HomeLaw EnforcementThe 1994 Assault Weapons Ban: What We Know Now

The 1994 Assault Weapons Ban: What We Know Now

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The assault weapons ban of the 1990s, which was in effect from 1994 to 2004, has been a topic of heated debate for many years. The ban prohibited the manufacture and sale of certain types of semi-automatic firearms that were defined as “assault weapons.” Proponents of the ban argue that it helped to reduce the number of mass shootings and overall gun-related deaths, while opponents argue that it had little to no impact and that it violated the Second Amendment rights of citizens to bear arms. The following will examine the available evidence to determine whether the assault weapons ban of the 1990s had a significant influence on gun-related deaths in the United States. By considering data on gun violence, mass shootings, and the use of assault weapons in crimes, we will evaluate the effectiveness of the ban and its potential impact on reducing gun violence in the U.S.

The federal assault weapons ban of the 1990s, also known as the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, was enacted in September 1994 and expired in September 2004. The ban prohibited the production, transfer, and possession of certain semi-automatic firearms classified as “assault weapons.” These firearms were banned due to their perceived association with mass shootings and other violent crimes, and were distinguished by military-style features such as detachable magazines and pistol grips. The ban also prohibited the production and sale of large-capacity magazines, which could hold more than ten rounds of ammunition. The law made exceptions for law enforcement and military personnel, as well as firearms owned prior to the ban’s effective date. Despite the ban, some states, including California and New York, enacted their own assault weapons ban legislation, which is still in effect today. The 1990s assault weapons ban remains a contentious issue, with advocates on both sides of the debate making compelling arguments for and against the ban.

There is evidence to suggest that the federal assault weapons ban had a positive impact on reducing gun violence in the United States. The ban prohibited the manufacture and sale of certain types of semi-automatic firearms, including assault rifles, and high-capacity ammunition magazines.

A handful have shown that the ban was associated with a reduction in the use of assault weapons in crime. One study found that the ban was associated with a 6.7% decrease in total gun murders, a 8.6% decrease in gun murders of law enforcement officers, and a 10.6% decrease in assault weapon homicides.

Additionally, the ban was also associated with a decrease in the number of mass shootings during the period it was in effect. A study found that the number of mass shootings per year declined by 37% during the 10-year period of the ban, compared to the 10-year period before it went into effect.

Researchers and policymakers continue to debate the overall impact of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, despite the fact that some studies have found evidence that the ban was associated with a decrease in certain types of gun-related crime. 

Yet, researchers and policymakers continue to debate if the ban had a significant impact on reducing gun violence in the United States. While there is evidence to suggest that the ban may have had some effect on reducing the use of assault weapons in crimes, many factors contribute to overall gun violence and it is difficult to attribute changes solely to the ban.  Many point to the follow to argue did not have a significant effect on decreasing gun violence during the period the ban was in place. 

The ban only applied to new sales of certain types of firearms, not to those already in circulation.  Since there is no national registry, it is hard to determine how many “assault rifles” were in circulation at the time of the ban.  The agreed upon number is somewhere in excess of 10 million. 

What defined an “assault rifle” was also problematic.  The Ban defined an “assault weapon” as a semi-automatic firearm that had two or more of the following features:

A folding or telescoping stock

A pistol grip

A bayonet mount

A flash suppressor or threaded barrel designed to accommodate a flash suppressor

A grenade launcher

A capability to accept a detachable magazine with a capacity of more than 10 rounds of ammunition.

Today, this would include the vast majority of guns in the US, since most firearms, at a minimum include a pistol grip and accept a detachable magazine with more than 10 rounds. 

Next, we can examine the numbers. The overall trend of gun violence in the US did not significantly change during the ban’s ten-year tenure. The number of gun-related deaths in the United States varied during the 1990s and early 2000s, with a slight decrease from 1994 to 1999 and an increase from 1999 to 2002, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). According to data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the number of homicides in the United States that involved firearms decreased from 1993 to 1999 but increased from 1999 to 2001. The number of mass shootings increased in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and several well-known shootings, such as the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, occurred during that time.

Studies have shown that the guns banned by the assault weapons ban were only used in a small number of gun crimes before the ban, and that criminals replacing them with other guns keep overall gun violence consistent during the ban. Most crimes are done with handguns rather than rifles. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) says that handguns were used in about 74% of firearm-related homicides in 2019, which is the most recent year for which data is available. In contrast, rifles, which include assault rifles, were used in about 5% of homicides involving guns.

Let us not forget, from 1994 until the late-2010s, overall crime and especially violent crimes began to dip significantly, but overall gun violence stayed relatively consistent.  According to data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the overall crime rate in the U.S. declined during this time period. In 1994, the crime rate was at its highest, with a total of approximately 5,000 crimes per 100,000 people. However, the crime rate gradually declined over the next decade, reaching a low of approximately 4,000 crimes per 100,000 people in 2004.  The decline in crime during this time period was particularly notable for certain types of crimes, such as property crimes and violent crimes. Property crimes, which include offenses such as burglary, larceny, and motor vehicle theft, declined by approximately 30% from 1994 to 2004. Violent crimes, which include offenses such as murder, robbery, and aggravated assault, also declined during this time period, although the decrease was more modest, at approximately 20%.

Gun related violence, though, saw mixed outcomes as stated prior.

The larger 1994 Criminal Justice Reform played a major role in reducing crime in the US, no doubt.  The 1994 Criminal Justice Reform, also known as the 1994 Crime Bill, was a comprehensive piece of legislation aimed at reducing crime in the United States. The bill was signed into law by President Bill Clinton on September 13, 1994, and included a range of provisions aimed at addressing various aspects of the criminal justice system, such as:

Increased funding for law enforcement: The bill provided funding for hiring additional police officers, as well as funding for new prison construction and programs to address juvenile crime. According to estimates, the bill provided funding for the hiring of 100,000 new police officers over a six-year period. The funding was provided through the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program, which was established as part of the 1994 Crime Bill and aimed to increase the number of community-oriented police officers across the country.

Tougher sentencing laws: The bill included mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes, such as drug offenses, as well as provisions for the “three strikes” law, which mandated life imprisonment for individuals convicted of three or more serious crimes.

Prevention programs: The bill provided funding for programs aimed at preventing crime and addressing the root causes of criminal behavior, such as drug treatment and education programs.

Biden and the Democrats can continue to call for the banning of “assault rifles”, but they do have to grapple with the fact that during the last ban from 1994 to 2002, gun violence in this country did not drastically decrease even though overall crime did.  Gun related crimes and mass shootings, if they did decrease, they did not do so in significant numbers, while also seeing marked increases in such crimes towards the end of the ban.    

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