Assault weapons legislation in the United States

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"Assault weapons ban" redirects here. For other uses, see Assault weapons ban (disambiguation).

Assault weapons legislation in the United States refers to bills and laws (active, expired, proposed or failed) that define and restrict or make illegal the manufacture, transfer, and possession of assault weapons. How these firearms are defined and regulated varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. In 1994, the Justice Department gave this basic definition: "In general, assault weapons are semiautomatic firearms with a large magazine of ammunition that are designed and configured for rapid fire and combat use."[1]

The Federal Assault Weapons Ban (AWB) was enacted in 1994, and expired in 2004. Attempts to renew it have failed, as have attempts to pass a new ban, such as the Assault Weapons Ban of 2013 (AWB 2013). Seven U.S. states have assault weapons bans: three were enacted before the 1994 federal ban and four more passed before the federal ban expired.

The 1994 federal and 1989 state ban in California were prompted by the 1989 Cleveland Elementary School shooting in Stockton, California. Existing and proposed weapon bans come under renewed interest in the wake of mass shootings, most recently after the December 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. In addition to state bans, Washington, D.C., and some U.S. counties and municipalities have assault weapons laws.

History[edit]

In January 1989, 34 children and a teacher were shot in Stockton, Calif., using a semi-automatic replica of an AK-47. Five children died.[2][3][4]:10 President George H.W. Bush banned the import of semiautomatic rifles in March 1989,[5] and made the ban permanent in July.[6]

In May 1989, California became the first state in the U.S. to pass an assault weapons ban,[7] followed by New Jersey 12 months later,[8] and Connecticut in June 1993.[9] A federal-level ban was passed in September 1994, but it expired in 2004. Between its passage and expiration, four more states passed assault weapons bans: Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New York.[10]

In December 2012, 20 children and 6 adults were killed in Newtown, Connecticut using a .223 Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle.[11][12][13]

In January 2013, S. 150, the Assault Weapons Ban of 2013 (AWB 2013), was introduced in the U.S. Senate.[14] The bill was similar to the 1994 ban, but differed in that it used a one-feature test for a firearm to qualify as an assault weapon rather than the two-feature test of the 1994 ban.[15] On April 17, 2013, AWB 2013 failed on a vote of 60 to 40.[16]

Origin and definition of the term assault weapon[edit]

Main article: Assault weapon

How assault weapons are defined and banned varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. The term assault weapon may have been created by the media,[17] or by gun control activists,[18][19] or by the firearms industry itself.[20][21][22][23] The term is sometimes conflated with assault rifle, which refers to military rifles capable of fully automatic fire.[24] (In the U.S., such firearms are regulated by federal and state laws.) In 1994, the U.S. Justice Department gave this basic definition: "In general, assault weapons are semiautomatic firearms with a large magazine of ammunition that were designed and configured for rapid fire and combat use."[1] Gun rights advocates prefer the term modern sporting rifle, which was created by the firearms industry in 2009.[25]

One of the earliest official uses of the term dates to 1985 when California Assemblyman Art Agnos introduced a bill seeking to place restrictions on semi-automatic firearms capable of using detachable magazines of 20 rounds or more.[26] In his bill, AB 1509, these guns were categorized as "assault firearms".[26] Speaking to the Assembly Public Safety Committee Agnos said, "The only use for assault weapons is to shoot people."[27]

Enacted and active[edit]

State assault weapon bans[edit]

U.S. Assault Weapons Bans by Jurisdiction
Jurisdiction Status - By Make/

Model

Semiauto

rifles

Semiauto

pistols

Shotguns Features

test

Magazine

capacity

California[28] In force NoN NoN NoN NoN NoN NoN
Connecticut[29] In force NoN NoN NoN NoN NoN NoN
District of Columbia[30] In force NoN NoN NoN NoN NoN NoN
Hawaii[31] In force NoN NoN NoN
Maryland[32] In force NoN NoN NoN NoN NoN NoN
Massachusetts[33] In force NoN NoN NoN NoN NoN NoN
New Jersey[34] In force NoN NoN NoN NoN NoN NoN
New York[35] In force NoN NoN NoN NoN NoN NoN

Three U.S. states passed assault weapons bans before Congress passed the federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994: California in 1989, New Jersey in 1990, and Connecticut in 1993. Four others passed assault weapons bans before AWB 1994 expired in 2004: Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts and New York.

