Federal Assault Weapons Ban
The now defunct Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act, commonly known as the Federal Assault Weapons Ban (AWB), was a subsection of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, a federal law in the United States that included a prohibition on the manufacture for civilian use of certain semi-automatic firearms it defined as "assault weapons". The 10-year ban was passed by the U.S. Congress on September 13, 1994, and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton the same day. The ban only applied to weapons manufactured after the date of the ban's enactment.
The Act expired on September 13, 2004, per its sunset provision. Several constitutional challenges were filed against provisions of the ban, but all were rejected by reviewing courts. There were multiple attempts to renew the ban, but none succeeded.
Efforts to create a federal assault weapons restrictions intensified in 1989 after 34 children and a teacher were shot and five children killed in Stockton, Calif., using a semi-automatic replica of an AK-47 assault rifle.The July 1993 101 California Street shooting also contributed to passage of the ban. The shooter killed eight people and wound six. Two of the three firearms he used were TEC-9 semi-automatic handguns with Hellfire triggers. The ban tried to address public concerns about mass shootings by restricting firearms that met the criteria for what it defined as a "semiautomatic assault weapon," as well as magazines that met the criteria for what it defined as a "large capacity ammunition feeding device.":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. In May 1994, former presidents Gerald 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.
Rep. Jack Brooks, D-TX, then chair of the House Judiciary Committee, tried to remove the ban from the crime bill but failed. The National Rifle Association (NRA) opposed the ban. In November 1993, NRA spokesman Bill McIntyre said that semi-automatic weapons were used in only 1 percent of crimes, but 2 million times a year by citizens for self-defense. The low usage statistic was supported in a 1999 Department of Justice brief.
The ban passed in September 1994 and expired in 2004 due to its sunset provision.
Criteria of an assault weapon
Within the context of this law, the term assault weapon refers primarily to semi-automatic firearms that possess certain cosmetic features of an assault rifle that is fully automatic. Actually possessing the operational features, such as 'full-auto', changes the classification from assault weapons to Title II weapons. The mere possession of cosmetic features was enough to warrant classification as an assault weapon. Semi-automatic firearms, when fired, automatically extract the spent cartridge casing and load the next cartridge into the chamber, ready to fire again. They do not fire automatically like a machine gun. Rather, only one round is fired with each trigger pull.
In this expired U.S. law, the legal term assault weapon included certain specific semi-automatic firearm models by name, and other semi-automatic firearms because they possessed a minimum set from the following list of features:
- Semi-automatic rifles able to accept detachable magazines and two or more of the following:
- Semi-automatic pistols with detachable magazines and two or more of the following:
- Semi-automatic shotguns with two or more of the following:
- Folding or telescoping stock
- Pistol grip
- Detachable magazine.
The ban defined the following semi-automatic firearms, as well as any copies or duplicates of them in any caliber, as assault weapons:
|Name of firearm||Preban federal legal status|
|Norinco, Mitchell, and Poly Technologies Avtomat Kalashnikovs (AKs) (all models)||Imports banned in 1989*|
|Action Arms Israeli Military Industries UZI and Galil||Imports banned in 1989*|
|Beretta AR-70 (SC-70)||Imports banned in 1989*|
|Fabrique National FN/FAL, FN-LAR, FNC||Imports banned in 1989*|
|SWD (MAC type) M-10, M-11, M11/9, M12||Legal|
|Steyr AUG||Imports banned in 1989*|
|INTRATEC TEC-9, TEC-DC9, TEC-22||Legal|
|Revolving cylinder shotguns such as (or similar to) the Street Sweeper and Striker 12||Legal|
Bush's 1989 ban was on the importation of foreign-made, semiautomatic assault rifles deemed not to have "a legitimate sporting use." It did not affect similar but domestically manufactured rifles.
Provisions of the ban
During the ban, it was illegal to manufacture any firearm that met the definition of a semiautomatic assault weapon or large capacity ammunition feeding device except for export or sale to a government or law enforcement agency. The law also banned possession of illegally imported or manufactured firearms, but did not ban possession or sale of pre-existing 'assault weapons' or previously factory standard magazines that were legally redefined as large capacity ammunition feeding devices. This provision for pre-ban firearms created higher prices in the market for such items.
