Assault weapons legislation in the United States

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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.

The Federal Assault Weapons Ban enacted in 1994 expired in 2004. Attempts to renew this ban 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 majority of states, forty-three, have no assault weapons ban, although two, Minnesota and Virginia, have training and background check requirements for purchasers of assault weapons that are more stringent than those for ordinary firearms. While there are no statewide assault weapon bans in Colorado and Illinois, local bans exist in certain cities or counties in each of these states. In 2018, most Americans supported a ban on assault weapons, according to polls.[1][2][3]

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.

Federal assault weapons bans[edit]

Expired Assault Weapons Ban of 1994[edit]

In January 1989 34 children and a teacher were shot in Stockton California . Using a semi-automatic AK-47 assault rifle, five children died.[4][5][6]:10 President George H.W. Bush banned the import of semi automatic rifles in March 1989,[7] and made the ban permanent in July of 1989.[8] The assault weapons ban tried to address public concern about mass shootings while limiting the impact on recreational firearms use.[9]:1–2

In November 1993 the ban passed the United States Senate. The author of the ban, Dianne Feinstein D-CA, and other advocates said that it was a weakened version of the original proposal.[10] In January 1994 Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center, said handguns and assault weapons should be banned.[11] In May of that year former presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan wrote to the United States 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.[12] Rep. Jack Brooks, D-TX, then chair of the House Judiciary Committee, tried to remove the ban from the crime bill but failed.[13]

The Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act, commonly called the federal Assault Weapons Ban (AWB and AWB 1994), was enacted in September 1994. The ban, including a ban on high-capacity magazines, became defunct (expired) in September 2004 per a 10-year sunset provision.[citation needed]

Proposed federal assault weapons bans[edit]

Proposed Assault Weapons Ban of 2015[edit]

The proposed bill H.R.4269, the Assault Weapons Ban of 2015,[14] was introduced on December 16 of 2015 to the 114th United States Congress, sponsored by Representative David N. Cicilline[15] of Rhode Island along with 123 original co-sponsors,[16] it currently has 149 co-sponsors,[16] This legislation states that its purpose is "To regulate assault weapons, to ensure that the right to keep and bear arms is not unlimited, and for other purposes."[17]

The proposed legislation targets various firearm accessories, including the barrel shroud (a safety covering for the barrel of the firearm to prevent the operator from burning his or her hands as the barrel becomes heated after the firing of multiple rounds), pistol grip, and certain types of firearm stocks such as telescoping or collapsing stocks.[17] Also included are lists of various classes and models of firearms, including semi-automatic firearms, modern sporting rifles, assault weapons, semi-automatic pistols, semi-automatic shotguns, and others, some of which have already been banned or restricted under existing legislation including grenade launchers.[17] The legislation also proscribes high-capacity magazines.[17]

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[18] In force NoN NoN NoN NoN NoN NoN
Connecticut[19] In force NoN NoN NoN NoN NoN NoN
District of Columbia[20] In force NoN NoN NoN NoN NoN NoN
Hawaii[21] In force NoN NoN NoN
Maryland[22] In force NoN NoN NoN NoN NoN NoN
Massachusetts[23] In force NoN NoN NoN NoN NoN NoN
New Jersey[24] In force NoN NoN NoN NoN NoN NoN
New York[25] 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.[26]

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.[27] 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.[28][29]

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.[30] They are defined in Penal Code §12276.1 and §30515.[31] The bill was passed and went into effect on January 1, 2000.[32]

Connecticut[edit]

In June 1993, Connecticut became the third U.S. state, after California and New Jersey, to pass an assault weapons ban.[33] 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.[34] The law was challenged, but a federal judge upheld it and ruled it constitutional. Gun owners said they would appeal.[35]

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.[19]

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.[19]

Connecticut also bans listed makes and models of semiautomatic firearms and copies of those firearms. Grandfather clauses and other exceptions apply, depending.[19]

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.[21]

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.[36]

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.[22]

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.[37]

The United States Supreme Court refused to hear a challenge to the Maryland ban in November 2017. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond had upheld the ban, stating that: "[A]ssault weapons and large-capacity magazines are not protected by the Second Amendment." Attorneys general in 21 states and the NRA had asked the Supreme Court to hear the case.[38]

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.[23]

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.[39]

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.[40] AR-15 semi-automatic rifles are illegal in New Jersey, and owning and publicly carrying other guns require separate licensing processes.[41]

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."[41]

New York[edit]

New York law bans the manufacture, transport, disposal or possession of 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 from a list of characteristics;
  • A semi-automatic shotgun that has at least one from a list of characteristics; or
  • A revolving cylinder shotgun.[25]

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."[42]

Local assault weapons 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.[43]

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.[44] These include the city of Chicago[45] and Cook County.[46] On December 7, 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States refused to grant a writ of certiorari to take up a challenge brought against a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit which had upheld a local law banning assault weapons and large-capacity magazines in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, Illinois.[47] In refusing to hear the case, the Supreme Court allowed the ruling to stand and the ban to remain in place.

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.[48] Both of these ordinances were invalidated under statewide pre-emption legislation enacted by the Indiana General Assembly and signed into law by Governor Mitch Daniels in 2011.

Massachusetts[edit]

Boston has a law prohibiting the possession or transfer of assault weapons without a license from the Boston Police Commissioner.[49]

Public opinion[edit]

Shortly after the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting, a CBS News poll found that a majority of Americans (57%) supported a ban on assault weapons.[50] Gallup noted a similarly high percentage of Americans thought that a ban would be an effective response to terrorism after the 2015 San Bernardino shooting (55%), and in 2013 when the question was put in a referendum format ("Would you vote for or against a law that would reinstate and strengthen the ban on assault weapons that was in place from 1994 to 2004?") (56% support).[51] But it noted that "Support for stricter gun control laws often rises after high-profile shooting incidents and then often subsides again," and that support for stricter gun controls, although still a majority view, had declined since the early 1990s.[51] By October 2016, support for an assault weapons ban had fallen to a historical low of 36%.[52]

In 2017 68% of American adults supported banning assault weapons, including 48% of gun owners and 77% of non-gun owners, and 38% of Republicans and 66% of Democrats, according to a Pew Research Center survey with an error attributable to sampling of +/- 2.8% at the 95% level of confidence.[53]

In late February early March 2018, after the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, most Americans supported a ban on assault weapons.[2][1][3] 79% of American adults supported banning assault weapons, according to an NPR/Ipsos poll with a margin of error of +/- 3.5%.[2] 68% of American registered voters supported banning assault-style weapons, according to a Politico/Morning Consult poll with a margin of error +/- 2%.[1] 67% of American voters supported a nationwide ban on the sale of assault weapons, according to a Quinnipiac University Polling Institute poll with a margin of error of +/- 3.4%.[3][54] In April 2018 62% of Americans adults support a nationwide ban on the sale of assault weapons, according to an ABC News/Washington Post with a margin of sampling error of 3.5%.[55][56]

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