The Federal Assault Weapons Ban (AWB) — officially, the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act — is a subsection of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, a United States federal law that included a prohibition on the manufacture for civilian use of certain semi-automatic firearms it defined as assault weapons, as well as certain ammunition magazines it defined as "large capacity."
The ten-year ban was passed by the U.S. Congress on September 13, 1994, and 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, and 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 reviewing courts. There were multiple attempts to renew the ban, but none succeeded.
Efforts to create restrictions on "assault weapons" at the federal government level intensified in 1989 after 34 children and a teacher were shot and five children killed in Stockton, Calif. using a semi-automatic AK-47 rifle. The July 1993 101 California Street shooting also contributed to passage of the ban. The shooter killed eight people and wounded 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 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.
Rep. 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.
Provisions of the ban
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The Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act - commonly called the "assault weapons ban," the "federal assault weapons ban," and the "AWB" - was part (Title XI, Subtitle A) of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.
The ban defined the term "semiautomatic assault weapon," which is commonly shortened to assault weapon. Semi-automatic firearms shoot one round (cartridge or bullet) with each trigger pull.
The term assault weapon is also commonly used to refer to some military weapons and weapon systems. The similar but technical term assault rifle refers to military rifles capable of selective fire - automatic (full-auto), semi-automatic, and burst fire. Automatic firearms (like machine guns) and assault rifles in automatic mode, shoot multiple rounds with a single trigger pull. Such firearms are Title II weapons regulated by the National Firearms Act of 1934 and Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986. Neither the ban nor its expiration changed the legal status of automatic firearms.
The ban restricted the manufacture, transfer, and possession of semi-automatic assault weapons except for: those already in lawful possession at the time of the law's enactment; 660 rifles and shotguns listed by type and name; permanently inoperable, manually operated, or antique firearms; rifles unable to accept a detachable magazine of more than five rounds; shotguns unable to hold more than five rounds in a fixed or detachable magazine; and those made for, transferred to, or owned by the U.S. government or a U.S. law enforcement agency.
The ban had outlined specific cosmetic features that would classify a firearm as an assault weapon. For example, rifles and shot guns could not have folding stocks, pistol grips, bayonet mounts, attachable grenade launchers, flash suppressors, or threaded barrels designed to accommodate a flash suppressor.
The bill also mentions features that would classify pistols as assault weapons. These features included an ammunition magazine that attaches to the pistol outside of the pistol grip, a threaded barrel capable of accepting a barrel extender or flash suppressor. forward handgrip, 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 nontrigger hand without being burned, a manufactured weight of 50 ounces or more when the pistol is unloaded; and a semiautomatic version of an automatic firearm; semiautomatic shotgun: could not have a folding or telescoping stock, a pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon; a fixed magazine capacity in excess of 5 rounds, and an ability to accept a detachable magazine.
The ban also defined the term "large capacity ammunition feeding device," which is commonly shortened to "large capacity magazine," or high capacity magazine. These were defined by the assault weapons ban as magazines, belts, drums, feed strips, or similar devices with a capacity of more than 10 rounds. It restricted the transfer and possession of large capacity ammunition feeding devices except for: those made before the law's enactment; and those made for, transferred to, or owned by the U.S. government or a U.S. law enforcement agency.
Criteria of an assault weapon
Under the Assault Weapons Ban of 1994 the definition of "semiautomatic 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 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.
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 they released in September 2004 when the ban expired. In May 2012, the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence said, "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 shooting and Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
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).
Studies on effectiveness of the legislation
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. A study conducted by Dube in 2013, showed that the passing of the FAWB in 1994 had an insignificant impact on violent crime in Mexico, while the expiration of the FAWB in 2004 combined with political instability was correlated with an increase in gun-related homicides among Mexican municipalities near the border.
Research by John Lott found no impact of these bans on violent crime rates, but provided evidence that the bans may have reduced the number of gun shows by over 20 percent. 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 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.
Efforts to renew the ban
The assault weapons ban expired on September 13, 2004. Legislation to renew or replace the ban was proposed numerous times unsuccessfully.
Between May 2003 and June 2008, U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-CA, and Representatives Michael Castle, R-DE, Alcee Hastings, D-FL, and Mark Kirk, R-IL, introduced bills to reauthorize the ban. During the same time, Senator Frank Lautenberg, D-NJ, and Representative Carolyn McCarthy, D-NY, introduced similar bills to create a new ban with a revised definition for assault weapons. None of the bills left committee.
After the November 2008 election, the website of President-elect Barack Obama, listed a detailed agenda for the forthcoming administration. The stated positions included "making the expired federal Assault Weapons Ban permanent." Three months later, newly sworn-in 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: "... 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 the State of Texas condemned 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, AWB 2013 failed on a Senate vote of 40 to 60.
- "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 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" (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.
- Bingham, Amy (July 27, 2012). "Shootings That Shaped Gun Control Laws: 101 California Street Shooting". ABC News Internet Ventures.
- Roth, Jeffrey A.; Christopher S. Koper (March 1999). "Impacts of the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban" (PDF). National Institute of Justice Research in Brief (NCJ 173405).