California[edit]

1989[edit]

In May 1989, California became the first state in the U.S. to pass an assault weapons ban, after the January 1989 Cleveland Elementary School shooting in Stockton.[7] The Roberti-Roos Assault Weapons Control Act of 1989, or AWCA, banned semi-automatic firearms that it classified as assault weapons: over 50 specific brands and models of rifles, pistols, and shotguns. It also banned magazines that it classified as large capacity (those able to hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition). Guns and magazines legally owned at the time the law was passed were grandfathered in if registered with the California Department of Justice.[36][37]

1999[edit]

In March 1999, State Senator Don Perata introduced Senate Bill 23 (SB 23). The bill had three provisions: to make illegal the manufacture, importation, sale or offer, or to give or lend any large-capacity magazine as defined as having the capacity to accept more than ten rounds; the addition of a "generic" definition list to the existing Roberti-Roos legislation; and the exemption to allow on and off duty and retired peace officers the use of assault weapons.[38] They are defined in Penal Code §12276.1 and §30515.[39] The bill was passed and went into effect on January 1, 2000.[40]

Connecticut[edit]

In June 1993, Connecticut became the third U.S. state, after California and New Jersey, to pass an assault weapons ban.[9] In April 2013, four months after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, the Connecticut General Assembly passed new restrictions to the state's existing assault weapons ban.[41] The law was challenged, but a federal judge upheld it and ruled it constitutional. Gun owners said they would appeal.[42]

Connecticut prohibits any person from possessing an assault weapon unless the weapon was possessed prior to July 1, 1994, and the possessor:

  • Was eligible to apply for a certificate of possession for the assault weapon by July 1, 1994;
  • Lawfully possessed the assault weapon prior to October 1, 1993; and
  • Is not in violation of Connecticut General Statutes §§ 53-202a to 53-202k (assault weapon regulations), and Connecticut General Statutes § 53-202o (affirmative defense in prosecution for possession of specified assault weapon). It also prohibits any person from distributing, transporting, importing into the state, keeping, offering or exposing for sale, or giving an assault weapon to any person.[29]

Connecticut defines an "assault weapon" as:

  • Any "selective-fire" firearm capable of fully automatic, semi-automatic or "burst fire" at the option of the user;
  • Any semi-automatic centerfire rifle, regardless of the date produced, that has the ability to accept a detachable magazine and has at least one of the following features: 1) A folding or telescoping stock; 2) Any grip of the weapon, including a pistol grip, thumbhole stock, or other stock that would allow an individual to grip the weapon, resulting in any finger on the trigger hand in addition to the trigger finger being directly below any portion of the action of the weapon when firing; 3) A forward pistol grip; 4) A flash suppressor; or 5) A grenade or flare launcher;
  • A semi-automatic pistol that has an ability to accept a detachable magazine and has at least one of the following features: 1) The ability to accept a detachable ammunition magazine that attaches at some location outside the pistol grip; 2) A threaded barrel capable of accepting a flash suppressor, forward pistol grip or silencer; 3) A shroud that is attached to, or partially or completely encircles, the barrel and that permits the shooter to hold the firearm without being burned (except a slide that encloses the barrel); or 4) A second hand grip;
  • A semi-automatic shotgun that has both of the following features: 1) A folding or telescoping stock; or 2) Any grip of the weapon, including a pistol grip, a thumbhole stock, or any other stock, the use of which would allow an individual to grip the weapon, resulting in any finger on the trigger hand in addition to the trigger finger being directly below any portion of the action of the weapon when firing;
  • A semiautomatic, centerfire rifle that has: 1) a fixed magazine that can accept more than 10 rounds of ammunition; or 2) an overall length of less than 30 inches;
  • A semiautomatic pistol with a fixed magazine that has the ability to accept more than 10 rounds of ammunition;
  • A semiautomatic shotgun that can accept a detachable magazine; or
  • A shotgun with a revolving cylinder.[29]

