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Is an Assault Weapons Ban Even Possible?

Gun wall rack with rifles
By Richard Dahl | Last updated on

Will Washington ever do anything about assault weapons?

That is a question on many people's minds following the two recent mass shootings in Georgia and Colorado.

To answer it, maybe the first step is to look back to the time when Washington did do something about assault weapons, the Federal Assault Weapons Ban (AWB) of 1994, and then ask another question: How well did it work?

A Law With Many Weaknesses

The reviews on the effectiveness of the AWB are decidedly mixed.

Congress passed the law at a time when several mass shootings had raised public concern, much like now, and politicians and lawmakers were motivated to act. Congress responded by passing a law restricting firearms defined as “semiautomatic assault weapons" and magazines that met the criteria for “large capacity ammunition feeding devices."

What, exactly, constituted a “semiautomatic assault weapon"?

If the law was aimed at restricting semiautomatic weapons (without the word “assault") it would have been clear. Semiautomatic guns are those that fire once for each trigger pull, and they include hunting rifles and pistols. But getting something that draconian (for gun-rights supporters) through Congress was impossible. So the target was a general category of firearm that had come to be known as assault weapons – those of a military nature not designed for hunting.

In order to identify which guns were to be included in the ban, the bill listed specific models by name. It also defined assault weapons as any guns that had two or more listed features. These included a pistol grip, a folding stock, a flash hider, and a bayonet mount.

These cosmetic features created a loophole that allowed manufacturers to skirt the law by making minor modifications to the guns they already produced.

Another weakness in the law was its exemption for possession of any assault weapons manufactured before the law's effective date. Not surprisingly, then, gun manufacturers ramped up their production of these weapons in the months preceding the activation date.

A final weakness was the AWB's sunset provision. The law ended in 2004 and there has been nothing, at least nominally, that has restricted assault-type weapons ever since.

Did the Ban Have an Impact?

But even with its weaknesses, did the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban effective in reducing gun deaths and injuries? Opinions vary.

President Joe Biden, one of the main proponents of the ban when he was in the Senate, claimed recently that it “brought down these mass killings."

The evidence, at least in terms of raw numbers, is not so clear. A RAND review of gun studies, updated in 2020, concluded that there is “inconclusive evidence for the effect of assault weapon bans on mass shootings."

The evaluations of the AWB's effectiveness in these studies have generally compared the rates of mass shootings prior to the AWB's passage with the 10 years of its existence.

However, an emerging body of research has been looking at the statistics in the 17 years since the AWB's end and reaching somewhat different conclusions.

For instance, research published in 2019 by Grant Duwe, director of research and evaluation for the Minnesota Department of Corrections, found that the incidence and severity of mass shootings increased after the ban lapsed.

“The growing number of highly lethal mass public shootings raises several important questions," Duwe wrote. “Perhaps most notably, why have they become more deadly since the mid-2000s? Is this effect a result of the expiration of the federal assault weapons ban in 2004? Or is it a result of other changes in gun policy?"

Another study, published in January 2020, argued that the biggest impact of the ban dealt with large-capacity magazines. Author Christopher S. Koper, principal fellow at George Mason University's Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy, concluded that the rise in use of large-capacity magazines “would arguably have not happened, or at least not to the same degree, had Congress extended the ban in 2004." He estimated that extending the magazine restrictions would have reduced mass-shooting deaths by 11% to 15%.

The Action in Washington

Biden continues to push for a new assault weapons ban along with restrictions on magazine size, saying that he intends to apply lessons learned from the previous ban to a new one.

“For example, the ban on assault weapons will be designed to prevent manufacturers from circumventing the law by making minor changes that don't limit the weapon's lethality," Biden's campaign website stated. “While working to pass this legislation, Biden will also use his executive authority to ban the importation of assault weapons."

The House recently passed two gun-control measures to strengthen background checks. On March 23, Biden called for the Senate to “immediately pass" them and also called for Congress to take up a new assault-weapons ban. While success is possible in the Democratic-controlled House, the chances in the 50-50 Senate remain a long shot because of that body's cloture rule, which requires 60 votes to end debate on a topic and move to a vote. The challenge of convincing 10 Republicans to vote for any kind of gun control is a formidable task.

Executive Actions?

On March 26, the White House announced that Biden is preparing to circumvent Congress by issuing executive orders on gun regulation. Ordering a full assault-weapons ban is beyond the president's power, but he can use regulatory authority to restrict guns. For instance, he could limit imports or expand the background-check system by redefining who is in the business of selling guns.

Recognizing that authority, more than 100 House Democrats urged Biden on March 31 to take executive action to regulate one type of firearm: concealable assault-type guns of the type used in the Boulder, Colorado, shooting. The shooter in that instance legally purchased a Ruger AR-556 semiautomatic pistol at a gun store.

The AR-556 looks like a rifle, operates like one, and even takes the same ammunition as the AR-15, which has been used in many mass killings in the U.S. But it is smaller, concealable, and not subject to the tougher restrictions that govern the sale of rifles under the National Firearms Act. People who purchase rifles that are subject to the NFA must undergo a background check with photo identification and fingerprints, and the gun must be registered with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.

“Concealable assault-style firearms that fire rifle rounds pose an unreasonable threat to our communities and should be fully regulated under the National Firearms Act consistent with the intent and history of the law," the House members wrote.

Meanwhile, getting action on a broader range of assault-type weapons remains a challenge. Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-New York, has vowed to push gun-control legislation, saying, “Make no mistake: Under the Democratic majority, the Senate will debate and address the epidemic of gun violence in this country."

But he will need 10 Republicans to agree. That will be a tough task.

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