Federal Assault Weapons Ban
The Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act or Federal Assault Weapons Ban (AWB) was a subsection of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, a United States federal law which included a prohibition on the manufacture for civilian use of certain semi-automatic firearms that were defined as assault weapons as well as certain ammunition magazines that were defined as large capacity.
The 10-year ban was passed by the U.S. Congress on August 25, 1994 and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton on September 13, 1994. The ban applied only to weapons manufactured after the date of the ban's enactment. It expired on September 13, 2004, in accordance with its sunset provision. Several constitutional challenges were filed against provisions of the ban, but all were rejected by the courts. There have been multiple attempts to renew the ban, but none have succeeded.
Criminologists and other researchers found that the ban had little to no effect on firearm deaths or the lethality of gun crimes. Studies have found that the overwhelming majority of gun crimes are committed with weapons which are not covered by the AWB, and that assault weapons are less likely to be used in homicides than other weapons. There is tentative evidence that the frequency of mass shootings may have slightly decreased while the ban was in effect, but research is inconclusive, with independent researchers finding conflicting results.
Efforts to create restrictions on assault weapons at the federal government level intensified in 1989 after the shooting of a teacher and 34 children, five of whom died, in Stockton, California, with a semi-automatic Kalashnikov-pattern rifle. The Luby's shooting in October 1991, which left 23 people dead and 27 wounded, was another factor. The July 1993 101 California Street shooting that killed eight people and wounded six, also contributed to passage of the ban. Two of the three firearms he used were TEC-9 semi-automatic handguns with Hell-Fire 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 proposed legislation passed the U.S. Senate. The bill's 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.
US Representative Jack Brooks (D-TX), then chair of the House Judiciary Committee, tried unsuccessfully to remove the assault weapons ban section from the crime bill. The National Rifle Association (NRA) opposed the ban. In November 1993, NRA spokesman Bill McIntyre said that assault weapons "are used in only 1 percent of all crimes." The low usage statistic was supported in a 1999 Department of Justice brief. The legislation passed in September 1994 with the assault weapon ban section expiring in 2004 due to its sunset provision.
The Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Act was enacted as part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. The prohibitions expired on September 13, 2004.
The Act prohibited the manufacture, transfer, or possession of "semiautomatic assault weapons," as defined by the Act. "Weapons banned were identified either by specific make or model (including copies or duplicates thereof, in any caliber), or by specific characteristics that slightly varied according to whether the weapon was a pistol, rifle, or shotgun" (see below). The Act also prohibited the manufacture of "large capacity ammunition feeding devices" (LCAFDs) except for sale to government, law enforcement or military, though magazines made before the effective date ("pre-ban" magazines) were legal to possess & transfer. An LCAFD was defined as "any magazine, belt, drum, feed strip, or similar device manufactured after the date [of the act] that has the capacity of, or that can be readily restored or converted to accept, more than 10 rounds of ammunition."
The Act included a number of exemptions and exclusions from its prohibitions:
- The Act included a "grandfather clause" to allow for possession and transfer of weapons and ammunition that "were otherwise lawfully possessed on the date of enactment."
- Ex post facto laws that do not allow grandfathering are expressly forbidden by the United States Constitution (Article 1, Section 9, Clause 3 with respect to federal laws, and Article 1, Section 10 with respect to state laws), and thus would have likely resulted in more legal and political challenges.
- The Act exempted some 650 firearm types or models (including their copies and duplicates) which would be considered manufactured in October 1993. The list included the Ruger Mini-14 Auto Loading Rifle without side folding stock, Ruger Mini Thirty Rifle, Iver Johnson M-1 Carbine, Marlin Model 9 Camp Carbine, Marlin Model 45 Carbine, and others. The complete list is in section 110106, Appendix A to section 922 of Title 18. This list was non-exhaustive.
- The Act "also exempted any firearm that (1) is manually operated by bolt, pump, lever, or slide action; (2) has been rendered permanently inoperable; or (3) is an antique firearm."
- The Act "also did not apply to any semiautomatic rifle that cannot accept a detachable magazine that holds more than ten rounds of ammunition or semiautomatic shotguns that cannot hold more than five rounds of ammunition in a fixed or detachable magazine." Tubular magazine fed rimfire guns were exempted regardless of tubular magazine capacity.
- The Act provided an exemption for the use of "semiautomatic assault weapons and LCAFDs to be manufactured for, transferred to, and possessed by law enforcement and for authorized testing or experimentation purposes" as well as transfers for federal-security purposes under the Atomic Energy Act and "possession by retired law enforcement officers who are not otherwise a prohibited possessor under law."
