Obtained through a public records requests, Guns.com analyzed the California Department of Justice’s assault weapon list of some registered 145,253 firearms, as well as the politics of the ban.
Background of the lists
In January 1989, an unemployed drifter with a criminal record walked on to the campus of Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, California, killed five schoolchildren and wounded 29 others. Lawmakers and gun control advocates pointed to the killer’s Chinese-made, AK-47-style semi-automatic rifle, bought over the counter in Oregon, as a key factor in the event remembered as the Stockton Schoolyard Shooting. This led to swift action to ban such guns first in Los Angeles then on a state level. California’s penal code after 1989 cites as public law:
The Legislature hereby finds and declares that the proliferation and use of assault weapons poses a threat to the health, safety, and security of all citizens of this state. The Legislature has restricted the assault weapons specified in Section 30510 based upon finding that each firearm has such a high rate of fire and capacity for firepower that its function as a legitimate sports or recreational firearm is substantially outweighed by the danger that it can be used to kill and injure human beings.
As such, in 1989 the state enacted the Roberti-Roos Assault Weapons Control Act followed by later enhancements in 1999 and 2004 that, in effect, banned the sale of a number of firearms by name (AR-15, Steetsweeper shotgun, etc.) and later by characteristics (pistol grips, folding stock, detachable magazine holding more than 10 rounds, et. al). This resulted in two different lists maintained by the state Justice Department of guns, in general made before 2000 and legally owned before the bans went into place, that were grandfathered to their owners. The lists comprise two separate groups of weapons: the 1989-era Category 1 (Roberti-Roos) and follow-on Categories 2 and 3 (SB 23 and Kasler) lists.
Guns classified by the DOJ as “assault weapons” cannot be bought, sold or transferred in the state unless it is to a licensed dealer. Indeed, even those on the lists will eventually disappear as state law only allows for their dismantling, transfer to law enforcement, or out of state sale by their current owners, forbidding even inheritance to family members.
In all, the current DOJ registry obtained by Guns.com through public records requests contains no less than 145,253 firearms of three types: rifles, pistols, and shotguns. By far most of the list consists of rifles, which make up almost 90 percent of the total. Shotguns, of which just 2,699 are itemized, account for less than 2 percent.
A breakdown of assault weapons registered by county shows almost a third are located in Los Angeles county, where 20,507 individuals added 46,609 guns to the census. Second place is Orange County with 17,586. The least was Alpine County (pop. 1,175) with just 10 firearms.
Almost half of the guns on the list, 69,334 firearms, mostly rifles, are listed as being chambered in either .223 or 5.56mm. These include a tremendous amount of Colt and Bushmaster series rifles and Mini-14s as well as a number of Steyrs, Galils and FNCs and a sprinkling of OA-93 pistols.
Next are 30,313 weapons listed as being “7.62.” Unfortunately, the DOJ only lists caliber by chamber size, not cartridge length, for example listing a Tokarev 1938 SVT rifle (in 7.62x54R) next to a Norinco MAK-90 (in 7.62x39mm) besides an Enfield L1A1 (in 7.62×51 NATO) with no differential.
With that being said, the state does categorize a number of rifles (15,815) as chambered in .308. These guns read like a who’s who of Cold War military battle rifle designs including FN FALs and StG58s, HK G3s and 91s, Springfield Armory SAR48s and M1As and Armalite AR-10s.
The often-overlooked .30-caliber carbine, the heart of the ubiquitous M-1 Carbine, was not missed in the registration process. Just over 2,100 of these guns appear on the list – mainly post-war examples made by Plainfield and Universal rather than more collectable World War II models.
Shotguns are almost all 12 gauges except for 16 Saiga 20s and 64 .410 gauge Saiga Hunters.
In handgun calibers, the 9mm reigns supreme with some 16,858 total firearms on the list split almost evenly between carbines such as the Hi Point 995 and HK94 and handguns such as the M11 and Tec 9. Speaking of the M11, versions of that gun made in .380 by SWD and RPD make up the bulk of the more than 500 pistols in that caliber registered in the state.
Of the 170 or so guns in .40S&W, a number of oddballs appear including more than a dozen Sites Spectres, a rack of Kel Tec Sub-40 carbines, and a few Bushmaster XM15E2S chambered for that round.
Over 3,500 assault weapons registered in California are in .45ACP, including a truly impressive amount of Tommy gun carbine clones by Thompson (364) and Auto Ordnance (887), which make up the bulk of these offerings, followed distantly by Ingram MAC 10s and a decent showing of Uzis.
