The Federal Assault Weapons Ban: 10 Years After

People holding signs that read "no guns"

“While assault weapons do appear to be used more frequently in mass shootings, such as the ones in Newtown and Aurora, Colorado, such shootings are themselves rare events that are only responsible for a tiny fraction of gun homicides each year. The category of guns that are used in the majority of gun murders are handguns.”- Lois Beckett, reporter

The issues of gun control and gun rights have always been a hotly contested and polarizing subject between Republican and Democratic politicians. In the race for any political seat, eventually those running will be asked to reveal their commitment to either upholding and strengthening Second Amendment rights or gun registrations, bans and universal background checks. Every four years, as political, social and economic climates change, so does the gun rights issue and gun control. In the early 1990s, the legal gun ownership issue correlated directly with violent crime rates. Presidential candidate, Bill Clinton criticized President George H.W. Bush for not tightening handgun laws during his first term. The year Clinton won the presidency, 1992, crime rates were extremely high, and gun crime had hit a historic high. Clinton believed the government’s fundamental responsibility was protecting the people and therefore used keeping Americans safe as his primary platform.

When tragedy occurs, those on the Democratic side tend to sensationalize the situation and use it to their political advantage. And use it Clinton did. Capitalizing on a few high-profile violent incidents, the Clinton Administration pushed its crime-fighting agenda. With law enforcement behind him, Clinton garnered support for his Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. Originally written by Vice President Joe Biden—then a Senator—no crime bill before or after was bigger. Inside the 356-page bill is the Assault Weapons Ban (AWB), which banned any new manufacture of semiautomatic rifles that accept a detachable magazine and had two additional cosmetic features from this list:

  • Folding or collapsible stock
  • Pistol grip
  • Bayonet mount
  • Flash suppressor or threaded barrel
  • Grenade launcher mount

Along with the firearms ban was the halt to any new manufacture of magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds. The AWB’s intention was to stop mass shootings and lower homicide rates of law enforcement officers. Written into the AWB was a Sunset Provision—meaning without any further action, the ban would expire 10 years after being enacted. The act passed Congress 61-38 and President Clinton signed the bill on September 13, 1994.

Despite many weak attempts at reenacting the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, 10 years have passed since the ban expired. What have we learned? What has changed? We found that not much has changed, but we have learned a great deal.

People holding signs that read "no guns"
Even before the AWB, only 2 percent of gun crimes performed used what the law defined as an assault weapon.

A vast majority of lawmakers, politicians and Americans do not understand how firearms work.

In the most citied and credible study done on the effects of the AWB, “An Updated Assessment of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban: Impacts on Gun Markets and Gun Violence, 1994-2003,” led by Christopher S. Koper states that “assault weapons” have “features that appear useful in military and criminal applications, but unnecessary in shooting sports or self-defense.” As another example, then Garden Grove, California Police Chief Joseph M. Polisar said,

“While most rifles are designed to be fired from the shoulder and depend upon the accuracy of a precisely aimed projectile, semiautomatic assault weapons are designed to maximize lethal effects through a rapid rate of fire. Assault weapons are designed to be spray-fired from the hip, and because of their design a shooter can maintain control of the weapon even while firing many rounds in rapid succession.”

The cosmetic features opponents of the ban point to are actually military features such as silencers, flash suppressors, pistol grips, folding stocks and bayonets designed specifically to increase the lethality of these weapons and make them more concealable.

A semiautomatic handgun, rifle or shotgun is not an assault weapon. The definition of an assault weapon is one that has a selector switch on it—allowing the gun to fire in full auto, semiauto or burst mode. Removing the pistol grip and switching out the collapsible stock to a fixed stock on an AR-15 does nothing to change the functionality of the firearm. It does not in any way increase the lethality of the rifle. Yet, to this day, misguided lawmakers, media and politicians misuse and abuse the term “assault weapon.” Case in point is U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake upon ruling Maryland’s assault weapons ban is indeed constitutional wrote, “…The court seriously doubts that the banned assault long guns are commonly possessed for lawful purposes, particularly self-defense in the home, which is at the core of the Second Amendment right.”

