assault weapons

Federal Assault Weapons Ban

The Federal Assault Weapons Ban (AWB) was a subtitle of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, a federal law of the United States that included a prohibition on the sale to civilians of certain semi-automatic "assault weapons" manufactured after the date of the ban's enactment. There was no prior legal definition of "assault weapons" prior to its enactment. The ten-year ban was passed by Congress on September 13, 1994 and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton the same day. The ban expired on September 13, 2004, as part of the law's sunset provision.

Definition of assault weapon

Note: there are differing definitions of 'assault weapon' that are listed at Assault weapon. This page refers to the usage in the United States under the previous and proposed assault weapon bans.

The term "assault weapon" in the context of civilian rifles has been attributed to gun-control activist Josh Sugarmann. Assault weapon refers to semi-automatic firearms (that is, firearms that, when fired, automatically extract the spent casing and load the next round into the chamber, ready to fire again) that were developed from earlier fully-automatic weapons. By former U.S. law the legal term assault weapon included certain specific semi-automatic firearm models by name (e.g., Colt AR-15, H&K G36E, TEC-9, all AK-47s, and Uzis) and other semi-automatic firearms because they possess a minimum set of features from the following list of features:

Semi-automatic rifles able to accept detachable magazines and two or more of the following:

* Folding stock
* Conspicuous pistol grip
* Bayonet mount
* Flash suppressor, or threaded barrel designed to accommodate one
* Grenade launcher (more precisely, a muzzle device which enables the launching or firing of rifle grenades)

Semi-automatic pistols with detachable magazines and two or more of the following:

* Magazine that attaches outside the pistol grip
* Threaded barrel to attach barrel extender, flash suppressor, handgrip, or silencer
* Barrel shroud that can be used as a hand-hold
* Unloaded weight of 50 oz (1.4 kg) or more
* A semi-automatic version of an automatic firearm

Semi-automatic shotguns with two or more of the following:

* Folding or telescoping stock
* Pistol grip
* Fixed capacity of more than 5 rounds
* Detachable magazine

The earlier term assault rifle, refers to rifles that are select-fire (that is, rifles that are capable of either semi-automatic or fully-automatic fire), firing intermediate-power rounds (such as the 5.56 x 45 mm NATO, or 7.62 x 39 mm), which along with fully automatic pistols, provided the pre-cursor for the term "assault weapon."

(Fully automatic, such as describing a machine gun, means that a firearm can fire multiple rounds with a single pull of the trigger and will continue to fire as long as the trigger is depressed and ammunition remains in the magazine. In contrast, the term assault weapon as used in civilian and U.S. legal usage refers to a semi-automatic weapon that fires one shot for each trigger pull, the same as any other semi-automatic hunting rifle, or semi-automatic household handgun, all of which automatically load another round of ammunition that can be fired with each subsequent trigger pull until the attached magazine is empty. Note: a double-action revolver also fires one shot for each trigger pull but is not considered "semi-automatic" since the force of pulling the trigger brings the next round ready rather than the recoil of the last cartridge.)

Provisions of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban

The Federal Assault Weapons Ban was only a small part (title XI, subtitle A) of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act.

The act created a definition of "assault weapons" and subjected firearms that met that definition to regulation. Nineteen models of firearms were defined by name as being "assault weapons". Various semi-automatic rifles, pistols, and shotguns were classified as "assault weapons" due to having various combinations of features.

The act addressed only semi-automatic firearms, that is, firearms that fire one shot each time the trigger is pulled. Neither the AWB nor its expiration changed the legal status of fully automatic firearms, which fire more than one round with a single trigger-pull; these had long been regulated by the National Firearms Act of 1934.

The act separately defined and banned "large capacity ammunition feeding devices", which generally applied to magazines or other ammunition feeding devices with capacities of greater than an arbitrary number of rounds and which up to the time of the act had been considered normal or factory magazines. These ammunition feeding devices were also referred to in the media and popular culture as "high capacity magazines or feeding devices." Depending on the locality, the cutoff between a "normal" capacity and "high" capacity magazine was 3, 7, 10, 15, or 20 rounds. The now defunct federal ban set the limit at 10 rounds.

