America’s Failed Attempt to Ban Assault Weapons


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America’s Failed Attempt to Ban Assault Weapons

As President Biden calls for new gun laws in the wake of mass shootings, the federal ban passed in 1994 offers a reminder of how difficult it is to craft an effective prohibition.

As the U.S. begins to make progress against Covid-19, a different tragedy has returned to the headlines: mass shootings. On March 16, a gunman killed eight people at spas and massage parlors in the Atlanta area. Days later, another gunman killed 10 at a supermarket in Boulder, Colo.

With the tragedies have come renewed calls from Democratic leaders, including President Joe Biden, to authorize a new federal ban on assault weapons. “We can ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines in this country once again,” Mr. Biden said the day after the Boulder shooting. “I got that done when I was a senator. It passed. It was law for the longest time, and it brought down these mass killings. We should do it again.”

The Democratic Party paid a political price for the 1994 ban, losing its House majority in that fall’s elections for the first time in four decades.

But the history of the federal assault-weapons ban, passed in 1994 after an epic political battle on Capitol Hill, offers a cautionary tale about the difficulty of constructing an effective and politically acceptable ban. Mr. Biden, then the powerful chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was a key supporter of the ban as part of a major anticrime bill pushed by President Bill Clinton. When Mr. Clinton signed the law in September 1994, he touted it as a major victory over the National Rifle Association, declaring, “We will finally ban these assault weapons from our streets that have no purpose other than to kill.”

Yet the Democratic Party paid a political price, losing its House majority in that fall’s elections for the first time in four decades. When the ban came up for reauthorization in 2004, it failed to get the necessary votes in Congress, even though then-President George W. Bush, a Republican, said he would sign it if it came to his desk.

Today, gun-rights advocates and many gun-control advocates view the ban as ineffective and politically destructive. Above all, these critics argue, it didn’t do what it set out to do: limit sales of the weapons it purported to ban. In fact, sales of weapons like AR-15-style rifles rose during the era of the assault-weapons ban and skyrocketed when it was lifted.

The 1994 law prohibited the manufacture of 19 weapons by name, including Colt’s AR-15. It banned semiautomatic rifles—guns that can quickly fire one shot after another with each squeeze of the trigger—that had detachable ammunition magazines and at least two military-style features, such as a pistol grip or a bayonet mount. New magazines holding more than 10 rounds also were outlawed. Guns and magazines that were already in circulation before the ban were grandfathered in.

Those rules, which also applied to what the law called “assault pistols,” would have prohibited the AR-style pistol used by 21-year-old Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa, the accused shooter in Boulder, but not the 9mm handgun used by the alleged Atlanta shooter, Robert Aaron Long, also 21. Semiautomatic weapons with high-capacity magazines were used in about a quarter of the 170 mass shootings in which four or more people were killed in a public place between 1966 and 2020, according to the Violence Project, a mass shooting database founded by criminology professors Jillian Peterson and James Densley.

The term “assault rifle” originated in the military to describe weapons used in combat. In the 1980s, gun makers producing semiautomatic versions of military weapons embraced the term to market their firearms to wannabe warriors. By the end of that decade, however, gun-control groups were using it to label guns they wanted banned. When the federal assault-weapons ban was passed in 1994, both gun-rights and gun-control supporters believed it would severely limit civilian ownership of assault rifles.

But that didn’t happen. Gun makers quickly figured out how to make similar weapons without the prohibited features, such as the bayonet mount. A frequent joke in the gun world was that the ban greatly reduced the number of drive-by bayonettings. Prohibiting Colt’s AR-15 by name didn’t deter gun makers from selling AR-15 style weapons under different names; Colt called its post-ban rifle the Match Target. The post-ban guns looked a little different, and they were sold with 10-round magazines instead of 30-round magazines. But they still fired the same bullets as fast as a shooter could pull the trigger. By 1999, multiple gun makers were producing more AR-15s than ever before.

Before the 1994 ban, Americans owned approximately 400,000 AR-15s, according to government estimates; today, there are approximately 20 million AR-15 style rifles or similar weapons in private hands.

A 2004 report for the Justice Department found that the ban’s “effects on gun violence are likely to be small at best and perhaps too small for reliable measurement.” That year Congress let the ban lapse without much debate. Since then sales of weapons prohibited under the ban have soared, spurred by periodic calls to ban them again, and in the past year by fears over the pandemic and rioting. Before the 1994 ban, Americans owned approximately 400,000 AR-15s, according to government estimates; today, there are approximately 20 million AR-15 style rifles or similar weapons in private hands, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which represents the gun industry.

Over the same period, mass shootings have also increased in frequency and deadliness, according to the FBI. One of the authors of the 2004 report, Christopher Koper, an associate professor of criminology at George Mason University, wrote in 2020 that “It is reasonable to argue that the federal ban could have prevented some of the recent increase in persons killed and injured in mass shootings had it remained in place,” mainly because of its restrictions on magazine capacity. Investigators are probing whether the Boulder shooter used an illegal 30-round magazine; Colorado state law limits new magazines to 15 rounds.

But efforts to reinstate an assault weapons ban haven’t come close to passing Congress, and even activist groups have moved it lower down on their agendas. Instead, their lobbying has been focused on other proposals, such as mandatory background checks for all gun sales and red flag laws, which allow authorities to temporarily seize guns from people considered to be a danger to themselves or others. Gun-rights groups have spent much of their energy lobbying Congress and state legislatures on allowing gun owners to carry weapons in public spaces. Neither side really expected another federal assault-weapons ban.

Now Mr. Biden and other Democratic leaders, including former President Clinton, have resurrected the idea. And a better-financed gun-control movement, including groups like Everytown for Gun Safety, is eager to push for new laws following the recent mass shootings. At the same time, gun-rights groups have been bolstered by new support. Last year saw record-breaking gun purchases, including an estimated 8.4 million new gun-owners, many purchasing weapons like the AR-15 that Mr. Biden says he wants to ban.

If a new assault-weapons ban does come before Congress, it may once again create a fierce political brawl while doing little to make America safer, leaving both gun-control and gun-rights backers disillusioned and angry.

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My Thoughts:

Since the AR-15 is the most owned firearm in the US, then this ruling is in conjunction with the Supreme Court Rulings.

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