3. Assault Rifle

January 20, 1989

Los Angeles International Airport

The crowd on the tarmac had been waiting for some time. Their excitement spiked when they finally saw the nose of the plane dip down through the clouds, on approach for landing. More than 700 Californians were gathered there that day, 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.” As their cheering peaked, the plane taxied closer, and came to a stop. This was the moment they had been waiting for.

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

Reagan was used to thinking of the aircraft behind him as Air Force One, but this had been his first time aboard it when that designation would no longer apply; earlier that morning, he had passed the reigns of power to his successor, George HW Bush. Ronald Reagan had been a movie star, the governor of California, and the President of the United States — but now, he would be 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.” Acknowledging that a great many people were wondering what his next 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 hosted 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. 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), 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 deal with.

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 ongoing Soviet withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan, and he was just thanking the press for coming, when a persistent reporter snuck in one final question: What was the White House was going to do about Stockton?

Bush’s position on the matter was as confused as his predecessor’s:

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—

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

The President: What do you mean by semi?

Reporter: 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.

Reporter: 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 faux-stonework exterior, and its convenient location, just south of Oakland. But most citizens of the Bay Area recognized “Traders” 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. “People are buying anything that’s ugly, anything that looks like a military weapon.”

It was all because of Stockton; just the year before, California had failed to pass an assault weapons ban. It hadn’t even come close. But everyone could tell that this time, things were going to be different. Before Stockton, Traders sold maybe a half-dozen AK-47s a week; now that the panic-buyers were mobilized, those sales had increased five-fold.

* * *

Despite all the cash he was bringing in, Tony sometimes missed the old days. When he first opened Traders Sporting Goods, in 1958, the only real gun laws he had to worry about were passed back in the 1930’s, and they pertained to the sale of fully-automatic machine guns — not a problem for Traders, which at that time sold mostly shotguns and hunting rifles.

American society seemed to change, sometime in the mid-1960’s. Violent crime rates, steady for years, began to rise, and handgun sales increased alongside them. So did the size of the Oakland Police Department.

Soon, black residents of the city were getting fed up. Housing laws effectively forced them to live in ghettos, where they bore the brunt of the crime surge. And while the police did increase patrols through their neighborhoods, the force they employed rarely seemed to align with the law, or even justice. As one activist put it, “You just had to be black, and moving, to be shot by the police.”

In response to these conditions, in late 1966, two black men in North Oakland formed the first chapter of the Black Panther Party — or, as the group first called themselves, the Black Panthers for Self Defense. Because although the official Panthers platform was a broad ten-point campaign for black liberation, their most urgent purpose upon forming was to provide the oppressed black residents in Oakland with armed self-defense against police brutality.

The party’s founders had carefully studied how the “right to bear arms” was interpreted under California’s laws, and found that, “You could carry a loaded gun out on the street so long as it was registered, not concealed, and not pointing in a threatening manner.” Another of their conclusions of law was nearly as significant: that all Californians had the right to observe the police in the course of their duties in public, provided they maintain a “reasonable distance” from the officers.

Combining these two freedoms, the Panthers had their solution: armed patrols of their own. “Policing the police.”

Beginning in 1967, a black citizen of Oakland could find themselves in the familiar situation of being stopped by white police officers, when suddenly, things would take an unfamiliar turn: a car full of armed Black Panthers, having just heard about the encounter on their police scanners, would arrive on the scene. The men would stand little as ten feet away, sometimes shouting out legal advice as they kept watch over the officers — and each of them would have a gun out. Not pointed at anyone, just ready, in case the police stepped out of line.

The Panthers bucked the system, and the system responded. The California assembly introduced a bill that would make “any person who carries a loaded firearm on his person or in a vehicle,” while they are in “any public place or on any public street,” guilty of a crime. Open-carry would thus be banned statewide, for every Californian, but the real target of the legislation was obvious; the press even called it the “Panther Bill.”

To this, the Black Panthers had a response of their own: on May 2, 1967, thirty of them loaded into cars, and drove to Sacramento. The open-carry ban was up for debate that day, and upon their arrival at the State Assembly building, the Panthers announced to reporters, “The time has come for black people to arm themselves against this terror before it is too late.” Then the rows of armed black men, in black leather jackets and black berets, marched in and took up posts along the halls of the legislative building, to the shock of onlookers. Six of the Panthers decided to go even further, and advanced into the Assembly chamber itself while it was in session — looming over the machinations of the state, just like they had at the traffic stops down in Oakland. “The membership became very frightened and started scrambling, going for cover,” one assemblyman would remember.