Connecticut also bans listed makes and models of semiautomatic firearms and copies of those firearms. Grandfather clauses and other exceptions apply, depending.[29]

Hawaii[edit]

Hawaiian law bans the manufacture, possession, sale or other transfer of what it defines as assault pistols. Hawaii defines an "assault pistol" as a semiautomatic handgun that accepts a detachable magazine and that has two or more of:

  • An ammunition magazine that attaches to the pistol outside of the pistol grip;
  • A threaded barrel capable of accepting a barrel extender, flash suppressor, forward hand grip, or silencer;
  • A shroud that is attached to or partially or completely encircles the barrel and that permits the shooter to hold the firearm with the second hand without being burned;
  • A manufactured weight of 50 ounces or more when the pistol is unloaded;
  • A centerfire pistol with an overall length of 12 inches or more; or
  • A semiautomatic version of an automatic firearm.[31]

In tandem with the assault pistol ban is a law that bans the manufacture, possession, sale or other transfer of detachable ammunition magazines with capacities greater than 10 rounds that are capable of use with a pistol.[43]

Hawaii was one of seven U.S. states to have an assault weapons ban in place prior to the September 2004 sunset of the now defunct federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994.[10]

Maryland[edit]

Maryland law prohibits the possession, sale, transfer, purchase, receipt, or transportation into the state of assault weapons defined as assault pistols and assault long guns. Maryland's definition of an "assault long gun" includes a list of 45 specific firearms or their copies, with certain variations. Maryland's definition of an "assault pistol" includes a list of 15 specific firearms or their copies, with certain variations. Maryland also defines an assault weapon "copycat weapon" as:

  • A semiautomatic centerfire rifle that can accept a detachable magazine and has any two of the following: a folding stock; a grenade or flare launcher; or a flash suppressor;
  • A semiauto centerfire rifle that has a fixed magazine with the capacity to accept more than 10 rounds;
  • A semiauto centerfire rifle that has an overall length of less than 29 inches;
  • A semiauto pistol with a fixed magazine that can accept more than 10 rounds;
  • A semiauto shotgun that has a folding stock; or
  • A shotgun with a revolving cylinder.[32]

In tandem with the assault weapons ban is a law that bans the manufacture, possession, sale or other transfer of detachable magazines with capacities greater than 20 rounds.[44]

Maryland was one of seven U.S. states to have an assault weapons ban in place prior to the September 2004 sunset of the now defunct federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994.[10]

Massachusetts[edit]

Massachusetts law bans the sale, transfer, or possession of assault weapons not otherwise lawfully possessed on September 13, 1994. Massachusetts defines "assault weapon" by the definition of "semiautomatic assault weapon" in the federal assault weapons ban of 1994. That definition included:

  • A list of firearms by name and copies of those firearms;
  • Semi-automatic rifles and pistols capable of accepting a detachable magazine and having at least two specified characteristics; and
  • Semi-automatic shotguns having at least two specified characteristics.[33]

In tandem with the assault weapons ban is a law that bans the sale, transfer, or possession of a large capacity feeding device unless such device was lawfully possessed on September 13, 1994. The definition of "large capacity feeding device" included: a fixed or detachable magazine, box, drum, feed strip or similar device capable of accepting, or that can be readily converted to accept, more than 10 rounds of ammunition or more than 5 shotgun shells; or a large capacity ammunition feeding device as defined in the federal assault weapons ban of 1994.[45]