AWB did not stop any mass shootings.

After Sandy Hook, many gun control advocates claim the assault weapons ban would have prevented Adam Lanza from obtaining the firearm he used. However, during the time of the shooting, Connecticut had its own assault weapons ban in effect. The alleged Bushmaster Lanza stole from his mother was legally purchased and owned in Connecticut. Even Fox News knows the AWB would not have stopped the school shooting, “…But the Bushmaster model used by Lanza was not on that (the banned) list.”

The AWB did not prevent the 1999 Columbine massacre either. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 13 people at a high school in Colorado, carrying two illegal sawed-off shotguns as well as a Hi-Point 995 carbine and Intratec Tec-DC9 pistol.

Semiautomatic rifles are rarely used in crimes.

Even before the AWB, only 2 percent of gun crimes performed used what the law defined as an assault weapon. Some reports put the number between 2 and 8 percent. However, those statistics include the use of “assault” pistols during a crime. Handguns are and have always been used more during a crime than rifles. In fact, the U.S. Department of Justice found criminals actually prefer “large caliber” revolvers.

From 1982 to 1993, 687 police officers were killed from gunshot wounds. Only 4.4 percent of those officers killed were murdered with a .22 caliber rifle, the rest were shot with either a semiautomatic handgun or revolver. What’s more, the Justice Department reports most crimes are not committed with guns. Of those crimes involving a firearm,  handguns are overwhelmingly used.

According to the FBI, there are 32,000 gun deaths each year. These deaths include suicide, and homicides related to illegal gun and drug activity. With the estimate of over 100 million rifles owned in the United States, we can conclude only 3.4 percent of rifles are used in all gun deaths.

The media has a massive influence on the public’s opinion.

Prior to 1985, the term “assault weapon” was used strictly in the military to define a fully automatic firearm. In order to gain support for an extension of the AWB, gun-control advocates, lawmakers and the media started using the term to instill a frightening image of the black rifle to the American public. Anti-gun activist Josh Sugarmann wrote,

“Assault weapons—just like armor-piercing bullets, machine guns, and plastic firearms—are a new topic. The weapons’ menacing looks, coupled with the public’s confusion over fully automatic machine guns versus semi-automatic assault weapons—anything that looks like a machine gun is assumed to be a machine gun—can only increase the chance of public support for restrictions on these weapons.”

Even though no numbers support the effectiveness of the AWB stopping any crime, the media reported crime would rise after the ban expired. Gun rights advocate, political commentator and economist, John Lott points out that right before the ban was ending, more than 560 news stories reported fear that crime would rise, while only one story actually mentioned the truth—that murder and violent crimes rates were declining. The Bureau of Justice Statistics shows the lowest crime rates in 2000, 2004, 2009 and 2011—two of those years being after the AWB expired.

Banning “assault weapons” does not reduce crime rates.

"I survived the '99 AWB" blue t-shirt
The AWB did nothing to decrease crime rates, to stop gun violence, mass shootings or homicides.

In fact, banning guns might increase crime rates, as some studies show. For example, Fox News reports that mass shootings actually rose slightly during AWB. Besides Columbine, during the 10-year assault weapons ban, 13 other mass shootings occurred. Moreover, Lott reminds us that out of all mass shootings since 1950, except for one, have happened in areas where all firearms are banned. In the Koper study, the author writes,

“In general, we found, really, very, very little evidence, almost none, that gun violence was becoming any less lethal or any less injurious during this time frame. So on balance, we concluded that the ban had not had a discernible impact on gun crime during the years it was in effect.”

When studying all crime rates—not just mass shootings or crimes used with semiautomatic rifles, a 29-year study performed by Lott found that gun murders actually increased 20 percent during the ban.

Gun bans increase production and market value of semiautomatic rifles.

