Federal Assault Weapons Ban

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Bill Clinton Signing the AWB into law.

The now defunct Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act, commonly known as the Federal Assault Weapons Ban (AWB), was a subsection 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 it defined as "assault weapons".[1] The 10-year ban was passed by the U.S. 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 Act expired on September 13, 2004, per its sunset provision. There were multiple attempts to renew the ban,[2] but none succeeded.

Criteria of an assault weapon[edit]

Within the context of this law, the term assault weapon refers primarily to semi-automatic firearms that possess certain cosmetic[3][4][5] 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 was 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 this expired U.S. law, the legal term assault weapon included certain specific semi-automatic firearm models by name, and other semi-automatic firearms because they possessed a minimum set from the following list of features:

A semi-automatic Yugoslavian M70AB2 rifle.
An Intratec TEC-DC9 with 32-round magazine; a semi-automatic pistol formerly classified as an assault weapon under federal law.
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:
  • 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
  • Unloaded weight of 50 oz (1.4 kg) or more
  • 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
  • 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 firearmPreban federal legal status
Norinco, Mitchell, and Poly Technologies Avtomat Kalashnikovs (AKs) (all models)Imports banned in 1989*
Action Arms Israeli Military Industries UZI and GalilImports banned in 1989*
Beretta AR-70 (SC-70)Imports banned in 1989*
Colt AR-15Legal
Fabrique National FN/FAL, FN-LAR, FNCImports banned in 1989*
SWD (MAC type) M-10, M-11, M11/9, M12Legal
Steyr AUGImports banned in 1989*
Revolving cylinder shotguns such as (or similar to) the Street Sweeper and Striker 12Legal

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.[6]

Provisions of the ban[edit]

During the ban, it was illegal to manufacture any firearm that met the definition of a semiautomatic assault weapon or large capacity ammunition feeding device except for export or 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.

The Act defined the criteria for classifying firearms as '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 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.

Several constitutional challenges were filed against provisions of the ban, but all were rejected by reviewing courts.[7][8]

Cosmetic features[edit]

Following the expiration of the Assault Weapons Ban in 2004, the NRA Institute for Legislative Action referred to the features affected by the ban as cosmetic.[9] Similarly, the Violence Policy Center released a statement saying, in part, "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."[10]

Expiration and effect on crime[edit]

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." [11] 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.[12]

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.[13] 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.[13]

Research by John Lott in the 2000 second edition of More Guns, Less Crime provided the first research on state bans, and the federal assault weapon ban.[14] The 2010 third edition provided the first empirical research on the 2004 sunset of the Federal Assault Weapon Ban.[15] 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.[16] 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."[17] 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.[18]

Senator Dianne Feinstein claimed the ban was effective because "It was drying up supply and driving up prices."[19]

Efforts to renew the ban[edit]

Since the assault weapons ban expired on September 13, 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.

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 would have revised the definition of 'semiautomatic assault weapon' to include any gun with a detachable magazine and only ONE or more of the listed features. The bill never left committee.[20][21][22] 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.[23]

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."[24] This statement was originally published on Barack Obama's campaign website, BarackObama.com.[25] The agenda statement later appeared on the administration's website, WhiteHouse.gov, with its wording intact.[26]

On February 25, 2009 newly sworn-in Attorney General Eric Holder repeated the Obama administration's desire to reinstate the federal assault weapons ban.[27] 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."[28]