The presiding officer ordered the Capitol Police to remove the Panthers. After a tense stand-off, the activists peacefully complied. But before they headed back down to Oakland, they stopped on the Capitol steps to read a statement for the press:

The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense calls upon the American people in general and the black people in particular to take careful note of the racist California Legislature which is considering legislation aimed at keeping the black people disarmed and powerless at the very same time that racist police agencies throughout the country are intensifying the terror, brutality, murder and repression of black people.

By chance, Governor Reagan happened to be standing right there on the capitol lawn at that moment, visiting with students who were there on a field trip. He was aghast at the sight of the Panthers and their guns, and later — after police whisked him back to the Governor’s mansion — said he saw “no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons.”

True to his word, when the California legislature returned to order, and passed the ban on open-carry, Reagan didn’t hesitate to sign it into law. Suddenly, the signature tactic of the Black Panthers was an illegal act.

But guns sales, at least at Traders, ten miles outside of Oakland, remained steady; revolutionaries were never the backbone of the American gun industry, after all. Instead, for guys like Tony, the standoff in the Assembly was scary more in retrospect; that day marked the beginning of a new era of American gun legislation, and it was the laws that followed the open-carry ban that would be the real burden for anyone who made their living selling guns.

The controversy over the Black Panthers had barely faded before the “Long, Hot Summer” of 1967 hit, bringing with it more than 150 race riots, all over the country. And when law enforcement (or even the National Guard) arrived to restore order to the burning cities, they were often greeted with sniper fire. The pressure for gun control built nationwide. An assassin’s bullet struck down Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, in 1968. Another wave of riots followed. Before the year was out, another assassin struck, and presidential nominee Senator Robert Kennedy was dead in Los Angeles.

The very next day, Congress took action to contain the chaos, and passed the Gun Control Act of 1968, which imposed stricter record-keeping standards on gun dealers, and prohibited selling guns to felons. The Act also banned all interstate firearms transfers, except between dealers who had valid Federal Firearms Licenses (FFL).

Then finally, in 1972, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was officially created, tasked with enforcing all of the new rules on guns.

* * *

It didn’t take long for the ATF to become Tony’s worst enemy.

They started with “auditing” his files; Tony would send in everything he had, and a few weeks later, the ATF would 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,” including obvious “straw sales” (customers purchasing a gun for someone who, for whatever legal reason, could not make the purchase for themselves). Tony insisted the violations were minor, but the feds just kept finding more of them. The back-and-forth went on and on, until finally, in 1974, when Tony went to renew his gun-dealing license, 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.” He put up a vigorous defense, and the ATF eventually caved, agreeing to renew Tony’s license — provided he sign an agreement stating that, from then-on, Traders would “fully comply with all record-keeping requirements imposed by law and regulation.”

Traders was in the clear for a time, and some normalcy returned to Tony’s life after that. But society continued to change around him; on July 18, 1984, California experienced a terrifying new phenomenon, when a man in San Ysidro walked into a McDonald’s restaurant, in broad daylight, carrying an arsenal — a long-barreled Uzi, a 12-gauge shotgun, and a 9mm pistol — and 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 the gunman 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.

Ronald Reagan was in the White House by then, and in 1986, he sign the Firearms Owners Protection Act into law, which significantly weakened the ATF’s legal authority. The act also made it harder for the bureau to prove that someone like Tony had broken the rules. It gave him more breathing room.

So three years later, as far as Tony was concerned, Stockton was a mixed blessing; his profits were soaring for the moment — but if the panic buyers were right, and the gun laws that were now up for consideration ever actually passed, there would be yet another set of rules for him to tiptoe around, and inevitably, trip over: the California legislature was talking about banning some entire categories of guns, or adding a 15-day waiting period, or making customers report their purchases to a gun registry. “I don’t know why they should have to register them,” Tony said of his customers, and their firearms. “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.”

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 weapon, showing it to the crowd — all 120 members of both of California’s houses, in a rare “Assembly of the Whole” — and tried to make each of them feel just a fraction of what the teachers and schoolchildren in Stockton had felt.

