the “bad” guns out there for them to name every single one, and even if they could, there was practically no difference between the guns they wanted to ban and the ones that were off-limits. With a “name ban” approach, they were putting themselves in a position to identify every single “semi-automatic assault rifle” in existence, and to continue naming each one that would ever exist going forward. Yet, they still couldn’t define that pesky term.

The task force didn’t have much of anything to say in response. They would keep working on the bill.

By the time the California gun ban made it to the senate floor, it was not a pretty sight. The state’s response to Stockton ultimately amounted to a list of some sixty banned guns, and their corresponding “types.” Some of the guns on the list were so random, barely any Californians had even heard of them, let alone wanted to purchase one. “As no specifically defined problem drove our efforts,” the task force’s ATF representative wrote, “such an odd collection should not be surprising. How the average cop on the beat or Joe ‘Six Pack’ who owns one of the weapons will ever figure it all out escapes me.” But with the legislative momentum from Stockton, the time had come for California to do something.

The Assault Weapons Control Act of 1989 passed with a single vote to spare, and the Golden State became the first in the union to ban assault rifles. “January 17th was a day that nobody counted on,” an NRA representative lamented to the Los Angeles Times. “You have the media barraging the American public on a daily basis that this is a solution to the Stockton tragedy,” another rep told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Meanwhile, many of the bill’s supporters expressed hope that its passage would set a precedent, stirring change on a broader scale. “As it was on tax reform and insurance regulation, California will be watched as a trend-setting state,” read an editorial in the Times. “What we do here will help chart the course of life — and death — for Americans far beyond these violent times.”


The limitations of California’s gun ban became apparent before the system even went into effect. The NRA, still stinging from their defeat, pointed out that the Norinco 56S — the very gun that the Stockton shooter had used, and which had symbolically been the target of the entire banning effort — was not even banned under the new law.

California’s task force practically scoffed in response, explaining that the Norinco was “clearly” covered under the list’s entry for “Avtomat Kalashnikovs (AK) series,” which included guns with “slight” modifications from the starting point of the AK. Settling the dispute, a lawyer for the state legislature issued a ruling, and sided with the NRA; an appeals court summarized the quandary: “how is the ordinary consumer to determine which changes may be considered slight?” The gun ban’s advocates, embarrassed in court, had to hurry to amend their list, and specifically named the Norinco 56S in the 1991 update.

March 14, 1989 — Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms — Washington, D.C.

The Director of the Treasury Department, spectacled and owlish in a dark suit, stood at a podium above the ATF seal, and held a semi-automatic rifle over his head. It was a Galil, recently imported from a factory in Israel. “Most of these are not even being advertised or marketed for sporting use,” he told reporters. He explained how the Galil was a perfect example of the kind of gun that importers, effectively immediately, would be suspended from bringing into the United States, “because of the dramatic increase in the number of these weapons being imported, and police reports of their use in violent crimes.”

Learning from California’s frustrations, the ATF were determined to avoid a purely “name ban,” and so they explained that each of the 43 guns on their list had “military” features, which made the weapons distinct from those designed for “sporting purposes.” Such features included:

  • Detachable magazine (enables much faster reloading, and — if one obtains a high-capacity aftermarket magazine — longer firing intervals between having to reload.)
  • Pistol grip (helps keeps the rapidly jolting gun under control, and enables it to be fired one-handed with much more ease. Hunters and target shooters, focused on accuracy more than anything else, and generally using both hands, should have no need.)
  • Telescoping stock (collapsing the stock significantly reduces the gun’s overall length. Serves no sporting purpose.)
  • Flash suppressor (dampens the burst of light and flame that emits from the end of the barrel when the rifle is fired, “to help conceal the shooter’s position, especially at night.” Also suppresses “muzzle climb,” a recoil effect that reduces accuracy — and compounds itself during rapid fire.)   
  • Night sights (“To facilitate sight alignment and target acquisition in poor light or darkness. […] not usually found on sporting firearms since it is generally illegal to hunt at night.”)
  • Barrel shroud (sustained rapid fire causes a gun’s barrel to heat up; a shroud fitted around the barrel protects the shooter’s hand from burns, and allows them to continue steadying the weapon.)