The state requires .50BMG caliber guns to be registered no matter the action and some 133 appear on the Kasler list. The majority of these are Barrett Model 82A1 semi-autos but the numbers are rounded out by some semi-auto M2 Brownings, a British Boys anti-tank gun, five Serbu BFGs and a pair of Maddi Griffin MG 6 bullpups, among others.
Just when you thought that rimfire guns were safe, the DOJ’s lists contain more than 1,233 22s, of which the bulk were Intratec 22 and Scorpion pistols and AR-7 rifles.
There are also a number of unlikely calibers listed – such as AR-15s cited as being chambered in .224, or 6.56mm, and AK-47s listed as being 9.62mm – which leads to the theory that at some point they were either entered wrong or the gun owner made a mistake on their forms submitted to the agency, or both. Further, some 1,200 guns are listed as either 8888 or 0000 caliber, likely a default when actual chambering is not known.
While the DOJ has more than 300 pages of maker codes on file containing thousands of manufacturers both foreign and domestic, over two-thirds of the firearms registered in California as assault weapons come from 25 makers with domestic modern sporting rifle makers garnering the top spots among a host of household names. Below are the top 25* ranked by number of weapons on the lists.
- 28,259 Colt Mfg, almost all Sporters and AR-15 type rifles
- 16,665 Chinese Norinco/Polytech/Clayco rifles, primarily AK and SKS pattern guns in 7.62mm
- 14,797 Bushmasters, almost exclusively XM-15 series rifles
- 9,158 Heckler & Koch firearms, with Model HK 91, 93 and 94 rifles accounting for the majority
- 4,529 Springfield Armory rifles, primarily M1/M1A 7.62mm guns
- 4,528 IMI guns including 179 Galil rifles and 4301 UZIs of multiple types in 9mm and .45
- 4,199 Armalites including 291 AR-10s and 1046 AR-180s
- 3,124 Eagle AR-pattern firearms
- 2,924 Intratec branded guns, all variants of the TEC-9/AB-10 and TEC-22 pistol
- 2,732 Ruger firearms, mostly Mini-14 and Mini-30 rifles
- 2,199 FN/Browning/FNH with mainly FAL and FNC type rifles listed
- 2,189 SWD guns mostly Cobray and M10/11/12 MAC-style pistols
- 1,876 Arsenal made AK-pattern rifles in 7.62mm
- 1,461 DPMs, all AR-15 variants
- 1,457 Austrian Steyrs, almost all AUG-series 5.56mm rifles
- 1,303 Korean Daewoo firearms in several variants, almost all 5.56mm rifles but also 16 DR300s in 7.62 and 5 DP51 pistols
- 1,170 Franchi shotguns in the uber-scary SPAS 12 and LAW12 varieties
- 1,132 CAI/Century guns, primarily 7.62mm rifles
- 1,082 Hungarian FEG guns, mostly SA85 AK-style rifles
- 914 Auto Ordnance, typically all Thompson 1927 style carbines
- 770 Imbel L1A1 type rifles in 7.62mm
- 693 DSA rifles, all SA58 models
- 526 Enterprise Arms 7.62mm rifles
- 496 Berettas including some 122 AR-70s and 60 rare BM-59s
- 445 SIGs, including 122 P-series pistols and 139 SG550 5.56mm rifles
- 392 Benellis, split roughly between their M1 and M3 tactical shotguns
*Note: the DOJ also uses a series of confusing catch-alls for some gun designations, for instance defaulting dozens of manufacturers who made firearms for the U.S. military into one category while all Romanian-made and Russian-made guns are dumped in others regardless of make. In all, more than 3,000 guns are classified as such.
If you are curious about guns made after 2001 being on the list, DOJ still accepts registration of new guns from active peace officers.
The AR-15 series rifles and pistols – in designations as diverse as the Colt LE6920, HBAR and SP1, Bushmaster XM15, and Ordnance Design Co’s ER-15 – comprise more than a third of the entire list with no less than 58,448 guns falling into this category, making it clear that it is in fact “America’s gun.”
At least 17,074 firearms are listed as being various stylings of the AKM/AKS/AK-47 type rifle to include Arsenal’s diverse line and over 5,000 Norinco MAK-90s, leaving these rifles to come in a distant second place.
These figures would seem to fly in the face of reasoning by federal appeals court judges who have recently held that semi-auto AR-15s and AK-style rifles are unusual and, as such, fall outside of Second Amendment protections.