The Act defined the criteria for classifying firearms as 'assault weapons', and subjected firearms that met that classification to regulation. Nineteen models of firearms were defined by name as being 'assault weapons' regardless of how many features they had. 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 have been regulated by the National Firearms Act of 1934 and Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986.
The Act defined and banned 'large capacity ammunition feeding devices', which generally applied to magazines or other ammunition feeding devices with capacities of greater than a certain number of rounds, and that up to the time of the Act were considered normal or factory magazines. Media and popular culture referred to these as 'high capacity magazines or feeding devices'. Depending on the locality and type of firearm, the cutoff between a 'normal' capacity and 'high' capacity magazine was 3, 7, 10, 12, 15, or 20 rounds. The now defunct federal ban set the limit at 10 rounds.
Following the expiration of the Assault Weapons Ban in 2004, the NRA Institute for Legislative Action referred to the features affected by the ban as cosmetic. Similarly, the Violence Policy Center released a statement saying, in part, "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."
A February 2013 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report to Congress said that the "Assault Weapons Ban of 1994 was unsuccessfully challenged as violating several constitutional provisions." The report said that challenges to three constitutional provisions were easily dismissed.:7 The ban did not make up an impermissible Bill of Attainder.:31 It was not unconstitutionally vague. And it was not incompatible with the Ninth Amendment.
Challenges to two other provisions took more time to decide.:7
In evaluating challenges to the ban under the Commerce Clause, the court first evaluated Congress' authority to regulate under the clause, and second analyzed the ban's prohibitions on manufacture, transfer, and possession. The court held that "it is not even arguable that the manufacture and transfer of 'semiautomatic assault weapons' for a national market cannot be regulated as activity substantially affecting interstate commerce.":8-9:12 It also held that the "purpose of the ban on possession has an 'evident commercial nexus.'":9:14
The law was also challenged under the Equal Protection Clause. It was argued that it banned some semi-automatic weapons that were functional equivalents of exempted semi-automatic weapons and that to do so based upon a mix of other characteristics served no legitimate governmental interest. The reviewing court held that it was "entirely rational for Congress ... to choose to ban those weapons commonly used for criminal purposes and to exempt those weapons commonly used for recreational purposes.":10 It also found that each characteristic served to make the weapon "potentially more dangerous," and were not "commonly used on weapons designed solely for hunting.":10-11
The federal assault weapons ban was never directly challenged under the Second Amendment. Since its expiration in 2004 there has been debate on how it would fare in light of cases decided in following years, especially District of Columbia v. Heller (2008).
Expiration and effect on crime
The Task Force on Community Preventive Services, an independent, non-federal task force, examined an assortment of firearms laws, including the AWB, and found "insufficient evidence to determine the effectiveness of any of the firearms laws reviewed for preventing violence."  A 2004 critical review of firearms research by a National Research Council committee said that an academic study of the assault weapon ban "did not reveal any clear impacts on gun violence outcomes." The committee noted that the study's authors said the guns were used criminally with relative rarity before the ban and that its maximum potential effect on gun violence outcomes would be very small.
In 2004, a research report submitted to the United States Department of Justice and the National Institute of Justice found that should the ban be renewed, its effects on gun violence would likely be small, and perhaps too small for reliable measurement, because rifles in general, including rifles referred to as "assault rifles" or "assault weapons", are rarely used in gun crimes. That study by Christopher S. Koper, Daniel J. Woods, and Jeffrey A. Roth of the Jerry Lee Center of Criminology, University of Pennsylvania found no statistically significant evidence that either the assault weapons ban or the ban on magazines holding more than 10 rounds had reduced gun murders. However, they concluded that it was "premature to make definitive assessments of the ban's impact on gun crime," and argue that if the ban had been in effect for more than nine years, benefits might have begun to appear.
Research by John Lott in the 2000 second edition of More Guns, Less Crime provided the first research on state bans, and the federal assault weapon ban. The 2010 third edition provided the first empirical research on the 2004 sunset of the Federal Assault Weapon Ban. Generally, the research found no impact of these bans on violent crime rates, though the third edition provided some evidence that assault weapon bans slightly increased murder rates. Lott's book The Bias Against Guns provided evidence that the bans reduced the number of gun shows by over 20 percent. Koper, Woods, and Roth studies focus on gun murders, while Lott's looks at murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assaults. Unlike their work, Lott's research accounted for state assault weapon bans and 12 other different types of gun control laws.