Senator Dianne Feinstein introduced a federal assault weapons ban bill in the U.S. Senate[29] following the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.[30] The bill had a provision to eliminate the sunset clause which was part of the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban, and would have been directed at firearms with detachable magazines and at least one single military feature. The GOP Congressional delegation from the State of Texas condemned Sen. Feinstein's bill, along with the NRA.[31] On March 14, 2013, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a version of the bill along party lines.[32] On April 17, 2013, the Senate voted 60 to 40 against reinstating the federal assault weapons ban.[33]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act, H.R.3355, 103rd Congress (1993-1994), Government Printing Office. Retrieved January 26, 2013.
  2. ^ H.R. 2038, H.R. 3831, H.R. 5099, H.R. 1312, H.R. 1022, H.R. 6257
  3. ^ "Assault Weapons Policy Summary". Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. May 21, 2012. "...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." 
  4. ^ 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." 
  5. ^ 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." 
  6. ^ Rasky, Susan F. (July 8, 1989). "Import Ban on Assault Rifles Becomes Permanent". The New York Times. 
  7. ^ Vivian S. Chu, Legislative Attorney (February 14, 2013). "Federal Assault Weapons Ban: Legal Issues". Congressional Research Service. Retrieved August 14, 2013. 
  8. ^ Navegar sources:
    • Navegar Inc v U.S. (D.C. Cir. 1999) (“We hold that section 110102 of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 is within Congress' Commerce Clause power and does not constitute an unconstitutional Bill of Attainder.”). Text
    • Navegar Inc v U.S. (D.C. Cir. 2000) (“... ORDERED by the Court that appellants' petition is denied.”). Text
  9. ^ "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. 
  10. ^ "Violence Policy Center Issues Statement on Expiration of Federal Assault Weapons Ban" (Press release). Washington, D.C.: Violence Policy Center. September 13, 2004. 
  11. ^ "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. 
  12. ^ 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. 
  13. ^ a b 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. 
  14. ^ Lott, John R. (June 15, 2000). More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun-Control Laws (2nd ed.). University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-49364-0. Retrieved December 31, 2012. 
  15. ^ 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. 
  16. ^ Lott, John R. (February 1, 2003). The Bias Against Guns. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing. ISBN 978-0895261144. Retrieved December 31, 2012. 
  17. ^ "On Target: The Impact of the 1994 Federal Assault Weapon Act" (PDF). Washington, D.C.: Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. March 2004. 
  18. ^ Ove, Torsten (March 28, 2004). "Assault Weapon Ban's Effectiveness Debated". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 
  19. ^ Jacobson, Aileen. "Was assault-weapon ban a dud?". International Herald Tribune. Retrieved 2012-12-31. [dead link]
  20. ^ H.R. 2038 (108th): Assault Weapons Ban and Law Enforcement Protection Act of 2003. GovTrack.us.
  21. ^ H.R. 1312 (109th): Assault Weapons Ban and Law Enforcement Protection Act of 2005. GovTrack.gov.
  22. ^ H.R. 1022 (110th): Assault Weapons Ban and Law Enforcement Protection Act of 2007. GovTrack.us.
  23. ^ H.R. 6257: Assault Weapons Ban Reauthorization Act of 2008. GovTrack.us.
  24. ^ "Urban Policy Agenda". Office of President-elect Barack Obama. Archived from the original on November 16, 2008. Retrieved December 31, 2012. 
  25. ^ "Urban Policy". BarackObama.com. Archived from the original on October 2, 2008. Retrieved December 31, 2012. 
  26. ^ "Urban Policy". The White House. Archived from the original on January 22, 2009. Retrieved December 31, 2012. 
  27. ^ Ryan, Jason (February 25, 2009). "Obama to Seek New Assault Weapons Ban". ABC News. 6960824. Retrieved December 31, 2012. 
  28. ^ C-SPAN.org[dead link]
  29. ^ "Lawmakers Renew Call To Restore Federal Assault Weapons Ban Following Newtown School Massacre". CBS New York. December 16, 2012. Retrieved December 17, 2012. 
  30. ^ "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. 
  31. ^ Freedman, Dan (January 24, 2013). "Feinstein offers new assault weapons ban". Houston Chronicle. Retrieved January 24, 2013. 
  32. ^ Steinhauer, Jennifer (March 14, 2013). "Party-Line Vote in Senate Panel for Ban on Assault Weapons". The New York Times. Retrieved March 14, 2013. 
  33. ^ Simon, Richard (April 17, 2013). "Senate votes down Feinstein's assault weapons ban". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved April 18, 2013.