California Gov. Jerry Brown will soon decide whether to sign a bill that expands his state's "assault weapon" ban to cover any centerfire rifle with a detachable magazine. That's a very broad category, the National Rifle Association notes, since "millions of semi-automatic rifles have magazines that can be removed with the push of a button," including "classic hunting rifles like the Remington Woodsmaster, Browning BAR, and the Ruger 99/44, among many others." The actual language of the bill, S.B. 374, refers rather confusingly to "a semiautomatic centerfire rifle that does not have a fixed magazine with the capacity to accept no more than 10 rounds." The NRA argues that the bill's definition of a fixed magazine—"an ammunition feeding device contained in, or permanently attached to, a firearm in such a manner that the device cannot be removed without disassembly of the firearm action"—is ambiguous, since "'disassembly of the firearm action' is undefined and nobody (least of all the legislators who voted for it) knows what it means, or for that matter even what a firearm 'action' actually is." But the intended target seems to be any rifle with a detachable magazine that fires rounds of a caliber bigger than .22 (generally the upper limit these days for cheaper, flimsier rimfire cartridges). Hence Fox News says the bill "exempts .22-caliber rim fire rifles," although the legislation does not directly address caliber.
As with the existing "assault weapon" law, current owners could keep the newly prohibited models, provided they registered them with the state by July 1, 2015. But "unlike with previous registration requirements," the NRA says, "there is no planned public education campaign to notify people about the new law and its mandates. So the tens of thousands of firearm owners who do not hear about or understand SB 374 are out of luck if found with an unregistered firearm that falls under the new definition of 'assault weapon.' And even those who do register their firearms on time will be precluded from ever selling them or passing them down to their children or grandchildren."
Unlike California's current definition of "assault weapon," the new one does not hinge on arbitrarily selected military-style features such as flash suppressors or folding stocks. Instead it apparently aims to ban all rifles capable of firing more than 10 large or medium-sized cartridges without reloading. Those are real functional differences, although one can still argue about how much they matter to mass murderers or run-of-the-mill criminals. But expanding the definition of "assault weapon" to cover equally lethal guns that lack irrelevant features inevitably means banning many models commonly used for legitimate purposes. For anti-gun activists, that may have been the plan all along. The problem for them is that the Supreme Court has said the Second Amendment protects the right to own guns "in common use" or "typically possessed by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes." So while an "assault weapon" is whatever legislators say it is, since the term has no independent or objective meaning, the Constitution imposes limits on how far this charade can be carried.
For example, the Remington 870 pump-action shotgun used in last month's massacre at the Washington Navy Yard is, according to its manufacturer, "the best-selling shotgun of any type in history." It is hard to imagine that the Supreme Court would uphold a ban on such a popular firearm, despite its indisputable connection to mass murder. Or suppose legislators, suddenly noticing that pistols are the guns favored by mass shooters (as well as ordinary thugs), decided to label them "assault weapons." It is clear from the Court's decisions in District of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago that such word games would not justify banning handguns. The NRA, which is threatening to sue if Brown signs S.B. 374, argues that banning a wide range of popular hunting rifles cannot pass constitutional muster either.