Surprisingly, only 2,055 SKS rifles are listed, which leaves the number three spot in California to the Uzi carbines and pistols who more than double that number. As for FAL type semi-auto rifles, over 3,000 are on the list with models from DSA, FN, Imbel and others.
When it comes to the remainder, the DOJ, in its vast net has caught up a staggering amount of guns that are uncommon in their make or model, some of which are downright unusual.
A rifle seldom if ever mentioned, the Heckler & Koch SL8 hunting rifle, appears on the list in noteworthy numbers with no less than 487 of these guns accounted for. A single Soviet SVT-38 appears on the list as do no less than 15 British Enfield .303 bolt-action rifles, the latter of which would presumably be exempt from registration requirements.
A pair of German MG34 machine guns appear, likely converted to semi-auto fire only. Similarly, there are at least 16 semi-auto belt-fed M-60s on the list made by American Arms and Sarco.
Some 80 FN Model 49 and Egyptian Hakim rifles are listed, although the DOJ has split personalities as to whether to classify them as 7.92mm or 8mm as they are listed as both.
There are apparently a number of Francophiles in the state with no less than 357 French military MLE 1949/56 rifles that have been registered by their owners. If strange Swiss battle rifles are your pleasure, the list contains 184 SIG AMT and P-57 guns that predate the disco era. Under the pistol section are some 203 Austrian-made SPP 9mm handguns, which are the forerunner of today’s Swiss-made Brugger and Thomet.
Despite the media attention the picturesque guns received in the 1990s, only 310 SWD Streetsweepers and another 91 STI Striker 12 tactical shotguns are registered.
Then there are 11 Chinese-made 9mm Broomhandle pistols and one simply listed as a Box Cannon. Added to this are a number of user-made guns that are entered only as “homemade.”
Nevertheless, does the ban work?
Rather than have a chilling effect on firearms sales in the state, the ban, now over a quarter-century old, seems to have had the opposite.
While the ever-expanding series of bans added more and more types and characteristics to its sweep, simple cosmetic modifications such as “bullet-buttons” and changes allowed guns of similar type to remain up for sale in the state. In short, even though would-be California gun owners have to jump through more hoops to do so, they still are buying firearms in record numbers.
According to the DOJ’s Dealers Record of Sale Transactions recorded over the past four decades, in 1991 some 489,433 guns were sold in California. The figures remained more or less constant for nearly 20 years, then began climbing in 2008 until by 2014 they had doubled to 931,037 firearms of all types.
However, with all of these legal guns being lawfully bought and sold, what effect did this have on crime?
According to the DOJ’s own figures, for the past several years, every violent and property offense category decreased in number and rate per 100,000 population. Homicide rates, after peaking at over 4,000 in 1993, dropped to less than half that amount in 2009 and by 2013 had fallen to 1,745 – a number not seen in California since the Nixon-era, when the state’s population was half of what it is today.
Of those homicides, some 72 percent were from firearms. From those and other guns used in crimes of violence that did not result in murder, 105 were recovered and examined by DOJ crime laboratories which found notable differences from the firearms targeted by the state’s assault weapons ban.
Where rifles make up the bulk of the banned weapons that are registered, handguns accounted for 90 percent of the guns noted in the DOJ crime study in 2013. Likewise, the most popular caliber on the AWB list, .223, accounted for a single firearm used in the crime study. Of the 105 guns, only two were registered assaults weapons.
These figures compare favorably to nationwide research done by the Centers for Disease Control and by criminologist James Allen Fox.
“The overwhelming majority of mass murderers use firearms that would not be restricted by an assault weapons ban,” reads Fox’s 2014 report. In addition, he found that in just 14 of 93 mass shootings involving a firearm that used a magazine with a capacity of more than 10 rounds.
With no less than 8.2 million AR-15 and AK-47 based semi-automatic rifles known imported to or produced in the country between 1990 and 2012, a national average would be on the order of one of these guns for every 35 inhabitants in the country. California’s numbers of registered ARs and AKs, when compared to the state population of almost 39 million, translate into a figure that is closer to one in 500.
However, the apparent lower than average rate of these weapons in the state does not transfer into lower than average homicide rates.
According to FBI statistics, California’s murder rate per 100,000 in 2013 stood at 4.6. When contrasted with Texas, a state with no assault weapons ban but, like California, has several of the country’s largest metro areas, the Lone Star State saw a comparatively lower murder rate of 4.3.