In 1989, the George H. W. Bush administration had banned the importation of foreign-made, semiautomatic rifles deemed not to have "a legitimate sporting use." It did not affect similar but domestically-manufactured rifles. (The Gun Control Act of 1968 gives discretion to the Attorney General of the United States to choose whether to "authorize a firearm or ammunition to be imported or brought into the United States," under what is known as "the sporting purposes test.") Following the enactment of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, the ATF determined that "certain semiautomatic assault rifles could no longer be imported even though they were permitted to be imported under the 1989 'sporting purposes test' because they had been modified to remove all of their military features other than the ability to accept a detachable magazine" and so in April 1998, it "prohibited the importation of 56 such rifles, determining that they did not meet the 'sporting purposes test.'"
Definition of assault weapon
Under the Assault Weapons Ban of 1994, the definition of "assault weapon" included specific semi-automatic firearm models by name, and other semi-automatic firearms that possessed two or more from a set certain features:
- Semi-automatic rifles able to accept detachable magazines and has two or more of the following:
- 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 suppressor
- Barrel shroud safety feature that prevents burns to the operator
- A manufactured weight of 50 ounces (1.41kg) or more when the pistol is unloaded
- A semi-automatic version of a fully automatic firearm.
- Semi-automatic shotguns with two or more of the following:
- Folding or telescoping stock
- Pistol grip
- A fixed magazine capacity in excess of 5 rounds
- Detachable magazine.
The law also categorically banned the following makes and models of semi-automatic firearms and any copies or duplicates of them, in any caliber:
|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|
Gun control advocates and gun rights advocates have referred to at least some of the features outlined in the federal Assault Weapon Ban of 1994 as cosmetic. The NRA Institute for Legislative Action and the Violence Policy Center both used the term in publications that were released by them in September 2004, when the ban expired. In May 2012, the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence said that "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." The term was repeated in several stories after the 2012 Aurora, Colorado shooting and the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Senator Marco Rubio cited that issue during a town hall forum, responding to questions from survivors of the 2018 Stoneman-Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida.
Several constitutional challenges were filed against provisions of the ban, but all were rejected by the courts. There were multiple attempts to renew the ban, but none succeeded.
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" but 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. Also, it was ruled to be compatible with the Ninth Amendment by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
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's authority to regulate under the clause and then 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 2004 expiration, there has been debate on how the ban would fare in light of cases decided in following years, especially District of Columbia v. Heller (2008).
Studies of firearm homicides, mass shootings, violence
A 2019 DiMaggio et al. study looked at mass shooting data for 1981 to 2017 and found that mass-shooting fatalities were 70% less likely to occur during the 1994 to 2004 federal ban period, and that the ban was associated with a 0.1% reduction in total firearm homicide fatalities due to the reduction in mass-shootings' contribution to total homicides.
A 2018 Rand review found four studies that looked at the impact of mass shootings on assault weapon laws, and the impact of assault weapon laws on mass shootings. They concluded that "Gius (2015c) found that these bans significantly reduce mass shooting deaths but have uncertain effects on injuries resulting from mass shootings. Using similar models, however, Gius (2018) found that assault weapon bans resulted in significantly fewer casualties (deaths and nonfatal injuries) from school shootings. Using a data set similar to that used in Gius (2015c), Luca, Malhotra, and Poliquin (2016) found uncertain effects of state assault weapon bans on the annual incidence of mass shootings. And Blau, Gorry, and Wade (2016) found that the bans significantly reduced the annual incidence of mass shootings."
A 2017 review found that there was no evidence that the Federal Assault Weapons Ban had a significant effect on firearm homicides.
According to research done by the Violence Policy Center, in 2016 one in four law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty were killed by an assault weapon. A 2018 study examined the types of crime guns recovered by law enforcement in ten different cities and found that assault weapons and semiautomatic guns outfitted with large capacity magazines generally accounted for between 22 to 36% of crime guns recovered by police.
A 2015 study by Mark Gius, professor of economics at Quinnipiac University, studied the law's impact on public mass shootings. Gius defined this subset of mass shootings as those occurring in a relatively public place, targeted random victims, were not otherwise related to a crime (a robbery or act of terrorism), and that involved four or more victim fatalities. Gius found that while assault weapons were not the primary weapon used in this subset of mass shootings, fatalities and injuries were statistically lower during the period the federal ban was active. The 2018 Rand analysis noted that the federal law portion of this analysis lacked a comparison group.
A 2015 study found a small decrease in the rate of mass shootings followed by increases beginning after the ban was lifted.
A 2014 study found no impacts on homicide rates with an assault weapon ban. A 2014 book published by Oxford University Press noted that "There is no compelling evidence that [the ban] saved lives," but added that "a more stringent or longer-lasting ban might well have been more effective."
A 2013 study showed that the expiration of the FAWB in 2004 "led to immediate violence increases within areas of Mexico located close to American states where sales of assault weapons became legal. The estimated effects are sizable... the additional homicides stemming from the FAWB expiration represent 21% of all homicides in these municipalities during 2005 and 2006."
In 2013, Christopher S. Koper, a criminology scholar, reviewed the literature on the ban's effects and concluded that its effects on crimes committed with assault weapons were mixed due to its various loopholes. He stated that the ban did not seem to affect gun crime rates, and suggested that it might have been able to reduce shootings if it had been renewed in 2004.