The weapon was unloaded, of course. The Panther laws were still on the books. “You are lucky that I am the attorney general and not a nut,” he said to the rows of lawmakers before him. “Because, if I had the ammunition, I could shoot every member of the Assembly by the time I finish this sentence — about 20 seconds.”

It was a rather stunning about-face for the AG’s office; California had already convened a Task Force on Assault Weapons, months prior to Stockton, to try and come up with a list of military-style guns to ban, in case they were going to give the failed gun-ban another try. But the Attorney General had looked at the numbers, and saw that cheap handguns — “Saturday night specials” — were the real scourge of the streets, along with similarly-priced shotguns, and knew that neither type of firearm would have their supply constrained at all by banning “assault weapons.” As recently as a month before Stockton, he had made it clear to the task force that the ban they sought was going nowhere.

But, like Tony at Traders, the Attorney General recognized a sea-change coming. The outrage could be felt on the streets, and in the newspaper’s editorial sections. “Assault Rifles Assault Common Sense” read one headline, while the Sacramento Bee ran a political cartoon depicting a politician scratching his chin, pondering a scroll with the gun bill printed on it, while the faces of the child victims of Stockton were projected in the air over him, each counted as a “good reason to outlaw assault weapons.”

Now, the AG ordered the Task Force on Assault Weapons back to work. Law enforcement representatives and legislative staffers met again in Los Angeles, and returned to the task of finalizing the language on their assault-guns bill — but immediately, they found themselves faced with a familiar problem. It was 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 did a term like “semi-automatic assault rifle” even mean? What exactly was it that they were trying to stop?

To get around this problem, the task force took a “name ban” approach: rather than redefine what an “assault rifle” was, they would simply make a list of all the gun models they wanted to make illegal. They started with the obvious “military-style” rifles: semi-automatic versions of guns used in major foreign armies, such as the Soviet AK-47, or Israel’s Uzi carbine. But even this short list proved far more complicated than they had anticipated: guns like the Norinco that the Stockton shooter carried were variations on an existing design, made in different countries and with different model names — and often, slightly different features. Furthermore, even if they somehow managed to name all of the variants of the guns they didn’t like, there were plenty of other gun models on the market that were genuinely different from those on the list, but that still fired the same bullets, just as fast. And since they weren’t on the list, these guns would all still be legal if the name-ban made it into law.

The state’s task force started to recognize that they weren’t going to be able to solve this riddle by themselves.

* * *

When the big Gun Control Act of 1968 first became law, it assigned the Secretary of the Treasury with the task of approving imports of firearms, mandating that the office only allow guns into the country that were of a “type” that is “generally recognized as particularly suitable for or readily adaptable to sporting purposes.”

As was explained in Congress at the time, the language was meant 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.” The wording intentionally left a great deal of room for Treasury to interpret just what “type” of gun was supposed to be let through, and when the ATF split off into its own agency in 1972, it took up much the same charge. The ATF had been making the call between “good guns” and “bad guns” ever since; when they got a query from California in the spring of 1989, asking for guidance on completing their list, the bureau didn’t hesitate to lend a hand. Besides: if California passed the right law, the state just might do the ATF a favor, and put Tony in San Leandro out of business for good.

California Senate Judiciary Committee — Sacramento

The state Senate announced there would be a series of public hearings on the proposed assault weapons ban later that spring. By the time the first hearing came to order, opposing voices had grown louder: one citizen came to testify to his belief about the Stockton shooter: “He 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, the NRA had invited the man there to say it.

As one of the most powerful lobbying organizations in American politics, the NRA was the one group everyone expected would fight the California Assault Weapons Ban. They were stalwart defenders of the 2nd Amendment — the only exception had been their support for the ban on open-carrying, directed at the Black Panthers twenty years before (a law they in fact helped write). And the NRA had only grown more entrenched in their positions since then; the gun lobby had, just a few years before, demonstrated their power by playing an instrumental role in getting the Firearms Owners Protection Act of 1986 passed. Their proudest legislative victory to date. Now, they were preparing to fight back against the wave of post-Stockton reforms — even if they had to do it alone.