The ATF’s announcement came as a surprise, to both the public and the gun industry at large. But the feds had the president’s blessing; Bush had initiated it himself, calling his new drug czar and asking “what can be worked out with finality on AK-47’s? What can be done and still, you know, do what’s right by the legitimate sportsman?” The ATF’s new “import ban,” as it came to be known, was their answer.

The ban was announced as temporary at first — to last ninety days, while the ATF assembled its own working group, who would then finalize their solution to the “semi-automatic assault rifle” riddle.

When the working group met to discuss assault weapons that spring, the ATF first acknowledged the fractured etymology of the term, writing “true assault rifles are selective fire weapons that will fire in a fully automatic mode. […] Since we are only concerned with semiautomatic rifles, it is somewhat of a misnomer to refer to these weapons as ‘assault rifles.’” They cited a weapons manual from 1967 that stated as much. Then turned to the riddle.

They knew that the gun lobbyists frequently said that the term “assault rifle” is meaningless when applied to semi-autos —  just an invention by the anti-gun lobby, so they could ban more weapons. However, this was only partly true; while the “assault” category had at one time correlated to “select fire,” and while the anti-gun lobby did indeed want to ban more semi-automatic rifles, they were not the ones who had blurred the distinction between the two. That had been the gun industry, trying to sell more guns to more people.

As far back as 1982, advertisers of semi-auto versions of military rifles were using the term “assault rifle” to cultivate a new strain of gun consumer. Converting weapons of war for civilian use, the manufacturers had removed the illegal feature — the very trait that supposedly qualified the weapon as an assault rifle — but continued to market the legal-version guns using those words, blurring the technical term into a marketing buzzword. The contradiction was plainly visible in various gun-industry publications throughout the 1980s: the civilian-targeted magazine Guns & Ammo published a book in 1982 entitled “Assault Rifles”, which it promoted as having “Complete Data On The Best Semi-Automatics.” Similarly, gun-maker Colt had produced a flyer in 1985 that became known as the “handsome rancher ad”: a rugged-looking male with “leather patches on the elbows of his flannel shirt,” posing with “an AR-15 in one hand” as he surveyed his cattle. The photo’s caption read “survival means different things to different people… For a rugged individual in the wilderness, it means being prepared for any eventuality.”

Further down on the newsstand, the more base advertisements summoned a vague spectre of deadliness, masculine and pseudo-militarized: “In a survival situation, you want the most uncompromising weapon that money can buy. The HK91 Semi-Automatic Assault Rifle.” The words were printed hovering over a grease-painted and camouflaged man, wading across a dark river with a sleek, black rifle in his hands. Selling a commando identity, the messages appeared like commercial interpretations of the same visions experienced more vividly by the Stockton shooter in his hotel room, as he carved “FREEDOM” into the buttstock of his neutered AK-47.

The “semi-automatic assault rifle” had been nothing more than marketing hype all along. It wasn’t a type of rifle, but a type of consumer: one who was not a hunter, nor a sportsman, and for whom the existing market of self-defense weaponry had, for whatever reason, not yet been sufficient to compel a purchase. The word “assault rifle” was what appealed to this new customer, and so its definition was whatever made the gun look more like the lifestyle the marketers thought would sell. As a result, anyone trying to “ban” this porous category of weapon would find themselves starting their work from scratch.  The “good” guns fired the same bullets as the “bad” guns, and nearly as fast, and even if the ATF somehow named every “bad” import, the next shooter could simply buy a domestic, one that was just as dangerous.  And that was the ATF’s biggest weakness. “This is just a bonus to domestic companies because obviously they can raise their prices now,” a congressman from California observed. “They won’t be faced with cheaper imports, and their demand should go up.”

The White House’s press secretary could only concede the point. “Unfortunately, it is not something that we can do anything about,” he told reporters. “To do anything about domestically manufactured weapons would require a change in the [federal] law.” But as California had just demonstrated, that was a more realistic possibility than ever before.