Massachusetts was one of seven U.S. states to have an assault weapons ban in place prior to the September 2004 sunset of the now defunct federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994.[10]

New Jersey[edit]

In May 1990, New Jersey became the second state in the U.S. to pass an assault weapons ban, after California. At the time, it was the toughest assault weapons ban in the nation.[8] AR-15 platform, semi-automatic rifles are illegal in New Jersey, and owning and publicly carrying other guns require separate licensing processes.[46]

Although it is commonly referred to as an assault weapons ban, New Jersey's law actually uses the term "assault firearm" to define banned and regulated guns. Some New Jersey gun advocates have called its laws "draconian." Attorney Evan Nappen, author of several books on New Jersey gun laws, says the term is "misapplied and carries with it a pejorative meaning."[46]

New York[edit]

New York law bans the manufacture, transport, disposal or possession an assault weapon in the state. It defines an "assault weapon" as:

  • A semi-automatic rifle or pistol able to accept a detachable magazine and that has at least one of from a list of characteristics;
  • A semi-automatic shotgun that has at least one from a list of characteristics; or
  • A revolving cylinder shotgun.[35]

In tandem with the assault weapons ban is a law that bans the manufacture, transport, disposal or possession of a "large capacity ammunition feeding device," defined as: "a magazine, belt, drum, feed strip, or similar device that: 1) has a capacity of, or that can be readily restored or converted to accept, more than ten rounds of ammunition; 2) contains more than seven rounds of ammunition; or 3) is obtained after January 15, 2013 and has a capacity of, or can be readily restored or converted to accept more than seven rounds of ammunition."[47]

New York was one of seven U.S. states to have an assault weapons ban in place prior to the September 2004 sunset of the now defunct federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994.[10]

County and municipal bans[edit]

Some local governments have laws that ban or restrict the possession of assault weapons.

District of Columbia[edit]

A Washington, D.C. law banning the possession of assault weapons was upheld by a federal appeals court in 2011.[48]

Illinois[edit]

The law that set up Illinois' concealed carry system in 2013 also established state preemption for certain areas of gun law, including restrictions on assault weapons. Laws passed before July 20, 2013 are grandfathered in, and a number of local governments in the Chicago area have laws that either prohibit or regulate the possession of firearms that they define as assault weapons.[49] These include the city of Chicago[50] and Cook County.[51]

Indiana[edit]

In March 1989 the Northwest Indiana cities of Gary and East Chicago city councils passed ordinances prohibiting both sale and possession of assault weapons. Gary City Councilman Vernon G. Smith (D-4th) sponsored the ordinance making it a crime to possess or sell assault-type weapons. [52]

Massachusetts[edit]

Boston has a law prohibiting the possession or transfer of assault weapons without a license from the Boston Police Commissioner.[53]

Expired and inactive[edit]

Federal Assault Weapons Ban[edit]

The assault weapons ban tried to address public concern about mass shootings while limiting the impact on recreational firearms use.[54]:1–2

In November 1993, the ban passed the U.S. Senate, although its author, Dianne Feinstein, D-CA, and other advocates said that it was a weakened version of the original proposal.[55] In January 1994, Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center, said handguns and assault weapons should be banned.[56] In May of that year, former presidents Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan, wrote to the U.S. House of Representatives in support of banning "semi-automatic assault guns." They cited a 1993 CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll that found 77 percent of Americans supported a ban on the manufacture, sale, and possession of such weapons.[57] Rep. Jack Brooks, D-TX, then chair of the House Judiciary Committee, tried to remove the ban from the crime bill but failed.[58]

The Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act, commonly called the Federal Assault Weapons Ban (AWB 1994), was enacted in September 1994. Its two primary provisions banned: semi-automatic firearms that had two "military-style" features, and large-capacity magazines (LCMs, also called high-capacity magazines).[59] The ban only applied to weapons and magazines manufactured after the law's enactment; possession and transfer of weapons and magazines legally owned before enactment was not restricted. Critics of the assault weapon definition said that, on civilian guns, military features were largely cosmetic.[60]

The ban, including the ban on high-capacity magazines, became defunct (expired) in September 2004 per a 10-year sunset provision. Proposals in 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2008 to reauthorize or reinstitute the ban were not passed.

