Federal Assault Weapons Ban
The Federal Assault Weapons Ban (AWB), or Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act, was a subtitle 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, so called "assault weapons". The 10-year ban was passed by 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 Federal Assault Weapons Ban expired on September 13, 2004, as part of the law's sunset provision. There have been multiple attempts to renew the ban, but no bill has reached the House floor for a vote.
Criteria of an assault weapon
The term assault weapon, when used in the context of assault-weapon laws, refers primarily (but not exclusively) to semi-automatic firearms that possess the 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 is 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 the former U.S. law, the legal term assault weapon included certain specific semi-automatic firearm models by name (e.g., Colt AR-15, TEC-9, non-select-fire AK-47s produced by three manufacturers, and Uzis) and other semi-automatic firearms because they possess a minimum set of cosmetic features 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
- Fixed capacity of more than 5 rounds
- Detachable magazine.
- The Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994 amended Section 921(a) of title 18 of the United States Code to define semiautomatic assault weapons and specifically named the following nineteen (19) semi-automatic firearm models and/or model types, as well as any copies or duplicates of these firearms, in any caliber, as assault weapons:
- Norinco, Mitchell Arms, and Poly Technologies AK-47 (all models)
- Action Arms Israeli Military Industries Uzi
- Action Arms Israeli Military Industries Galil
- Beretta AR-70 and
- SC-70 (variant of the AR-70)
- MAC-type handguns, including MAC-10
- MAC 11/9 and
- Revolving cylinder shotguns, such as (or similar to) the "Street Sweeper" and/or
- Striker 12 (commonly referred to as the "Street Sweeper").
Provisions of the 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 flowchart for classifying '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 also 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.
During the period when the AWB was in effect, it was illegal to manufacture any firearm that met the law's flowchart of an assault weapon or large capacity ammunition feeding device, except for export or for 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, which still exist due to several states adopting their own assault weapons bans.
In addition, 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."
Expiration and effect on crime
Opponents of the ban claimed that its expiration has seen little if any increase in crime, while Senator Diane Feinstein claimed the ban was effective because "It was drying up supply and driving up prices."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studied the "assault weapon" ban and other gun control attempts, and found "insufficient evidence to determine the effectiveness of any of the firearms laws reviewed for preventing violence," noting "that insufficient evidence to determine effectiveness should not be interpreted as evidence of ineffectiveness." A 2004 critical review of research on firearms by a National Research Council panel also noted that academic studies of the assault weapon ban "did not reveal any clear impacts on gun violence" and noted "due to the fact that the relative rarity with which the banned guns were used in crime before the ban ... the maximum potential effect of the ban 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 and the Federal Assault Weapon Bans. 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." 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.
Efforts to renew the ban
Since the assault weapons ban expired on March 2, 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.
On three separate occasions (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 revised the definition of 'semiautomatic assault weapon'. The bill never got out of committee to come up for a floor vote on any of the attempts. 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, about 20 minutes into 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 Diane Feinstein announced she would introduce a Federal assault weapons ban bill in the U.S. Senate following the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. The bill as of January 25, 2013 has a provision where the sunset clause which was part of the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban will be eliminated and will be directed at firearms with detachable magazines and at least one single military feature. Republicans who control Congress (primarily the U.S. House of Representatives) and Senate Democrats from pro-gun states are likely to oppose the proposed ban. The GOP Congressional delegation from the State of Texas (a pro-gun state) have condemned Sen. Feinstein's bill, along with the pro-gun lobby inclusive of 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.
Assault weapons ban in New York politics
The state of 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 that gun makers stamp the date of manufacture 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. However, the prosecution must be able to prove that the subject in possession of the magazine had knowledge that it was in fact a post-ban magazine.
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.]
On January 15, 2013, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law the Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act (the New York Safe Act) which has a tougher assault weapons ban including provisions to keep firearms out of the hands of the mentally ill. This allows the revocation of gun licenses for those who are a danger to themselves and mental health case workers now have the official capacity to report the mentally ill to law enforcement. It also stiffens the current 1994 law where magazine capacity is now limited to seven rounds from the current ten, background checks which now extends to private sales, monitoring ammunition sales and gun license recertification every five years. Also mandatory registration of so-called Assault rifles.
Assault weapons bans in other states
In addition to New York (see above), Massachusetts and New Jersey have enacted similar bans. Cook County of Illinois has enacted a similar, but more restrictive ban. California enacted one of the first bans on semi-automatic rifles, the Roberti-Roos Assault Weapons Control Act of 1989, adding stricter measures to the law several times since. Connecticut has enacted a partial ban that focuses on assault weapons with certain characteristics. Hawaii and Maryland have assault pistol bans pertaining to assault weapon characteristics only and pistols.