During the period in which the AWB was in effect, it was illegal to manufacture any firearm that met the law's definition of an "assault weapon" or "large capacity ammunition feeding device", except for export or for sale to a government or law enforcement agency. Possession of illegally imported or manufactured firearms was outlawed as well, but the law did not ban the possession or sale of pre-existing "assault weapons" or previously factory standard magazines which had been legally redefined as "large capacity ammunition feeding devices". This provision for "pre-ban" weapons created a higher price point in the market for such items, which lasted until the ban's sunset.

Expiration of the ban

On March 2, 2004, with 'sunset' of the ban on the horizon, assault weapon ban supporter Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) attached a ten-year extension to the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban to the Senate's Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act. With the Feinstein amendment, the bill was voted down 8-90.

Opponents of the ban claimed that its expiration has seen little if any increase in crime, while Senator Feinstein claimed the ban was effective because "It was drying up supply and driving up prices. The number of those guns used in crimes dropped because they were less available."

Compliance and avoidance

AWB advocates and opponents alike stated that the AWB allowed firearms manufacturers to make minor changes to make their affected firearms legal, and they both described the features affected by the ban as "cosmetic". Supporters pointed to the ability to fire a large capacity magazine without the need to reload as frequently; the ability to fire from the hip with a pistol grip; and greatly reduced chances for detection when using a silencer in the perpetration of a crime (silencers were already regulated by federal law prior to the AWB); and felt that the final wording of the bill watered down the legislation making the ban much less effective. Opponents claimed that the features did not increase the likelihood of criminal use or function, and pointed out that the features banned had little record of impact in past criminal use.

Critics also noted that many of the defining features included in the ban did not necessarily make a weapon more dangerous or more desirable to a common criminal (for example, bayonet lugs and barrel shrouds.) A common comparison drawn was between the M16/AR-15, which was banned, and the Ruger Mini-14, which (in most versions) was not. Both weapons fire the same cartridge with similar ballistics, both can accept high-capacity magazines, and they are of similar size and weight. Thus, critics said, one could logically conclude that they were equally lethal weapons in the hands of a criminal and that the differences between them had no bearing on the weapons' respective danger to society. Detractors say that the banned weapons were essentially targeted for falling under an arbitrary definition of "military appearance" and not according to function, lethality, or actual threat to public safety.

Once certain combinations of features were banned, manufactures complied with the law by removing such combinations of features. For example, the AB-10 was a legal version of the TEC-9, with barrel threading, and barrel shroud removed; the XM-15 was a legal AR-15 without barrel threading, or a bayonet mounting lug; post-ban semi-automatic AK-47s were also sold without folding stocks, bayonet lugs, and with standard or "thumbhole" stocks instead of pistol-grips. As the production of large-capacity magazines for civilians had also been prohibited, manufacturers sold their post-ban firearms either with newly-manufactured magazines with capacities of ten rounds or less, or with pre-ban manufactured high-capacity magazines, to meet changing legal requirements.

The BATF technology branch determined in 1994 that muzzle brakes were not impacted by the AWB, and that muzzle brakes on threaded barrels were not an assault weapon feature, so long as they were welded or soldered in place.

The law prohibited detachable magazines with a capacity to hold more than ten rounds manufactured after enactment of the law from sale, transfer, or importation. One effect was the increased importation of large quantities of magazines manufactured before the ban from other countries . Former Warsaw Pact countries had large quantities of AK-47 magazines of various capacities that could fit a variety of both pre-ban and post-ban AK-47 variants. Existing stocks of pre-ban American-made magazines were likewise exempt from the ban; this resulted in a brief surge in domestic manufacture of high-capacity magazines before the law took effect.

With the ten-round limit on magazine capacity in effect, and some form of concealed carry of firearms legal in over 38 states, manufacturers had an added incentive to design smaller frames at or below the ten-round capacity, thus replacing the previously popular 9mm and .45 ACP "high capacity" pistols. Since they could no longer manufacture the popular 15- and 17-round magazines to consumers, continuing to market the large frames designed for such made less sense. Glock introduced their 10-round capacity 9mm semi-automatic pistol, the Glock 26, in August 1994, in apparent anticipation of the legislation. In 1995, the Kahr Arms company was founded; they debuted their ultra-compact 9mm pistol, the K-9. In the years that followed, all manufacturers of semiautomatic pistols followed suit, developing a large array of concealable ten-round pistols in various calibers, including 9mm, 10mm, .40 S&W, and .45 ACP.