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. NRA-funded ads started appearing on television, displaying each of the Stockton shooter’s many mugshots, fading in succession 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 polls showed this approach to be ineffective, the lobbyists instead seized on the ambiguity of the ban’s language — and especially its recently-attached 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 Californians completely. Stoking such fears was a common NRA strategy, because most times, it worked. But this wasn’t like most times.

Task Force on Assault Weapons — Los Angeles

There was a new face in the room at the state task force’s next meeting: a senior official from the ATF. And the man appeared concerned by what he saw: 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 freely. The Oakland Police Department, in particular, was aggressively changing the list to suit their needs, trying to tailor the law (one that would apply to entire state) to specifically target the inventory at Traders Sporting Goods. “As it became clear that the NRA was in retreat,” the ATF official wrote back to headquarters, “we experienced what I would describe as a feeding frenzy.”

Meanwhile, the task force was asking him 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).

Everyone was dancing around the riddle. 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.”

Late in the proceedings, the task force turned to him again, and asked what he thought of their progress. He didn’t hold back: he said 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 they were declaring 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 going forward, to continue naming each new one that came out, indefinitely. And yet, they still couldn’t even define that mysterious term.

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.” And some of the guns were so random, barely any Californian had even heard of them, let alone wanted to purchase one. “As no specifically defined problem drove our efforts,” the ATF official 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.”

* * *

The California Assault Weapons Control Act of 1989 passed with a single vote to spare, and the Golden State officially 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. At the same time, 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 a Times editorial. “What we do here will help chart the course of life — and death — for Americans far beyond these violent times.”

March 14, 1989

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

Nobody knew why the Director of the Treasury Department had called the morning press conference, but as he stepped to the ATF podium with a long, black rifle in his hands, they could have guessed: the gun was a Galil, recently imported from a factory in Israel, and he brought it along to serve as 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.”

The “import ban,” as it came to be known, was just the start of the federal government’s response to Stockton. But they wanted to get it right. 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. The purpose of each of these features stood out as having nothing to do with hunting or sport: telescoping stocks could be collapsed to make a long gun easier to conceal; a detachable magazine enabled much faster reloading, and — if one obtained a high-capacity magazine — longer firing intervals between reloads; a pistol grip helped the shooter keep their weapon under control during rapid fire; flash suppressors helped to “conceal the shooter’s position, especially at night,” (hunting is generally illegal at night) and also suppressed the “muzzle climb” caused by recoil during rapid fire; and a barrel shroud protected the shooter’s non-trigger hand while steadying the hot gun barrel — again, a need produced only by rapid, sustained fire.

* * *

The ATF announced the import ban as “temporary” at first — to last ninety days, giving them time to attempt their own solution to the “semi-auto assault rifle” riddle. But when their working group met to discuss assault weapons that spring of 1989, the first thing they did was acknowledge the fractured etymology of the term: “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 they turned to the task still before them.

Gun lobbyists frequently said that the term “assault rifle” was meaningless when applied to semi-autos — just an invention by the anti-gun forces, so that 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 lobbies 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 accomplished by the gun industry itself — 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 consumer. Removing full-auto fire in adapting their 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 they continued to market the legal-version guns using the words “assault rifle,” thus blurring a technical term into a marketing buzzword.

The contradiction was plainly visible in various gun-industry publications throughout the 1980s: the mass-market magazine Guns & Ammo published a book in 1982, entitled Assault Rifles, which it promoted as having “Complete Data On The Best Semi-Automatics.” Further down on the newsstand, more base advertisements summoned a vague specter of deadliness, hyper-masculine and pseudo-militarized: “In a survival situation, you want the most uncompromising weapon that money can buy. The HK-91 Semi-Automatic Assault Rifle.” The words were superimposed above a photo of 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-auto assault rifle” had been nothing more than gun-industry hype all along. In this sense, it actually wasn’t any type of gun at all, so much as a reflection of a type of gun shopper: one who was not a hunter, nor a sportsman, and from whom the existing catalog of self-defense weapons had, for whatever reason, not yet compelled a purchase. The very words “assault rifle” were what appealed to them, and so the definition — the answer to the riddle — was “whatever made the gun look like it fit the lifestyle that the customer was really trying to buy.” As a result, anyone trying to “ban” this porous category of weapons would usually find themselves wandering in the dark.