March 15, 1989 —  Colt Industries — West Hartford, Connecticut

Some domestic firearms manufacturers, sensing the rumblings in the distance, began taking proactive measures. The very next day after the import ban was put in place, Colt Industries announced that it would be voluntarily halting the manufacture of its AR-15 rifle for civilian markets. The gun-maker explained that it was taking this step “to comply with the spirit” of the import ban, even though it was not subject to those rules. The move was an acknowledgement that their gun was a semi-auto version of the U.S. military’s M-16, and thus, was an assault rifle.

The forces behind the import ban were elated with Colt’s announcement. The nation’s drug czar called it “an act of civic responsibility,” and in a session of the ATF working group, many speakers expressed the same sentiment; as Baltimore’s Chief of Police put it, “given today’s ‘make a buck’ mentality, their decision was wonderfully refreshing.”  


March 28, 1989 — Sturm, Ruger & Company, Inc. — Southport, Connecticut

Just sixty miles away, at another of Connecticut’s gun manufacturers, Bill Ruger had different tactics in mind. His company didn’t make any military-issue weapons, and so it had no semi-auto versions of them to worry about, as Colt did. But the list of “military features” the ATF was circulating had him worried; if those standards were to ever apply for domestic manufacturers, Ruger’s popular Mini-14 rifle might disappear.

The danger crystallized in Bill Ruger’s mind when he got a letter, sent by a U.S. Senator, that referred to the popular gun as a “Mini-14 assault weapon.” The senator had challenged Bill — the company’s co-founder, president and chairman — to live up to the example that Colt had just set, “while the Bush Administration and Congress work on a more comprehensive solution.” The senator went on to stress that rather than waiting, “you can do something to save lives; immediately suspend the sale of these weapons of war to civilians.”

Bill started crafting his response, along with his legal team, when he caught wind that the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Trade would be conducting hearings on the import ban in the coming weeks. Their conclusions were sure to factor heavily in any federal gun legislation in the near future, so he decided to send a letter of his own to each member of the subcommittee; under the gun maker’s phoenix-emblazoned corporate masthead, Ruger laid out a 12-point argument. He explained that if firearms regulations were to ever be effective, they should not be targeting guns at all — instead, they should be focusing their attention on high-capacity magazines. “The concern today as it relates to illegal misuse of firearms should be viewed as one of firepower,” he emphasized, “rather than trying to define the type of firearm from which the bullets emanate.” Further, he warned that “to do otherwise is to risk confusion and ensnaring many legitimate firearms in an attempt to separate ‘good’ from ‘bad’ in a most arcane area.” The letter’s conclusion read:

“By a simple, complete and unequivocal ban on large capacity magazines, all the difficulty in defining “assault rifles” and ‘semi-automatic rifles’ is eliminated. The large capacity magazine itself, separate or attached to the firearm, becomes the prohibited item. A single amendment to Federal firearms laws could prohibit their possession or sale and would effectively implement these objectives.”

Meanwhile, the head of Ruger’s legal counsel, Stephen Sanetti, told reporters that the company would  “absolutely not” be following Colt’s example. “We’re proud of these weapons. We have no plans to pull them from the market.”

As they had with Colt’s announcement, some figures within the industry interpreted Bill’s letter more cynically, observing that Ruger did not make any high-capacity magazines for their guns, and so would have little to lose if their recommendations were adopted. In response to the critics, Ruger’s legal counsel insisted that the letters were actually sent because the company “felt that a substitute had to be offered which respected the right of all law abiding citizens to own all firearms of their choice, yet which responded to the public outcry concerning the highly visible shootings involving dozens of shots being fired from so-called ‘assault weapons.’”

April 10, 1989 — Rayburn House Office Building, Room B-318 — Washington, D.C.

The subcommittee’s chairman called their meeting to order. He began by explaining how the import ban had all started with one gun store: Traders, in San Leandro. People like Tony were “obviously not the kind of small businessman you want to keep going within the community,” the senator acknowledged, “but he was operating within the law.”

As the hearing progressed, a congressman representing Oakland’s district argued that “banning importation is important, but it does not address the problem of domestic manufacture of assault weapons.” He called for a national ban on the same guns that the ATF had named, as well as any other rifles “designed to handle clips with more than ten rounds.”  

