With the umpteenth iteration of the retired assault weapons ban being championed anew by anti-gun lawmakers, one question always seems to resurface: Did the 1994 assault weapons ban work? Why or why not? Academic studies abound and data points and facts from those studies are often cherry-picked or presented without context to justify a “yes” or “no” argument with pseudo-scientific evidence. But when looking at the data as a whole, it’s easy to see why the Clinton-era gun ban was allowed to expire without renewal.
Three reports were generated using information collected before and during the ban as part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. The final study, “An Updated Assessment of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban: Impacts on Gun Markets and Gun Violence, 1994-2003″, used the data from all three studies and concluded that the ban’s success in reducing crimes committed with banned guns (or any guns, for that matter) was not evident. If this article serves to be a wholly confident declaration that the gun ban was ineffective, the ban and data need to be reviewed carefully. Let’s start with what the gun ban attempted to do. Text taken from the study says the gun ban:
… Attempts to Limit the Use of Guns with Military Style Features and Large Ammunition Capacities
- Subtitle A of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 imposed a 10-year ban on the “manufacture, transfer, and possession” of certain semiautomatic firearms designated as assault weapons (AWs). The ban is directed at semiautomatic firearms having features that appear useful in military and criminal applications but unnecessary in shooting sports or self-defense (examples include flash hiders, folding rifle stocks, and threaded barrels for attaching silencers). The law bans 18 models and variations by name, as well as revolving cylinder shotguns. It also has a “features test” provision banning other semiautomatics having two or more military-style features. In sum, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) has identified 118 models and variations that are prohibited by the law.
- The ban also prohibits most ammunition feeding devices holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition. Approximately 18% of civilian-owned firearms and 21% of civilian-owned handguns were equipped with LCMs [or “large-capacity magazines”] as of 1994.
- Arguably, the AW-LCM ban is intended to reduce gunshot victimizations by limiting the national stock of semiautomatic firearms with large ammunition capacities – which enable shooters to discharge many shots rapidly – and other features conducive to criminal uses.
So, the 1994 assault weapons ban targeted semiautomatic firearms and magazines that could hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition. The ban also targeted weapons that included innocuous features that serve no purpose to a criminal, such as flash hiders, folding stocks, and threaded barrels. No crime data exist which shows that criminals rely on any of these features advantageously when committing crimes with a firearm. In fact, the opposite is true: Just 0.003% of silencers are ever used in crimes. To establish whether the ban would be effective, studies had to be conducted about the use of the firearms and magazines the ban targeted for prohibition in the first place. These are the primary findings:
The Banned Guns and Magazines Were Used in Up to A Quarter of Gun Crimes Prior to the Ban
- Assault weapons are used in only a small fraction of gun crimes prior to the ban: about 2% according to most studies and no more than 8%.
- Large-capacity magazines were used in crime much more often than assault weapons and accounted for 14% to 26% of guns used in crime prior to the ban.
- Assault weapons and other guns equipped with large-capacity magazines tend to account for a higher share of guns used in murders of police and mass public shootings, though such incidents are very rare.
Initial findings concluded that even without a blanket ban, assault weapons were only used in a small fraction of crimes. Not surprisingly, the study found that weapons containing “large-capacity magazines” were primarily responsible for gun-related crimes. It’s incredibly important to note the concept of the large-capacity magazine is purely a political and media opinion. Every single firearm in production that uses a detachable magazine is capable of carrying more than ten rounds, because gun manufacturers make “high-capacity” magazines that hold more than 10 rounds for all those firearms.
So, all weapons used by criminals and law-abiding gun owners use “large-capacity magazines”. Keep this point in the back of your head.
The Ban’s Success in Reducing Criminal Use of the Banned Guns and Magazines Has Been Mixed
“Mixed” is a nonpartisan though left-leaning way of saying the 1994 assault weapon ban was ineffective. Why was it ineffective? Because the goal of the ban was to reduce gun violence and shootings by banning firearms and magazines. Was that goal accomplished? Did gun violence and shootings happen less frequently overall between 1994 and 2004?
No. Here is the first fact many anti-gun advocates use to argue the ban was effective:
- Following implementation of the ban, the share of gun crimes involving assault weapons declined by 17% to 72% across the localities examined for this study (Baltimore, Miami, Milwaukee, Boston, St. Louis, and Anchorage), based on data covering all or portions of the 1995-2003 post-ban period. This is consistent with patterns found in national data on guns recovered by police and reported to ATF.
So, even with over 100 firearm models comprising tens of millions of individual firearms banned, crimes committed with those firearms did not cease. In some cases, crime rates were only reduced by 17%. Is that truly effective? No, and it’s not surprising, because banning firearms doesn’t make them go away. With nearly half of the world’s 857 million firearms owned by Americans, no federal gun ban will ever achieve its goal by its own definition. But that’s not enough to say the 1994 ban was ineffective in totality. Continuing.
- However, the decline in assault weapon use was offset throughout at least the late 1990s by steady or rising use of other guns equipped with large-capacity magazines in jurisdictions studied (Baltimore, Milwaukee, Louisville, and Anchorage). The failure to reduce LCM use has likely been due to the immense stock of exempted pre-ban magazines, which has been enhanced by recent imports.