Instead of eliminating semiautomatic rifles, the AWB increased domestic firearms production, making semiautomatic rifles, pre-ban and post-ban more available. In 1994, production of black rifles increased 120 percent. Prices sharply increased on semiautomatic rifles during the ban, while handgun prices remained stable. So-called “assault rifles” became excessively expensive and even more inaccessible to criminals.

Today, 10 years after the ban with a President who supports reinstating the AWB, more people are requesting a federal background check to own a firearm. In 2008, 12.7 million people attempted to purchase a firearm. Every year since, that number has increased by at least 1 million. There is no way of knowing for sure, but estimates put the number of guns owned in America at 300 million—the highest figure in American history. Further, a 2013 report from the U.S. Department of Justice found that while gun ownership has increased, gun-related homicides have decreased.

It just does not work.

The assault weapons ban did nothing to decrease crime rates, stop gun violence, mass shootings or homicides. Today, many gun control advocates are admitting the ban failed to do anything it intended. Tom Diaz, a policy analyst at the Violence Policy Center says, “…the 1994 ban was almost meaningless because it was so defectively drafted.” Recently, one of the current loudest anti-gunners, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America founder, Shannon Watts is admitting the AWB proved itself a flop, saying, “Ultimately, what’s going to save the most lives are background checks.” In the end, studies found no empirical evidence that the assault weapons ban curbed gun violence.

Universal background checks: a look ahead

Since the assault weapons ban did nothing to decrease gun violence in America, anti-gunners must move on to something else to push their gun confiscation and gun ban agenda. Since the school shooting in Newtown, it has been universal background checks. President Obama stated, “as many as 40 percent of guns are purchased without a background check.” Essentially, he is correct—hear me out. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, that 40 percent of firearms purchased without a background check are bought illegally off the street—where both buyer and seller are dealing firearms illegally. This means that federal universal background checks would not stop nearly half of the criminals from killing someone with a gun—lest we forget all gun crime statistics include drug and gang-related violence. What Obama really means is that about 10 percent of firearms purchased go without a background check—completely legal as private sales. Just like the AWB, politicians and lawmakers have their numbers wrong. A 2000 report in The Journal of American Medical Association conducted over 10 years found states that required background checks for sales and transfers of firearms found no difference in murder rates than states that do not require background checks for private individual sales and transfers.

It will be interesting, if not infuriating, to see what lies anti-gunners come up with this time.

What are your thoughts on the assault weapons ban—past or future? Tell us in the comment section.



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Comments (30)

  1. i am puzzled as to why people refer to semi automatic weapons as “assult weapons”.. i slept with an m-16 for a year in vietnam. i was a fire team leader with the 101st airborne div. you do not assult anything with your selector switck in semi auto. there are situations where you designate half of your team goes to semi auto and the others do not. i would like to know a concrete definiton of an assult weapon by the ATF. it seems that our police in every town in america, swat teams , are amatures. they wear boots and camo and assult our citizens for minor provications. the constitution prohibits our military to attack our people. so the swat teams, who are protected from leagle prosecution for their actions are in fact military. too bad they do not have the training. they need to do their jobs. the military prosecutes soldiers who muder civilians of any country during war like conditions. in the middle east i would love to blow away the right wing moslems. too bad i am 69 yrs old and cannot reenter the military.

  2. I have an idea. Since most liberal politicians pick the AR as the poster-gun to ban, and since we know they really have no clue about any of the guns they’ve ever attempted to ban, why don’t we all work together to psych them out into thinking another gun is more dangerous.

    So for example – we heavily get the word out that the Mosin-Nagant is a real cop killer and really needs to be gotten off the streets. We could all chip in and create a false campaign in D.C. and put up billboards with the big “SAY NO” circle with a line through pictures of Mosin-Nagants. Make sure these billboards are strategically located along routes that Congress takes to work.

    Pile on rumor after rumor about yet another mass Mosin-Nagant shooting spree in small-town U.S.A. And ensure they hear about how these guns are the latest fad for gangbangers and used in drive-by shootings and carjackings all over the U.S. now.