And there was another, more simple limitation that the ATF working group had to confront: even if they somehow managed to name every “bad” imported gun, the next shooter could simply buy a gun made in the USA, one that was every bit as dangerous. “This is just a bonus to domestic companies because obviously they can raise their prices now,” a congressman from California complained. “They won’t be faced with cheaper imports, and their demand should go up.”

The White House press secretary pushed back: “Unfortunately, it is not something that we can do anything about. To do anything about domestically manufactured weapons would require a change in the [federal] law.” In other words, if the legislature wanted a law enforced, they needed to pass it first.

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, as a domestic manufacturer, Colt was not subject to those rules. This was their acknowledgment that their flagship product was simply a semi-auto version of the U.S. military’s M-16 — and thus, by the ATF’s logic, was an assault rifle. This conclusion had already been foreshadowed on a smaller scale when California specifically listed Colt’s AR-15 on its name-ban list; now, the writing was on the wall.

The federal government was elated with Colt’s announcement. Bush’s drug czar called it “an act of civic responsibility,” and in a session of the ATF working group, many speakers expressed the same; 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 Connecticut company’s headquarters in “Gun Valley,” Bill Ruger was planning his own response to the import ban. Sturm, Ruger & Co didn’t make any military-issue weapons, and so they 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 would be in peril.

The danger crystallized in Bill Ruger’s mind when he got a letter, sent by a U.S. senator from Ohio, that referred to the popular gun as a “Mini-14 assault weapon.” The senator then publicly challenged Bill Ruger — 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.”

Bill decided to send his response to each member of the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Trade, knowing they would be conducting hearings on the import ban in the coming weeks. He turned to his senior legal counsel, attorney Steve Sanetti, to write it.

Under the gun maker’s phoenix-logo-emblazoned corporate masthead, Sanetti laid out Ruger’s counter-argument: that if firearms regulations were to ever be effective, lawmakers 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, “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, 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.”

Some figures within the industry interpreted the Sanetti 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 into law. In response to the critics, Sanetti insisted that the letters were actually sent because many in the industry “felt that a substitute had to be offered which respected the right of all law abiding citizens to own all firearms of their choice,” but that also “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 chairman called the 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 chairman acknowledged, “but he was operating within the law.” So the law had to change.

Another congressman, representing Oakland’s district, argued, “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 California had named, as well as any other rifles “designed to handle clips with more than ten rounds.”

The limitations of California’s name-ban approach had already become apparent; as the law was being implemented, 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 still legal 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.” A lawyer for the state legislature settled the dispute — and sided with the NRA. (California hurried to amend their list, and specifically named the Norinco 56S in the 1991 update.)

The U.S. House, eager to avoid such embarrassments, chose a combination of name-ban and features-ban for their bill.

Another congressman from California spoke next, and he had clearly read Bill Ruger’s letter; he argued that banning guns based on the size of the magazine they came packaged with would never work, because, “The [aftermarket] magazine is identical in its insertion point. It is simply an extension.” Furthermore, 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 sturdier 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 at the hearing, 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 had 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 came down in sheets, onto an audience of law enforcement officers and members of congress, gathered on the capitol’s western steps under a canopy of black umbrellas, for a ceremony in observation of Police Officers’ Memorial Day. President Bush chose the occasion to introduce his first crime bill, one which would contain the sum of the federal government’s response to the Stockton shooting.

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 AK-47, for example, comes with a magazine that pumps off 30 explosive bullets without reloading. And that is why [we] stand 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 rocky political waters. He foresaw that his crime bill would be interpreted as an attack on the 2nd Amendment, so he cited words that preceded the passage of the Bill of Rights, and urged the country, “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 never to be allowed legally into the country again. The Norinco 56S topped the list.

* * *

The year 1989 had started with a shockwave, emanating from a scarred 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, while across the world, the Berlin Wall fell, and the next summer, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. The ripples from Stockton finally fell quiet.

The gun-related provisions of the 1990 crime bill did not make it far inside the House chamber. Unable to reach a consensus, and with time running out for the broader piece of legislation, Congress stripped out all of the provisions that had anything significant to do with firearms, and moved on.

The president had failed. The act that would have limited the capacity of all gun ammunition magazines to 15 rounds — the sum of his response to the Stockton attack — did not become law.