Assault Rifles Being Altered to Skirt Law


At a little gunsmith shop in a Santa Ana business and industrial complex, owner Shawn Tugwell removes the offending pistol grip from a semiautomatic rifle that California will soon outlaw as an assault weapon.

In its place, Tugwell screws on a substitute grip of a high-strength plastic molded to conform to the gun’s original stock.

Behold, what was a banned gun under California’s newly toughened assault weapon controls seemingly is reinvented into a more conventional sporting firearm for hunting or paper targets.


Assuming it has no other prohibited characteristics, Tugwell believes the rifle, in this case a .223-caliber Colt Sporter, will pass legal muster and avoid the requirement that it be registered.

“We’re trying to make a couple of bucks, and we’re also trying to give the people a chance to . . . comply with the law,” said Tugwell, who sells his $69.95 replacement grip at gun shows, online and at his GunCompliantStocks shop.

Complying With the Law

Starting Jan. 1, it will be against the law to manufacture, import, sell, give or lend a wide variety of semiautomatic, combat-style guns whose features include pistol grips or folding stocks.

However, current owners can keep their unmodified guns if they register them with the state Department of Justice.

The new law also will attempt to reduce the firepower of these guns by banning ammunition magazines that can hold more than 10 cartridges. Some magazines can accept 20 or more rounds.

Tugwell believes he has found a way to help make some assault guns legal by removing their signature pistol grips and substituting the stock and grip of his own design.


“We offer a stock to make it more of a sporting rifle than what the media and government has termed an assault weapon,” said Tugwell, who said it will fit several types of assault guns.

Is such surgery merely a clever way to get around the new law, as the National Rifle Assn. asserts? Or, will Californians be safer from gun violence by eliminating prohibited characteristics, as Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer suggests? The answer is unclear.

On its Internet Web site, the NRA, which fought passage of the bill, SB 23, praises Tugwell’s grip as an “SB 23 buster.” The NRA invites other potential inventors of such equipment to come forward “and we will post a link to their site.”

“Our job as gun owners is to tweak the nose of our Legislature. . . . It is our job to register as few firearms as possible--LEGALLY,” the NRA says.

Lockyer, who has promised to enforce the new law vigorously and is writing regulations to implement it, has not examined Tugwell’s substitute grip, believed to be the first of its kind.

But in an interview last week, the Democratic attorney general said he believes that, combined with restricted magazines, the removal of pistol grips diminishes the gun’s “lethal potential.”

“If people can modify their weapons to not violate any of the prohibited characteristics, then they have complied with the law,” Lockyer said. “[But] I don’t want someone to conclude that it is easy to get around the law by some cosmetic changes in the weapon.”

He said his regulations will define whether modifications such as Tugwell’s would enable the gun to comply with the law.

Indeed, much of the impetus for the new restrictions, enacted by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Gray Davis this summer, was to plug loopholes in the existing law, which enabled manufacturers to bypass assault weapon prohibitions by making cosmetic changes.

The new law casts a broader net than the state’s 10-year-old Roberti-Roos Assault Weapons Control Act. It bans pistol grips, thumb hole and folding stocks, grenade launchers, flash suppressors and short barrels. However, none of these affects a gun’s ability to fire rapidly, as fast as the trigger can be pulled.

“You have to eliminate all those features and the pistol grip. Otherwise, just putting our stock on won’t make your gun comply,” Tugwell said.

If the offending features are removed, supporters of the legislation contend, the guns become acceptable as hunting or sporting arms and are exempt from registration.

Registration will start Jan. 1 and last one year. The $20 fee will cover one gun or many if they are registered at the same time, the state Justice Department said. Otherwise, the prohibited guns must be disposed of or permanently disabled.

Pistol Grip Is a Key Item

The protruding pistol grip is a signature characteristic of many military firearms and is widely copied in civilian versions. In combat, it enables the shooter to nimbly keep up a high rate of fire with one hand and still maintain stability of the gun. For other arms, a thumb hole in the stock serves the same function.

By permanently eliminating the pistol grip or thumb hole stock, “you are fundamentally changing the design,” said Luis Tolley, western director of Handgun Control Inc., a sponsor of the new law.

“Business has been halfway decent,” Tugwell said.

But Tolley said he doubts that “we are going to see huge numbers of these weapons being converted. The guys who like those weapons are not going to give up their pistol grips.”

Michael Van Winkle, a Justice Department spokesman, said 62,000 assault guns have been registered by 37,000 owners under the current law. Officials have no estimate of how many will be registered under the new requirements, he said.

“There’s really no way to know how many are out there,” Van Winkle said.


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