In a state which has some 38 million inhabitants, original estimates in 1989 cited as many as one million possible assault weapons in circulation. By 1990, just 7,000 were registered. Although numbers have increased to over 145,000, this is still nowhere near original estimates, which leads to the inevitable possibility that gun owners did not seek to register their guns.
In past cases of firearms bans, noncompliance with registration is not uncommon.
When Canada enacted mandatory firearms registration a decade ago, less than a third of the estimated number of guns in the country were brought in to be counted, leading to labels of massive civil disobedience at the time.
In both Austria and Germany, when a ban was followed by registration, the numbers of guns registered were far less than what was estimated.
A more recent move in New York involving registration of guns following the Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act of 2013 led to open calls there for noncompliance, while in Connecticut, a state with a much smaller population that California, only some 50,000 of an estimated 500,000 guns were registered in that state’s 2013 ban update.
Gun control advocates seem to have distanced from assault weapons bans to a degree.
Representatives for the umbrella group backed by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg that includes Mayors Against Illegal Guns, Moms Demand Action and Everytown for Gun Safety, declined comment to Guns.com on the subject but said they currently focus their attention on illegal gun users by promoting expanded background checks and increased mental health reporting – rather than focusing on bans on guns themselves.
Guns.com reached out to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords’s Americans for Responsible Solutions, and the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence concerning California’s assault weapon ban, all of whom declined comment.
While the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence in San Francisco did not respond to requests for comment by Guns.com, the group states its official assault weapons policy on its website.
“Assault weapons are a class of semi-automatic firearms that are designed to kill humans quickly and efficiently,” reads the statement before going on to a list of crimes in which the guns were used to include, “the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, the 2012 Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting and the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in that state, as well as the 1993 office shooting at the 101 California Street building in San Francisco.”
Although most of the designs on guns found on the California DOJ list were designed in the 1950s and 60s, the center contends that it came much later.
“Assault weapons are a relatively new class of firearms. During the 1980s, the firearms industry sought to reverse a decline in consumer demand for guns by developing and marketing new types of weapons based on military designs, including assault weapons,” the group said.
While California’s prohibition on assault weapons is among the oldest in the country, enduring even after the federal ban sunsetted more than a decade ago, other states such as Connecticut and New York maintain their own bans which, after 2012, they sought to strengthen.
The leader of a gun control group formed following the Sandy Hook attack, the Newtown Action Alliance, told Guns.com that it’s the nature of the this type of firearms themselves that are inherently dangerous.
“According to the ATF, there are over 300 million firearms in the US. We need to do more to de-militarize our nation,” Po Murray, chair of the NAA told Guns.com via email. “AR-15 style firearms, AK-47 style weapons and UZIs belong in war zones; not in Newtown, Santa Barbara, Chicago, Los Angeles or other cities and towns across America. More Americans have died from guns since the Sandy Hook shooting than service members in Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined.”
To Murray, bans are not the entire answer to solve gun violence, but when taken in conjunction with other steps, can be part of the treatment.
“There is no single solution or policy that will end gun violence in our nation therefore we support a comprehensive common sense strategy to reduce gun violence including background checks, gun violence restraining orders, anti-trafficking measures and ban on military-style firearms,” Murray said.
Citing the 2008 Heller case, in which the nation’s highest court recognized the individual right to keep and bear arms yet kept Washington D.C.’s assault weapon’s ban in place, Murray noted “the Supreme Court has ruled that these measures are constitutional and in no way infringes on the rights of the responsible gun owners.”
Second Amendment advocates on the ground in California see the whole subject of regulating guns over their characteristics and magazine capacity with a goal to reduce gun violence as a failed theory.
“The entire political construct of laws banning so-called ‘assault weapons’ is based on fearmongering by gun prohibitionists and anti-freedom politicians,” Brandon Combs, president of the Firearms Policy Coalition and executive director of the Calguns Foundation, told Guns.com
Combs contends that the guns carried on the DOJ list are there for simply cosmetic reasons, and that those who obey the laws, not by more nefarious segments of the population, registered them.
“There is no functional difference between your grandfather’s semi-automatic rifle and a modern sporting firearm like an AR-15. Assault weapon laws are really just a way to disarm Americans by ensnaring good people in bad laws, turning them into criminals,” Combs said. “What gun control supporters really want is a Second Amendment that doesn’t protect anything meaningful at all. Thankfully, as the Supreme Court reaffirmed, our Constitution takes their evil policy preferences off the table.”