In March 2004, Kristen Rand, the legislative director of the Violence Policy Center, criticized the soon-to-expire ban by stating "The 1994 law in theory banned AK-47s, MAC-10s, UZIs, AR-15s and other assault weapons. Yet the gun industry easily found ways around the law and most of these weapons are now sold in post-ban models virtually identical to the guns Congress sought to ban in 1994.

Assault weapons ban in New York politics

New York's version of the law is very similar to the Federal version, but New York's version does not have a sunset provision. According to the laws of the State of New York, a magazine with a capacity of more than 10 rounds manufactured after September 14, 1994 cannot be legally possessed by anyone other than a law enforcement officer. A provision of the Federal law required the date of manufacture to be stamped on every newly manufactured "large capacity" magazine. Because that requirement is no longer in effect, the New York magazine ban becomes potentially unenforceable except with respect to those magazines manufactured during the ban and marked according to federal regulations then in effect.

NYS Penal Law § 265.02(6) makes it a class D felony to possess "a large capacity ammunition feeding device," which is defined in Penal Law § 265.00(23) as "a magazine, belt, drum, feed strip, or similar device, manufactured after [September 13, 1994], that has a capacity of, or that can be readily restored or converted to accept, more than ten rounds of ammunition." Possession of unmarked "large capacity" magazines made after the sunset of the federal ban thus subject New Yorkers to felony charges. Police and prosecutors may be able to determine actual manufacture dates of seized magazines from information not generally available to consumers, such as the dates of magazine design changes and parts assembly numbers. The New York ban thus leaves possessors of unmarked post-ban magazines at risk of felony charges since they may not know the magazines were manufactured post-sunset and not pre-ban.

During the period of the federal ban, ATF would issue rulings as to whether attachment of a given muzzle device on a post-ban rifle was permissible because it acted only as a brake, or impermissible because it acted as a flash suppressor. As with magazines, the New York regulatory scheme implicitly relied upon such federal regulatory determinations for enforcement of the state's ban. With the sunset of the federal ban, ATF is no longer concerned with classifying muzzle devices. New York residents now may acquire or modify rifles attaching what they believe to be muzzle brakes, but which at some point New York police or prosecutors may deem to be flash suppressors, resulting in arrest or prosecution for unwitting possession of a banned rifle. [See NYS Penal Law § 265.00(22) defining "Assault Weapon" to include "a semiautomatic rifle that has an ability to accept a detachable magazine and has at least two of the following characteristics . . . (iv) a flash suppressor or threaded barrel designed to accommodate a flash suppressor." There is no definition of "flash suppressor" in § 265.00, which contains all definitions for the ban, thus leaving grounds for arrest and prosecution uncertain until what is or is not a "flash suppressor" is resolved by state courts or clarified by statute.]

Assault weapons bans in other States

In addition to New York (see above), the states of Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and California have enacted similar bans.

Effect on crime

An unpublished 2004 study commissioned by the United States Department of Justice found that assault weapons were used in only a small fraction of gun crimes prior to the ban, about 2 percent according to most studies and no more than 8 percent. Large capacity magazines that are also covered by the ban, however, are used in crime much more often than AWs and accounted for 14% to 26% of guns used in crime prior to the ban. Following implementation of the ban, the share of gun crimes involving AWs declined by 17% to 72% across the localities examined by this study.

A 1999 preliminary study commissioned by the Department of Justice on the Assault Weapons Ban found that gun murders dropped 11% from 1994 to 1995, though the "limited [study] time frame weakens the ability of statistical tests to discern effects that may be meaningful from a policy perspective," therefore the ban’s "short-term influence on gun violence has been uncertain, due perhaps to the continuing availability of grandfathered assault weapons, close substitute guns and large capacity magazines, and the relative rarity with which the banned weapons were used in gun violence even before the ban.