Proposed and failed[edit]

1985 - California[edit]

In March 1985, state Assemblyman Art Agnos (D-San Francisco) introduced Assembly Bill 1509 which would prohibit the sale of firearms that can be converted to automatic weapons or machine guns.[61] The proposed legislation would have made it illegal to manufacture, import, sell, transport or transfer an "assault firearm" or their ammunition magazines. Anyone who owned such a firearm once the bill became law could keep them. Anyone wishing to purchase this type of firearm would be required to obtain a special permit from the attorney general similar to those issued for machine guns. At the time the bill was introduced, the only people with such permits were film makers and weapons designers.[27]

The bill was introduced after a 1984 shooting incident at a McDonalds restaurant in San Ysidro, CA where a semi-automatic version of machine gun was used.[27] This bill would have been in addition to existing laws that made possession of machine guns and "semi-automatic to automatic" conversion kits serious felonies in California.[26]

The following month, the bill passed through the Ways and Means Committee[26] and was approved by the Assembly Public Safety Committee with the support of law enforcement officials although it was opposed by the National Rifle Association.[27] In the same session, the committee endorsed an anti-street gang measure by Assemblywoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) that would have allowed authorities to charge a minor with a felony for possessing a concealable weapon without parental consent. At the time the crime was a misdemeanor. The bill was sponsored by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and gave prosecutors and judges the ability to decide whether a minor should be charged with a misdemeanor or a felony punishable by up to three years in prison.[27]

The original text of AB 1509 included .22 caliber rimfire firearms, but was changed to include the following specific types of ammunition: 9mm, .45 caliber, .308 caliber, .380 caliber, .223 caliber or 5.56mm NATO cartridges.[26]

When AB1509 came for a vote for the first time before the California Assembly 45 assemblymen voted against it and was later designated as "inactive".[62]

2012 - California[edit]

In May 2012, state Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) together with fellow Senator Kevin de León introduced Senate Bill 249 (SB 249) which became known as the "bullet button" bill.[63] The bill was an attempt to close a loophole in one of the state's gun control laws.[64] At the time it was illegal for manufacturers to sell certain guns with detachable magazines or the capacity that allows for repeat firing. Some manufacturers had been selling firearms with tools, or conversion kits, that allowed it to be reloaded quickly. The purpose of SB 249 was to ban such devices, including "bullet buttons."[65] Yee stated, "Absent this bill, California's assault weapon ban is significantly weakened. For the safety of the general public, we must close this loophole."[64] The bill made its way through the Public Safety Committee and others, but ultimately died without further action in November of 2012.[66]

On December 18, four days after the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, Senator Yee introduced Senate Bill 47 (SB 47) to modify the existing California assault weapons law.[67] The modification would have added to the prohibited list any firearm that has a fixed magazine in addition to the assault weapons that are equipped with detachable magazine.[68] The bill was suspended by the Appropriations Committee in August 2013.[67]

2013 - Federal[edit]

Efforts to pass a new federal assault weapons ban were renewed on December 14, 2012, after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut[11][12][13] - the deadliest primary or secondary school shooting in U.S. history.[69] On January 24, 2013, Dianne Feinstein introduced S. 150, the Assault Weapons Ban of 2013 (AWB 2013), in the U.S. Senate.[14] The bill was similar to the 1994 federal ban, but differed in that it used a one-feature test for a firearm to qualify as an assault weapon rather than the two-feature test of the 1994 ban.[15] On April 17, 2013, AWB 2013 failed on a Senate vote of 60 to 40.[16]

References[edit]

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