- Bunting, Glenn F. (November 9, 1993). "Feinstein Faces Fight for Diluted Gun Bill". Los Angeles Time.
- Eaton, William J. (May 5, 1994). "Ford, Carter, Reagan Push for Gun Ban". Los Angeles Times.
- Seelye, Katharine Q. (July 28, 1994). "Assault Weapons Ban Allowed To Stay in Anti-crime Measure". The New York Times.
- "Senate Acts To Ban Assault Weapons: Brady Bill Still Awaiting Action". Chicago Tribune. November 18, 1993.
- H.R. 4296 (103rd)
- Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act, H.R.3355, 103rd Congress (1993-1994), Government Printing Office. Retrieved January 26, 2013.
- Rasky, Susan F. (July 8, 1989). "Import Ban on Assault Rifles Becomes Permanent". The New York Times.
- "Finally, the End of a Sad Era--Clinton Gun Ban Stricken from Books!". Fairfax, Virginia: National Rifle Association, Institute for Legislative Action. September 13, 2004.
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.
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.
- "Assault Weapons Policy Summary". San Francisco, California: Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. May 21, 2012.
- Seitz-Wald, Alex (February 6, 2013). "Don’t mourn the assault weapons ban’s impending demise". Salon.
[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.
- McArdle, Megan (November 12, 2012). "Just Say No to Dumb Gun Laws". The Daily Beast.
- Chu, Vivian S. (February 14, 2013). "Federal Assault Weapons Ban: Legal Issues" (PDF). Congressional Research Service. Retrieved April 24, 2014.
- 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.”).
- Kopan, Tal (August 8, 2012). "If Congress, W.H. wanted to ban assault weapons, could they?". POLITICO. Retrieved April 24, 2014.
- "First Reports Evaluating the Effectiveness of Strategies for Preventing Violence: Early Childhood Home Visitation and Firearms Laws. Findings from the Task Force on Community Preventive Services." (PDF). MMWR (Atlanta, Georgia: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) 52 (RR-14): 11–20. 2003. ISSN 1057-5987.
- Wellford, Charles F; Pepper, John V; Petrie, Carol V, eds. (2013) [Print ed. 2005]. Firearms and Violence: A Critical Review (Electronic ed.). Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press. p. 97. ISBN 0-309-54640-0.
- Koper, Christopher S.; Woods, Daniel J.; Roth, Jeffrey A. (June 2004) [First published 1997]. "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" (PDF). Philadelphia: Jerry Lee Center for Criminology, University of Pennsylvania.
- DUBE, ARINDRAJIT; DUBE, OEINDRILA; GARCÍA-PONCE, OMAR (10 July 2013). "Cross-Border Spillover: U.S. Gun Laws and Violence in Mexico". American Political Science Review 107 (03): 397–417. doi:10.1017/S0003055413000178.
- Lott, John R. (May 24, 2010). More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws (3rd ed.). University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-49367-1. Retrieved December 31, 2012.
- Lott, John R. (February 1, 2003). The Bias Against Guns. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing. ISBN 978-0895261144. Retrieved December 31, 2012.
- "On Target: The Impact of the 1994 Federal Assault Weapon Act" (PDF). Washington, D.C.: Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. March 2004.
- Ove, Torsten (March 28, 2004). "Assault Weapon Ban's Effectiveness Debated". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
- S. 1431, S. 645, H.R. 2038, H.R. 1312, H.R. 1022
- "Urban Policy Agenda". Office of President-elect Barack Obama. Archived from the original on November 16, 2008. Retrieved December 31, 2012.
- Ryan, Jason (February 25, 2009). "Obama to Seek New Assault Weapons Ban". ABC News. 6960824. Retrieved December 31, 2012.
- C-SPAN.org Archived February 28, 2009, at the Wayback Machine.
- Barron, James (December 15, 2012). "Children Were All Shot Multiple Times With a Semiautomatic, Officials Say". New York Times (New York Times Company). Retrieved April 12, 2014.
- Levy, Gabrielle (December 21, 2012). "Obama responds to gun violence petition" (blog). United Press International. Retrieved May 26, 2014.
- Steinhauer, Jennifer (January 24, 2013). "Senator Unveils Bill to Limit Semiautomatic Arms". The New York Times. Retrieved May 26, 2014.
- Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Rev. Gary Hall, Rep. Carolyn McCarthy et al. (January 24, 2013). Assault Weapons Ban Bill (video). Washington, D.C.: National Cable Satellite Corporation. Retrieved April 13, 2014.
- Kucinich, Jackie (January 24, 2013). "Democrats reintroduce assault weapons ban". USA Today. Retrieved April 13, 2014.
- Freedman, Dan (January 24, 2013). "Feinstein offers new assault weapons ban". Houston Chronicle. Retrieved January 24, 2013.
- Steinhauer, Jennifer (March 14, 2013). "Party-Line Vote in Senate Panel for Ban on Assault Weapons". The New York Times. Retrieved March 14, 2013.
- Simon, Richard (April 17, 2013). "Senate votes down Feinstein's assault weapons ban". Los Angeles Times.
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