The Trace: How the ‘Bullet Button’ Inventor Lets California’s Assault Weapons Owners Blast Away Without Breaking the Law

The California State Legislature is coming back in less than two weeks. It is safe to bet that bullet buttons will be under attack again.

Not long after police killed the husband-and-wife assailants responsible for the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, details began trickling out about how they had managed to kill 14 people and wound 22 others in less than four minutes. The attack had been carried out with two AR-15 rifles outfitted with high-capacity magazines and a feature called a “bullet button.” California bans AR-15s with magazines that can’t be removed without the aid of a tool, in order to prevent users from reloading quickly and inflicting mass damage. Bullet buttons are used to quickly release exhausted magazines from semiautomatic rifles while keeping them just within the bounds of the law.

The bullet button is recessed in a small hole on an AR-15’s lower receiver, next to the magazine well, and can be engaged only with some kind of tool, such as the tip of a bullet. The buttons are sold as an aftermarket accessory or incorporated directly into weapons manufactured for the California market. The appeal of the buttons is that they allow California rifle owners to blow through ammunition at a much higher rate than if they were using standard “California-compliant” rifles, which can only be reloaded one round at a time by opening the receiver, as if for cleaning.

That bullet buttons allowed the San Bernardino shooters to inflict so much damage in such a short period of time underscores how California’s assault weapons law is essentially “meaningless,” according to Jay Wachtel, a former ATF agent. With a bullet button, he tells The Trace, it’s easy to work around regulations meant to limit the killing power of a semiautomatic rifle like the AR-15.

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