- 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
- David Kopel (December 17, 2012). "Guns, Mental Illness and Newtown". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 2012-12-18. "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."
- Finally, the end of a sad era -- Clinton Gun Ban stricken from books! National Rifle Association
- Violence Policy Center Issues Statement on Expiration of Federal Assault Weapons Ban, Violence Policy Center
- Senate-Passed Assault Weapons "Ban" Will Do Little to Keep Assault Weapons Off Our Streets, Violence Policy Center (VPC) Warns. Violence Policy Center.
- Jacobson, Aileen. "Was assault-weapon ban a dud?". International Herald Tribune. Retrieved 2012-12-31.
- First Reports Evaluating the Effectiveness of Strategies for Preventing Violence: Firearms Laws, CDC, 3 Oct 2003.
- Firearms and Violence: A Critical Review, Charles F. Wellford, John V. Pepper, and Carol V. Petrie, Editors, National Research Council, National Academy of Science, NAP 2004, 2005, ISBN 978-0-309-09124-4.
- An Updated Assessment of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban: Impacts on Gun Markets and Gun Violence, 1994-2003 National Institute of Justice
- "Christopher S. Koper, Daniel J. Woods, and Jeffrey A. Roth, "An Updated Assessment of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban: Impacts on Gun Markets and Gun Violence, 1994-2003," Report to the National Institute of Justice, United States Department of Justice, June 2004" (PDF). Retrieved 2012-12-31.
- "John R. Lott, Jr., More Guns, Less Crime, University of Chicago Press: Chicago, Illinois, Second edition, 2000". Press.uchicago.edu. Retrieved 2012-12-31.
- "John R. Lott, Jr., More Guns, Less Crime, University of Chicago Press: Chicago, Illinois, Third edition, 2010". Press.uchicago.edu. Retrieved 2012-12-31.
- "John R. Lott, Jr., The Bias Against Guns, Regnery Publishers: Washington, DC, 2003". Amazon.com. Retrieved 2012-12-31.
- Torsten Ove (2004) Assault Weapon Ban’s Effectiveness Debated, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 3/26/04 
- H.R. 2038 (108th): Assault Weapons Ban and Law Enforcement Protection Act of 2003. GovTrack.us.
- H.R. 1312 (109th): Assault Weapons Ban and Law Enforcement Protection Act of 2005. GovTrack.gov.
- H.R. 1022 (110th): Assault Weapons Ban and Law Enforcement Protection Act of 2007. GovTrack.us.
- H.R. 6257: Assault Weapons Ban Reauthorization Act of 2008. GovTrack.us.
- "Archive.org link to Change.gov Urban Policy as of November 16th, 2008". Web.archive.org. 2008-11-16. Archived from the original on 2008-11-16. Retrieved 2012-12-31.
- "Archive.org copy of BarackObama.com Urban Policy (as of January 23rd, 2008)". Web.archive.org. 2008-10-02. Archived from the original on 2008-10-02. Retrieved 2012-12-31.
- "Archive.org copy of whitehouse.gov Urban Policy (as of January 22nd, 2008)". Web.archive.org. 2009-01-22. Archived from the original on 2009-01-22. Retrieved 2012-12-31.
- "ABC News: Obama to Seek New Assault Weapons Ban". Abcnews.go.com. 2009-02-25. Retrieved 2012-12-31.
- "Lawmakers Renew Call To Restore Federal Assault Weapons Ban Following Newtown School Massacre". CBS News. 16 December 2012. Retrieved 17 December 2012.
- "NYC Mayor Bloomberg: Obama’s top priority should be gun control, starting with enforcing laws". The Washington Post. 16 December 2012. Retrieved 17 December 2012.
- "Feinstein offers new assault weapons ban". Houston Chronicle. 24 January 2013. Retrieved 24 January 2013.
- Steinhauer, Jennifer (March 14, 2013). "Party-Line Vote in Senate Panel for Ban on Assault Weapons", New York Times. Retrieved March 14, 2012.
- Simon, Richard (April 17, 2013). "Senate Votes Down Feinstein's Assault Weapons Ban", Los Angeles Times. Retrieved April 18, 2013.
- "New York state adopts toughest gun laws in U.S.".
- "Proposals expected from Obama to curb gun violence".