The Violence Policy Center blames technicalities. "Soon after its passage in 1994, the gun industry made a mockery of the federal assault weapons ban, manufacturing 'post-ban' assault weapons with only slight, cosmetic differences from their banned counterparts. The VPC estimates that more than one million assault weapons have been manufactured since the ban's passage in 1994." By another point of view, manufacturers responded precisely to the changing legal requirements, making and selling exactly what was permitted.

The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence examined the impact of the Assault Weapons Ban in a 2004 report entitled On Target: The Impact of the 1994 Federal Assault Weapon Act. The report looked at 1.4 million guns involved in crime and determined that "since the law’s enactment ... assault weapons have made up only 1.61% of the guns ATF has traced to crime — a drop of 66% from the pre-ban rate" and that the Act prevented 60,000 assault weapon crimes over its 10-year period.

In 2001, Koper and Roth of the Jerry Lee Center of Criminology, University of Pennsylvania, published a peer-reviewed paper called The Impact of the 1994 Federal Assault Weapon Ban on Gun Violence Outcomes: An Assessment of Multiple Outcome Measures and Some Lessons for Policy Evaluation. They found that:

"The ban may have contributed to a reduction in gun homicides, but a statistical power analysis of our model indicated that any likely effects from the ban will be very difficult to detect statistically for several more years. We found no evidence of reductions in multiple-victim gun homicides or multiple-gunshot wound victimizations. The findings should be treated cautiously due to the methodological difficulties of making a short-term assessment of the ban and because the ban's long-term effects could differ from the short-term influences revealed by this study.

During the 1990s the Militia movement made the ban on Assault Weapons a major focus of the movement. Feeling the ban had gone too far and crossed constitutional lines the Assault Weapon ban became a major rallying cry and recruitment tool for the Militia Movement. Although members of such groups were rarely associated with crime the growth of these and related organizations was viewed by many as an undesirable side-effect of the ban that could lead to crime.

Assault Weapons Ban and Law Enforcement Protection Act of 2007

In February 2007 a bill, H.R. 1022, called the Assault Weapons Ban and Law Enforcement Protection Act of 2007 sponsored by Representative Carolyn McCarthy of New York was introduced that would reinstitute and expand the ban on assault weapons. It reduces the number of requirements for a firearm to be classified as an assault weapon from two to one. It additionally includes, in H.R. 1022 Section L, the expansion of the legal term assault weapon to any
"... semiautomatic rifle or shotgun originally designed for military or law enforcement use, or a firearm based on the design of such a firearm, that is not particularly suitable for sporting purposes, as determined by the Attorney General. In making the determination, there shall be a rebuttable presumption that a firearm procured for use by the United States military or any Federal law enforcement agency is not particularly suitable for sporting purposes, and a firearm shall not be determined to be particularly suitable for sporting purposes solely because the firearm is suitable for use in a sporting event."

On the April 18, 2007 showing of MSNBC's program, Tucker, the conservative/libertarian pundit Tucker Carlson interviewed McCarthy concerning the Virginia Tech massacre and her proposed reauthorization of the Assault Weapons Ban. He asked her to explain the need to regulate barrel shrouds, one of the many provisions of the Act. She responded that more importantly the legislation would ban large capacity "clips" used in the Virginia Tech massacre and that the class of guns chosen were those used by gangs and police killers. After admitting that she did not know what a barrel shroud was, she ventured a guess, "I believe it is a shoulder thing that goes up".

The Bill was referred to the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security on March 19, 2007. As of December 17, 2007, the bill had 60 cosponsors.

Assault Weapons Ban 2008 bill

H.R. 6257 was introduced by Mark Kirk (R IL-10) on June 12, 2008 and seeks to re-instate the Assault Weapons Ban indefinitely as well as to expand the list of banned weapons. Four co-sponsors (as of June 27, 2008) support it:

  • Rep Castle, Michael N. [DE] - 6/12/2008
  • Rep Ferguson, Mike [NJ-7] - 6/12/2008
  • Rep Ros-Lehtinen, Ileana [FL-18] - 6/18/2008
  • Rep Shays, Christopher [CT-4] - 6/12/2008

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