The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence examined the impact of the Assault Weapons Ban in its 2004 report, On Target: The Impact of the 1994 Federal Assault Weapon Act. Examining 1.4 million guns involved in crime, "in the five-year period before enactment of the Federal Assault Weapons Act (1990-1994), assault weapons named in the Act constituted 4.82% of the crime gun traces ATF conducted nationwide. Since the law’s enactment, however, these assault weapons have made up only 1.61% of the guns ATF has traced to crime. Page 10 of the Brady report, however, adds that "an evaluation of copycat weapons is necessary". Including "copycat weapons", the report concluded that "in the post-ban period, the same group of guns has constituted 3.1% of ATF traces, a decline of 45%." A spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) stated that he "can in no way vouch for the validity" of the report.
Research by Arindrajit Dube, Oeindrila Dube, and Omar Garcia-Ponce (2013) in the American Political Science Review states that lifting the U.S. Assault Weapons Ban increased homicides in Mexico. The 2004 expiration of the Assault Weapons Ban exerted a spillover on gun availability in Mexican municipalities near Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, but not near California, which retained a state-level ban. The authors find that Mexican municipalities located closer to the non-California border experienced differential increases in homicides: "We find substantial increases in homicides as well as homicides tied specifically to guns. Homicides rose by 60% more in municipios at the non-California entry ports, as compared to municipios 100 miles away, suggesting that the policy change induced at least 238 additional deaths annually in the area located within 100 miles of the border ports."
Efforts to renew the ban
Since the assault weapons ban expired on September 13, 2004, legislation to renew the ban has been proposed a number of times unsuccessfully.
On March 2, 2004, the Senate voted down the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (a bill to bar firearms manufacturers and dealers from being held liable for crimes committed with their products) after a ten-year extension of the assault weapons ban was attached to it, sponsored by Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California. The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act was subsequently passed in 2005 without a renewal of the assault weapons ban.
In 2003, 2005, and 2007, Representative Carolyn McCarthy, Democrat of New York, introduced a bill that would have renewed the assault weapons ban for an additional ten years, and would have revised the definition of 'semiautomatic assault weapon' to include any gun with a detachable magazine and only ONE or more of the listed features. The bill never left committee. In 2008, Representative Mark Kirk, Republican of Illinois, also introduced a bill to reinstate the assault weapons ban for ten years and expand the list of banned weapons. It too died in committee.
Shortly after the November 4, 2008 election, Change.gov, the website of the office of then President-elect Barack Obama, listed a detailed agenda for the forthcoming administration. The stated positions included "making the expired federal Assault Weapons Ban permanent." This statement was originally published on Barack Obama's campaign website, BarackObama.com. The agenda statement later appeared on the administration's website, WhiteHouse.gov, with its wording intact.
On February 25, 2009 newly sworn-in Attorney General Eric Holder repeated the Obama administration's desire to reinstate the federal assault weapons ban. The mention came in response to a question during a joint press conference with DEA Acting Administrator Michele Leonhart, discussing efforts to crack down on Mexican drug cartels. Attorney General Holder said: "... there are just a few gun-related changes that we would like to make, and among them would be to reinstitute the ban on the sale of assault weapons."
Senator Dianne Feinstein introduced a federal assault weapons ban bill in the U.S. Senate following the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. The bill had a provision to eliminate the sunset clause which was part of the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban, and would have been directed at firearms with detachable magazines and at least one single military feature. The GOP Congressional delegation from the State of Texas condemned Sen. Feinstein's bill, along with the NRA. On March 14, 2013, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a version of the bill along party lines. On April 17, 2013, the Senate voted 60 to 40 against reinstating the federal assault weapons ban.
- Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act, H.R.3355, 103rd Congress (1993-1994), Government Printing Office. Retrieved January 26, 2013.
- H.R. 2038, H.R. 3831, H.R. 5099, H.R. 1312, H.R. 1022, H.R. 6257
- "Senate restricts assault weapon imports, production". The Pittsburgh Press. Associated Press. May 23, 1990. p. A13. Retrieved September 30, 2013.
