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:

Sale ends July 21, 2019

Sale ends July 21, 2019

  • 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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