    Send a few NRA lobbyists to Washington and have them start pushing real hard to stop pending Mosin-Nagant legislation from making it to the floor of the Senate for a vote. And since we know there really is no such legislation, rest assured some idiot liberal will hear about the NRA fighting it anyway, and they will write up a bill against Mosin-Nagants for sure now.

    Get our wives to put on a fake Mother’s Against Mosin-Nagants rally and protest in the National Mall. We’ll call them MAMN (Mother’s Against Mosin-Nagants) for short and make ‘em look all official like with big picket signs and all.

    If we are successful, the most fun will be had as we stand in the long lines with angry faces as we are made to turn in our Mosin-Nagants after Congress bans them all. We’ll have to try really hard to not laugh as we look at one another with our mad faces on. Everyone will need to remember to kind of tug on the gun as if it’s hard to let go as the public safety officer reaches out to take each Mosin-Nagant in the processing line. Then we each top it off by walking away with our heads hung low in sadness.

    1. @ G-Man: how about we don’t deflect to a different type of firearm that perhaps millions of people use and enjoy that you may not own or like? I raise the premise that there are NO bad firearms of ANY type, just bad people that use them.

      I propose this instead….we start electing politicians that believe our Rights come from God, The Constitution is the supreme law of the land, and that they will truly live up to the oath they swear.


      My powder is dry, and my rope is ready.

    2. @ Dave L:

      Come on Dave, this was my attempt at humor. Did I not get even one chuckle? Not only do I own several Mosins, but I am in the middle of sporterizing one this weekend; which is probably why the rifle came to mind as I wrote my post.

      I am usually the one getting very serious on these forums and just needed a break. I really thought my parody was so comically unrealistic that most gun enthusiast and 2A supporters would appreciate it.

      Most people that read my posts know I have always been 100% in step with your sentiment on this topic. But seriously, take the time to envision convincing a liberal Congressman that home-boys in the hood are attempting drivebys with Mosins. Ya gotta laugh at that prospect.

      So please, treat yourself to a humor-break every now and then, otherwise we’re going to die early from the stress these liberal idiots create. Then who would be left to defend the Second Amendment? I truly meant no offense. Stay well.

    3. @ G-Man: Hey bud….it’s all good, I snickered for a moment. I knew what you were getting at, it’s just that we can’t play their game, because the media would never allow it. They would just end up saying, “see, some of those gun nuts are actually reasonable and agree with us!”

      All of the anti-American, Constitution hating, gun fearing, panty peeing liberals need to be defeated…..PERMANENTLY! I’ll be generous and give `em two choices…..a traitor’s death sentence, or a plane ticket to the dictatorship of their choice.

    4. Don’t hold your breath waiting for a government that actually wants to lead, much less waiting for one that will lead within the letter of the constitution.

      The City of Davis, CA received a MRAP from the feds. The cops were apoplectic with their new toy. The city council gave them 45 days to get rid of it. I hope this is a trend.

    5. @ Archduke Franz Ferdinand: LOL, scolded like kids were they? Like a little boy that has brought home a stray dog until his mom gives him a day to get rid of it.

    6. How about if the industry doesn’t accept “Assault Weapon” as a firearm classification. There’s where the mistake was made in the beginning they allowed and even accepted the term invented by the antigun groups, the media, and congress to scare the masses and sell them a nonexistent firearm category that didn’t exist. If you want to start a campaign it should be a poster of an anti gunner with a slogan like, “The Real Assault Weapon” because as we know assault is only an act that can be carried out by an individual(s) and not a object.

    7. @ John,

      Excellent point! However, it is only fair that I point out the history which reveals it was actually certain irresponsible companies within “the industry” that were the first to misappropriate the “assault weapons” terminology from the military.

      They unwittingly did so to attract more sales of the relatively unfamiliar AR platform at the time. Their thinking was that by associating the civilian AR to the dependability of real military “assault rifles” used in combat, that it would build better consumer confidence, familiarity, and hence more sales.