Another congressman from California stood to oppose his colleague, and he had clearly read Bill’s letter; he argued that banning guns based on the size of magazine they came packaged with would never work, because “the [aftermarket] magazine is identical in its insertion point. It is simply an extension,” and furthermore, he explained, a ten-round clip might be too much to afford an attacker anyway, as a simple roll of duct tape could be used to bind two magazines together, for even faster reloading: “If you tape two magazines together and you allow 10, that’s 20. That begins to be a fairly high number.” He even observed that the higher ammo capacity made for a physically longer attachment, as a ten-round mag created “a decent handle,” whereas with half that length, “it is a little more difficult in terms of taping them together.”

One law enforcement representative, a sheriff from Littleton, Colorado, also urged a federal ban on weapons with military features. He cited the logic of a 1939 Supreme Court decision, which ruled that sawed-off shotguns were not protected by the Second Amendment, because they did not have “some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia.”

May 15, 1989 — United States Capitol Building — Washington D.C.

The rain was coming down in sheets, as an audience of law enforcement officers and congressmen gathered on the capitol’s western steps for a presidential ceremony, in observation of Police Officers’ Memorial Day.  President Bush chose the occasion to introduce his first crime bill, which would contain the sum of the federal response to the Stockton shooting.

He began by invoking FDR’s famous “Four Freedoms” address — that after freedom of speech, freedom of worship, and freedom from want, “the last, often forgotten, but arguably the most fundamental of those freedoms was simply this: freedom from fear.” He acknowledged that coming up with a clear definition of “assault weapon” was proving difficult, and in searching for common ground, echoed the sentiments of Bill Ruger:

“…one thing that we do know about these assault weapons is that they are invariably equipped with unjustifiably large magazines. The notorious AKS-47, for example, comes with a magazine that pumps off 30 explosive bullets without reloading. And that is why [we] stand on the steps here in front of the Capitol and ask its support for legislation prohibiting the importation, manufacture, sale, or transfer of these insidious gun magazines of more than 15 rounds.”

As a lifelong NRA member, Bush knew he was about to navigate some tricky political waters. Anticipating that the crime bill would be interpreted as an attack on the 2nd amendment, he cited a section higher up in the same founding document, urging that “our sworn duty to ‘insure domestic Tranquility’ is as old as the Republic, placed in the Constitution’s preamble even before the common defense and the general welfare.” He hoped that would be enough.

On that same rainy day, the President announced that the import ban on assault weapons would indeed be made permanent; in all, 43 weapons would stay on the list, now officially identified as “semi-automatic assault rifles,” and as a consequence, never to be allowed into the country again. The Norinco 56S topped the list.


The year 1989 had had started with a shockwave, emanating from a traumatized playground in Stockton. But then, as summer gave way to fall, the waves began to slow. Several states — who until then had been considering gun bans — quietly dropped the issue. America’s domestic focus shifted to an alarming federal budget deficit; meanwhile, across the world, the Berlin Wall fell, and the next summer, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. The ripples from Stockton finally fell quiet.

The provisions of the 1990 crime bill that impacted guns did not make it far inside the House chamber. A representative from Washington State, endorsed by the NRA, took up a pen, and narrowed the ban’s language, so that it applied only to weapons assembled “from imported parts.” She explained “those three little words make all the difference in the world,” as they “prevent this section of the bill from circumventing the intent of our Founding Fathers.” She added that she was just trying to protect “legitimate” sporting rifles — including, specifically, the Ruger Mini-14.

In response, loyalists to the president argued that such an amendment rendered the legislation worthless — “”the American who is about to be killed or who is killed does not know the difference between imported parts and not imported parts” — but it was no use.

With time running out for the now-compromised crime bill, and no consensus in sight, all of the firearms-related provisions were stripped from the act.  

The president had failed. The act that would limit the capacity of ammunition magazines to 15 rounds, the sum of his response to the Stockton attack, did not become law.