In 2004, a research report commissioned by the National Institute of Justice found that if the ban was renewed, the 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 the Jerry Lee Center of Criminology, University of Pennsylvania, found no significant evidence that either the assault weapons ban or the ban on magazines holding more than 10 rounds had reduced gun murders. The report found that the share of gun crimes involving assault weapons had declined by 17 to 72 percent in the studied localities. The authors reported that "there has been no discernible reduction in the lethality and injuriousness of gun violence, based on indicators like the percentage of gun crimes resulting in death or the share of gunfire incidents resulting in injury." The report also concluded that it was "premature to make definitive assessments of the ban's impact on gun crime," since millions of assault weapons and large-capacity magazines manufactured prior to the ban had been exempted and would thus be in circulation for years following the ban's implementation.
In 2003, 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 review of firearms research from 2001 by the National Research Council "did not reveal any clear impacts on gun violence outcomes." The committee noted that guns were relatively rarely used criminally before the ban and that its maximum potential effect on gun violence outcomes would likely be very small.
In relation to a 2001 study the National Research Council in 2005, stated "evaluation of the short-term effects of the 1994 federal assault weapons ban did not reveal any clear impacts on gun violence outcomes."
A book published by John Lott in 1998 found no impact of these bans on violent crime rates. Koper, Woods, and Roth studies focus on gun murders, while Lott's look at murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assaults. Unlike their work, Lott's research accounted for state assault weapon bans and twelve other different types of gun control laws.
The Columbine High School massacre, in which two shooters murdered 13 people, occurred while the ban was in place. One of the shooters used a semi-automatic pistol and high-capacity magazines that were prospectively banned by the law.
A 2002 study by Koper and Roth found that around the time when the ban became law, assault weapon prices increased significantly, but the increase was reversed in the several months afterward by a surge in assault weapons production that occurred just before the ban took effect. John Lott found that the bans may have reduced the number of gun shows by over 20 percent. Koper also discovered that street prices of assault weapons and other guns can be three to six times higher than legal retail prices in jurisdiction with strict gun controls and lower level of gun ownership.
Efforts at renewal
Attorney General Eric Holder reiterated the Obama administration's desire to reinstate the 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 that "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."
Efforts to pass a new federal assault weapons ban were made in December 2012 after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, in Newtown, Connecticut. On January 24, 2013, Senator Feinstein introduced S. 150, the Assault Weapons Ban of 2013 (AWB 2013). The bill was similar to the 1994 ban, but differed in that it would not expire after 10 years, and it used a one-feature test for a firearm to qualify as an assault weapon rather than the two-feature test of the defunct ban. The GOP Congressional delegation from Texas and the NRA condemned Feinstein's bill. On March 14, 2013, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a version of the bill along party lines. On April 17, 2013, AWB 2013 failed on a Senate vote of 40 to 60.
On July 29, 2022, the House of Representatives narrowly voted in favor of passing new sweeping firearms restrictions, 217 in favor to 213 against.
- "H.R.3355 - Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994". Congress.gov. Library of Congress. September 13, 1994. Retrieved May 27, 2022.
- See the Effects section for details surrounding research on this topic.
- "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 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 is horrific, 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" (PDF). 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.
- Adams, Jane Meredith (May 29, 1995). "Sparked By School Massacre, Gun Debate Still Rages". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved March 17, 2014.
- "Assault Weapons Ban." Encyclopedia of Gun Control and Gun Rights. Glenn H. Utter and Robert J. Spitzer. 2nd ed. Amenia, NY: Grey House Publishing, 2011. 24–25. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. August 20, 2016. Quote: "Two events spurred the introduction of an assault weapon ban in Congress: the January 1989 schoolyard shooting in Stockton, California, that left five children dead and 29 others wounded; and the Killeen, Texas, cafeteria shooting in which 22 people were killed and 23 others wounded before the shooter took his own life."
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Law-abiding citizens, however, will once again be free to purchase semi-automatic firearms, regardless of their cosmetic features, for target shooting, shooting competitions, hunting, collecting, and most importantly, self-defense.
- "Violence Policy Center Issues Statement on Expiration of Federal Assault Weapons Ban" (Press release). Washington, D.C.: Violence Policy Center. September 13, 2004. Archived from the original on October 10, 2013.
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.
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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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- 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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In a linear regression model controlling for yearly trend, the federal ban period was associated with a statistically significant 9 fewer mass shooting related deaths per 10,000 firearm homicides (p = 0.03). Mass-shooting fatalities were 70% less likely to occur during the federal ban period (relative rate, 0.30; 95% confidence interval, 0.22-0.39).
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Limited data from 4 studies on the effects of the federal assault weapons ban (in effect from 1994 to 2004) do not provide evidence that the ban was associated with a significant decrease in firearm homicides.
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