      Unfortunately this led to unintended consequence by the antigun groups, liberal media, and politicians who have since further manipulated the terminology to suit their personal agendas.

      In short – one side improperly used it to sell more guns, and the other side used it to ban them. So while both sides are guilty of exploiting the term for their own purpose, the gun industry is actually the culpable party that used the term “assault rifle” first.

      Nevertheless, the recent rise of well publicized controversy over the “assault weapons” terminology itself has brought much needed clarification to the public. Even if politicians and antigun groups ignore such technical corrections, the people at large are becoming better informed.

      So what really burns me up is that despite all the headway made in undoing the damage of such misplaced terminology from both sides, one needs not look hard to find name-brand gun manufacturers and dealers still continuing to carelessly advertise the AR using the “assault rifle” term. Only this time around, as you’ve alluded to, they do it to increase sales of weapons that are seemingly taboo and further stimulated by fears of future bans.

      With some exceptions, this should clearly quash any previous misconception which automatically assumes “the industry” is as dedicated to the Second Amendment as we individuals are. The truth is, they are still businesses whose ultimate dedication will always lie in commerce first.

      In closing I wish to say that I absolutely appreciate your slogan and think that infamous picture of Senator Dianne Feinstein holding up an AR should serve as the poster, with your caption under it.

  3. I thought we could still buy new-manufactured full-auto weapons as long as they are US-made … ???

    Why cant a campaign be started to repeal that silly-assed law? We have made great improvements in concealed, open-carry laws and in some cases Constitutional carry, along with silencers. Any chance is worth exploiting, IMHO.

  4. I can’t help but remember the bad rap selective fire weapons got in the years leading up to the 1986 ban on the new manufacture of machine guns. Twenty-eight years later, the supply of legally registered MGs is capped; prices are sky-high; and none of us will ever see a campaign mounted to repeal that accursed piece of legislation.

  5. I think the author of this is confusing the term Assault Weapon with Assault rifle. I have never heard or read any official document in the military refer to a weapon as a Assault Weapon.

  6. This ridiculous communist legislation ushered in the darkest days of our nation; it was more ruinous than Prohibition and outright SEDITIOUS. The psycological and sociological damages caused by the AWB damaged our great nation and left a permanent scar on American freedoms, and the mindset of American liberty.

    1. GRA, it also reinforced in my mind the mistaken belief in a large segment of the electorate that our elected officials posses the necessary intellect to lead and to make good decisions. Senators, Representatives and (especially) Judges just don’t seem to “get” that laws don’t work unless they are obeyed. They feel that with the stroke of a pen, the laws they pass will automatically make everyone safe and happy.

      It makes for good “press,” designed to show the misinformed, misguided and just plain stupid voters that something is “being done,” when the longer-term reality shows otherwise because that very reality dictates that nothing can be done if a crazed or murderous person is hell-bent on creating more outrages such as the Sandy Hook incident—and of course we law-abiding gun owners get blamed.

      I don’t know if TV and/or the internet is to be blamed (don’t we always want to place “blame”?), but it seems to me that our society and our culture has been on a slipper downhill path since the mid-1960s, when Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” was set in place. But….that’s another story. Our politicians should look within their own ranks for the causes of the insidious changes that have been taking place in the last fifty years. Of course, they won’t. To admit failure would be political suicide in their eyes, but it would be a refreshing change to the rest of us.

    2. Seditious–inciting or causing people to rebel against the authority of a state or monarch. I don’t think that was the word you wanted to use, although it does sound serious.

      More ruinous that prohibition? Are you for real?

      I don’t know about any damage or scaring. The ban is gone. During the ban, I bought and sold pre-ban rifles and large capacity magazines all the time. They never seemed in short supply at gun shows and in private sales between citizens. It really didn’t even affect me.

      I’d call you a troll, but your aren’t intelligent enough to be one.

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