  1. “State’s Fight Over Assault Guns May Set Trend in U.S” — Los Angeles Times, February 12, 1989

  1. President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime — Lou Cannon, Simon & Schuster, 1991
  2. “Citizen Reagans Are Home After Bittersweet Farewell” — Los Angeles Times, January 21, 1989

  1. “700 Welcome a Nostalgic Reagan Home to California” — Los Angeles Times, January 22, 1989

  1. Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States — George Bush, 1989 (USGPO)
  2. “Gun Ban Bill Brings Panic Shopping, Hoarding” — Los Angeles Times, May 20, 1989

  1. A Merchant of Menace: The Story of a California Gun Dealer — Aura Bland, PBS 1995

  1. Bill to Outlaw Military-Type Guns Nears Completion — Los Angeles Times January 13, 1989

  1. Bullets Fired at Brother of Officer Killed in Shooting — Los Angeles Times September 20, 1990

  1. “Assault Weapons: Outrage Is Ammo in the War on Guns” — Los Angeles Times Deember 28, 1988

  1. “Normal Political Patterns Melt in Heat of Gun Control Conflict“ — Los Angeles Times March 27, 1989

  1. “Assembly Caught in Crossfire of Testimony on Assault Weapons” — Los Angeles Times February 14. 1989

  1. “Assault Gun Ban Wins Final Vote : Deukmejian’s Promised Approval Would Make It 1st Such U.S. Law“ — Los Angeles Times May 19, 1989

  1. “Tougher of 2 Bills to Outlaw Assault Rifles Is Weakened by Panel” — Los Angeles Times April 5, 1989

  1. The Gun Rights War — Knox, Neal (note: full text of ATF memo available online)
  3. Gilbert Equipment Co., Inc. v. Higgins, 709 F.Supp. 1071 (S.D.Ala. 1989).

  1. The Gun Digest Book of Assault Weapons, pg 16 — Lewis, Jack P. & Steele, David E.
  2. “Assault rifle issue wounding NRA” — Pittsburgh Post-Gazette February 20, 1989
  3. “The Big Gunfight at the Sacramento Corral” — Los Angeles Times March 12, 1989

  1. “Republicans call gun ban ineffective” — Lodi News-Sentinel, June 2, 1989  
  2. Assault-rifle Imports Temporarily Stopped” — Philadelphia Inquirer March 15, 1989
  3. “PERMANENT IMPORT BAN ON ASSAULT RIFLES” — The Washington Post July 8, 1989

  1. The President’s News Conference: March 7, 1989 (American Presidency Project)

  1. “Assault Gun Ban Made Permanent: U.S. Embargoes 43 Military-Style Weapons, Including AK-47s and Uzis” — Los Angeles Times July 9, 1989

  1. “Many assault weapons banned by government” — The Telegraph July 8, 1989
  2. “Gun Experts Say There is No Such Thing as a Civilian Assault Weapon” and “Bullet Hoses”— Violence Policy Center 2003

  1. “COLT STOPS PUBLIC SALE OF RIFLE” — The Washington Post March 16, 1989

  1. “Weapon Import Ban Expanded” — The Day April 6, 1989
  2. “Colt Will Halt Sales of AR-15 Assault Rifle” — Los Angeles Times March 16, 1989

  1. BANNING THE IMPORTATION OF ASSAULT WEAPONS AND CERTAIN ACCESSORIES INTO THE UNITED STATES – Hearing before the Subcommittee on Trade of the Committee on Ways and Means, House of Representatives – HR 1154 – April 10,1989
  2. H.R.2709 – Comprehensive Violent Crime Control Act of 1989
  3. A CLASH OF ARMS: THE  GREAT AMERICAN GUN DEBATE — State of Hawaii Office of Legislative Reference Bureau, January 1991
  4. “Wave of gun legislation begun — But slowed to a ripple” — Ellensburg Daily Record January 2 1990
  5. United States House of Representatives daily record, October 4 1990 (page H8865)
  6. “Unsoeld Expected To Draw Fire — Amendment On Assault-Rifle Issue Is Likely To Trigger Liberals’ Anger” — The Seattle Times September 27, 1990

About Reed Coleman

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