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Assault weapons have garnered greater attention recently, as they have been used to perpetrate some of the worst mass murders ever committed in the United States. In January 1989, Patrick Purdy used an AK-47 to open fire on a schoolyard in Stockton, CA, firing over 100 rounds in less than 2 minutes, killing 5 children and wounding 29 others. The teens involved in the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School used a TEC-DC9 assault pistol and a Hi-Point Carbine to kill 13 and wound 23. The Washington DC-area snipers used a “post-ban” assault rifle, the Bushmaster XM15, to kill 10 and wound 3 in October 2002. As Congress debates the renewal of the 1994 federal assault weapons ban, it is important to examine questions surrounding assault weapons and the federal ban.
What is an assault weapon?
Assault weapons are semiautomatic, civilian versions of weapons designed for military use. They can be handguns (like the Uzi or TEC-9) or long guns (like the AR-15 rifle or the Street Sweeper shotgun). The weapons are capable of holding large-capacity magazines that allow a shooter to fire up to 150 shots without having to reload. Assault weapons also typically include features that help the shooter control the gun during rapid firing, such as pistol grips or forward handgrips. These features make it possible for the shooter to fire quickly across a relatively wide area with a lethal spray of bullets. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) has stated that the weapons “are not generally recognized as particularly suitable for or readily adaptable to sporting purposes” and instead “are attractive to certain criminals.”
What is the difference between semi-automatic hunting rifles and semi-automatic weapons?
Sporting rifles and assault weapons are two distinct classes of firearms. While semi-automatic hunting rifles are designed to be fired from the shoulder and depend on the accuracy of a precisely aimed projectile, semi-automatic assault weapons are designed to maximize lethal effects through a rapid rate of fire. Assault weapons are designed to be spray-fired from the hip, and because of their design, a shooter can maintain control of the weapon even while firing many rounds in succession.
What is the federal assault weapon ban?
In 1994, Congress passed a law banning certain assault weapons. The 1994 law named 19 specific models, and also banned “copies or duplicates” of those models. In addition, the law outlawed guns that have two or more specified assault weapon features. Guns that were legally possessed before the effective date of the law remain legal.
The definition of an assault weapon is tightly drawn. Traditional guns designed for use in hunting and recreational activities are not affected.
What has been the response of the gun industry?
Immediately after the 1994 law was enacted, the gun industry moved quickly to make slight, cosmetic design changes in their "post-ban" guns to evade the law, a tactic the industry dubbed "sporterization." Of the nine assault weapon brand/types listed by manufacturer in the law, six of the brand/types have been re-marketed in new, "sporterized" configurations.
Does the ban reduce the use of assault weapons in crime?
Yes. Even considering the copycats of federally banned guns, there has been a 45% decline in the percentage of ATF crime gun traces involving assault weapons and copycat models between the pre-ban period (1990-1994) and the post-ban period (1995 and after).
What about the Second Amendment?
The Second Amendment states: “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” When the U.S. Constitution was adopted, each of the states had its own "militia," which was a military force comprised of ordinary citizens serving as part-time soldiers. The militia was "well-regulated" in the sense that its members were subject to various requirements such as training, supplying their own firearms, and engaging in military exercises away from home. It was a form of compulsory military service intended to protect the new nation from outside forces and from internal rebellions. The "militia" was not simply another word for the populace at large. Today’s equivalent of a “well-regulated militia” is the National Guard, whose firearms are government-supplied, not privately owned. Gun control laws have no effect on the arming of today’s militia, since the laws do not apply to military service and law enforcement.
In 1939, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in U.S. v. Miller that the "obvious purpose" of the Second Amendment was to "assure the continuation and render possible the effectiveness" of the state militia. Since Miller, the Supreme Court has addressed the Second Amendment twice more, upholding New Jersey's strict gun control law in 1969 and upholding the federal law banning felons from possessing guns in 1980. The court has had numerous opportunities to review lower court decisions rejecting Second Amendment challenges to firearms laws, and has consistently refused to do so.
What is the status of the assault weapons ban?
The 1994 law included a “sunset clause” providing that the law will be automatically repealed on September 13, 2004. Without Congressional action before that date, all assault weapons will once again be legal.
Several bills are currently being considered in Congress. Senator Feinstein (D-CA) has introduced S.1034, “Assault Weapons Ban and Reauthorization Act of 2003,” which would permanently extend the current federal assault weapons ban, and ban the importation of high capacity magazines. Senator Lautenberg (D-NJ) has introduced S.1431, “Assault Weapons Ban and Law Enforcement Protection Act of 2003,” which would implement a permanent ban, expand the definition of “assault weapon,” prohibit juvenile possession of assault weapons, ban high capacity magazines, and require a background check on the transfer of grandfathered weapons. A similar bill in the House, introduced by Representatives McCarthy (D-NY) and Conyers (D-MI) already has the support of over 100 representatives.
In early March 2004, the Senate voted 52-47 to add an amendment sponsored by Senators Feinstein (D-CA), Warner (R-VA), DeWine (R-OH), and Schumer (D-NY) extending the current federal ban to the “Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act.” However, the bill as a whole, which would have granted the gun industry unprecedented legal immunity, was defeated in the Senate by a vote of 90-8.
What does the Bush administration say about the ban?
President George W. Bush has repeatedly stated his support of renewal of the assault weapons ban; however, he has done nothing to help the bill progress. On February 23, 2004, White House spokesperson Claire Buchan said, “With regard to the assault weapons ban, [President Bush] supports the extension of the current ban.” However, when the assault weapons ban renewal was added as an amendment to the gun liability bill, the President did not support it. A White House “statement of administration policy” issued the same week urged the Senate to pass a “clean” gun liability bill without amendments.
The two administrations before him have also addressed the issue: President George H. W. Bush took the first step in controlling assault weapons by banning certain imported assault rifles in 1989. President Bill Clinton signed the current assault weapons ban into law as part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.
How have states responded to assault weapons?
Seven states currently have assault weapons bans. Three of them (CA, CT, NJ) have bans stronger than federal law. 15 states are currently considering legislation to ban assault weapons.
Does law enforcement support the ban on assault weapons?
Every major national law enforcement organization in the country supported the federal assault weapons ban and worked for its passage. Police across America in the 1980s reported that semi-automatic assault weapons had become the “weapon of choice” for drug traffickers, gangs, and paramilitary extremist groups. Law enforcement officers are at particular risk from these weapons because of their high firepower and ability to penetrate body armor. One in five police officers killed in the line of duty between 1998 and 2001 were killed with assault weapons.
Where can I learn more?
The following websites also have more information about assault weapons and the ban:
 Dept. of Treasury, Study on the Sporting Suitability of Modified Semiautomatic Assault Rifles, 38 (1998).
 Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, On Target:The Impact of the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Act, 1 (2004).
 Violence Policy Center, “Officer Down:” Assault Weapons and the War on Law Enforcement (2003).