A campaign for curbs on assault weapons began in January 1989 after a deranged gunman with an AK-47 semiautomatic assault rifle opened fire on a Stockton, Calif., school yard at recess time, leaving five children dead and 30 wounded.
- Pazniokas, Mark (December 20, 1993). "One Gun's Journey Into A Crime". The Courant (Hartford, Connecticut). Retrieved September 30, 2013.
The campaign to ban assault weapons began Jan. 17, 1989, after Patrick Purdy shot 34 children and a teacher in a Stockton, Calif., schoolyard, using a semiautomatic replica of an AK-47 assault rifle.
- More Stockton schoolyard shooting sources:
- Adams, Jane Meredith (May 29, 1995). "Sparked By School Massacre, Gun Debate Still Rages". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved March 17, 2014.
Every murder horrifies, but the massacre of five children as they ran screaming that sunny January morning, and the wounding of 30 others, including a teacher, packed such emotional power it ignited the nascent anti-assault weapons movement.
- Roth, Jeffrey A.; Koper, Christopher S. (1997). "Impact Evaluation of the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act of 1994". Washington, D.C.: The Urban Institute. Retrieved September 30, 2013.
Nonetheless, the involvement of assault weapons in a number of mass murder incidents such as those discussed above [including the Stockton schoolyard shooting] provided an important impetus to the movement to ban assault weapons.:12
- Cowan, Lee (December 16, 2012). "1989 Calif. school shooting led to assault weapons ban". CBS News. Retrieved March 17, 2014.
- Johnson, Kevin (April 2, 2013). "Stockton school massacre: A tragically familiar pattern". USA Today. Retrieved March 17, 2014.
Like Newtown, the Stockton shooting helped prompt a heated national debate about gun control, culminating in a landmark, 10-year federal ban on assault weapons, which expired in 2004.
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...the inclusion in the list of features that were purely cosmetic in nature created a loophole that allowed manufacturers to successfully circumvent the law by making minor modifications to the weapons they already produced.
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[The National Rifle Association] says the ban created an artificial distinction between 'assault weapons' and other semi-automatic weapons, based almost entirely on cosmetic features. This is largely true.
- More cosmetic sources:
- McArdle, Megan (November 12, 2012). "Just Say No to Dumb Gun Laws". The Daily Beast.
... 'assault weapon' is a largely cosmetic rather than functional description.
- Kopel, David (December 17, 2012). "Guns, Mental Illness and Newtown". Wall Street Journal.
None of the guns that the Newtown murderer used was an assault weapon under Connecticut law. This illustrates the uselessness of bans on so-called assault weapons, since those bans concentrate on guns' cosmetics, such as whether the gun has a bayonet lug, rather than their function.
- Yager, Jordy (January 16, 2013). "The problem with 'assault weapons'". The Hill.
Gun companies quickly realized they could stay within the law and continue to make rifles with high-capacity magazine clips if they steered away from the cosmetic features mentioned in the law.
- Sullum, Jacob (January 30, 2013). "What's an Assault Weapon?". Reason.
The distinguishing characteristics of 'assault weapons' are mainly cosmetic and have little or no functional significance in the context of mass shootings or ordinary gun crimes.
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- Navegar Inc v U.S. (D.C. Cir. 2000) (“... ORDERED by the Court that appellants' petition is denied.”). Text
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- United States v. Starr, 945 F. Supp. 257 (M.D. Ga. 1996) (“Accordingly, the statute is not unconstitutionally vague and Defendant Starr's motion is hereby DENIED.”).
- San Diego Gun Rights Comm. v. Reno, 98 F.3d 1121 (9th Cir. 1996) (“To grant plaintiffs standing to challenge the constitutionality of the Crime Control Act in the circumstances of this case would eviscerate the core standing requirements of Article III and throw all prudential caution to the wind.”).
- Olympic Arms v. Buckles, 301 F.3d 384 (6th Cir. 2002) (“Accordingly, it is entirely rational for Congress, in an effort to protect public safety, to choose to ban those weapons commonly used for criminal purposes and to exempt those weapons commonly used for recreational purposes.”).
- Olympic Arms v. Buckles, 301 F.3d 384 (6th Cir. 2002) (“Each of the individual enumerated features makes a weapon potentially more dangerous. Additionally, the features are not commonly used on weapons designed solely for hunting.”).
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