One more time: The banning of millions of firearms did not reduce total gun crimes or overall criminal activity in any way, shape, or form. And why would it? Why, when hundreds of millions of firearms are already in circulation, when there is a well-established market, would writing a piece of legislation declaring their use illegal actually do anything?
It wouldn’t. And it didn’t. The final study goes on to claim that the results of the ban would be “not fully felt for several years into the future,” without actually giving any scientific basis for why that is the case. Simple logic says that unless these hundreds of millions of banned firearms and magazines were to somehow disappear from the hands of millions of Americans — law-abiding or criminal — there will never be a reduction gun violence.
But the final nails in the coffin are not yet hammered. The study goes on to admit the ban’s intended effects would likely not materialize if reinstated. This is counterintuitive to the immediate prior claim that such a ban might “eventually” provide some benefit, but we digress:
- Should it be renewed, the ban’s effects on gun violence are likely to be small at best and perhaps too small for reliable measurement. Assault weapons were rarely used in gun crimes even before the ban. Large-capacity magazines are involved in a more substantial share of gun crimes, but it is not clear how often the outcomes of gun attacks depend on the ability of offenders to fire more than ten shots (the current magazine capacity limit) without reloading.
This inevitably leads the study’s results to agree with the inconvenient truth that anti-gun advocates have always ignored: “Assault weapons” like the AR-15, which are semiautomatic sporting rifles that may be painted matte black yet function like any other modern firearm, are simply not the uniquely lethal killing tools that anti-gunners have long claimed them to be.
The study did reveal the one truth that is insurmountable and can never be changed with any amount of legislation: If one type or class of firearm is banned, criminals will rely on others to take its place. Ban AR-15s, and shootings will occur with other rifles. Somehow manage to ban all rifles, and handguns will fill the gap. Ban handguns, and shotguns — which are also capable of semiautomatic fire with detachable magazines — will take their place. Ban all firearms, and they won’t disappear, ever. Those nearly 425 million guns will wind up in the hands of criminals, or they’ll remain in the ownership of millions of Americans who will simply refuse to relinquish their Second Amendment rights.
“But overall gun crime and murders were reduced during the 1994 assault weapons ban!”
It’s unequivocally true, then, that a federal assault weapon ban will never achieve its stated goal. But let’s analyze the next argument an anti-gun person tends to make when confronted with the facts we just analyzed above. The statement that crime and murders were reduced is only partially true. When data related to firearms are analyzed in the context of the assault weapon ban, all the data actually act as further evidence for why the ban wasn’t effective. This number chart in the final study compiled the annual percentage changes in gun murders and general gun crime involving banned weapons from 1991 to 2002:
When the ban took effect in 1994, the ATF traced 82,791 so-called assault weapons to criminal activity. That number declined to 77,503 in 1995 before skyrocketing to 128,653 in 1996 and continually climbing in subsequent years, eventually reaching 229,525 traces in 2002. After the ban took effect, violent crime-related gun traces increased from 10,083 (1994) to 30,985 (2002), too. So, did the 1994 assault weapons ban reduce violent gun crime? Specifically, the use of “assault weapons” in criminal activity in the years following its enactment?
No. The numbers don’t lie. But what about crime in general? Some argue that reducing the sales and proliferation of guns would inherently reduce other types of crime because unarmed criminals are less likely to commit crimes. Some point to data collected during that time that show overall crime rates were reduced during the period of the assault weapon ban in an attempt to argue this implication. But it’s a misleading argument.
Crime rates were already decreasing before the 1994 gun ban. And crime rates continued decreasing after the ban expired.
This data collected directly from the FBI between 1990 and 2018 shows the real picture. Crime rates in the U.S. were already falling from their record highs in the 1980s and early 1990s. The 1994 ban merely rode that wave. Anti-gun lobbyists took the ban’s coinciding passage with this trending reduction in crime and gave the ban some of the credit. Perhaps most damning is the fact that the AR-15, the mascot weapon of the ban and all new attempts to reinstate such a ban, is now the single-most popular firearm sold in the U.S. Yet overall crime in the U.S. also continues to decline to record lows to this day.
“What about mass shootings? They were lower during the assault weapon ban!”
It’s true. There were fewer mass shootings during the assault weapons ban than after it expired. Except this fact is also taken out of context when used to argue the ban was effective. The truth is that mass shootings were not higher in the years before the assault weapon ban took effect, even though overall crime rates were higher. That point alone illustrates that assault weapons are not a primary engine for shootings and violent crime. The final study shown to Congress even concedes this fact. And the whole truth is that mass shootings actually became more frequent at one point during the ban.
If the assault weapon ban was supposedly effective at reducing mass shootings, then why did so many happen at the height of the ban? Columbine happened five years into the ban. Twelve mass shootings occurred between 1997 and 1999 alone. Yes, mass shootings have increased since the ban was allowed to expire in 2004, but to argue that shootings were lower only while the ban was active is simply false.
“But if the assault weapons ban is reinstated, mass shootings will go down.”
Why would that be the case? It probably wouldn’t. Data show that mass shootings are substantially carried out with handguns and shotguns, not “assault rifles” and AR-15s. In fact, mass shooters use handguns and shotguns almost four times more often than rifles.
“Well since ‘assault rifles’ are banned, I guess I’m not going to carry out this mass shooting,” said no shooter, ever. Is this the convenient untruth anti-gun advocates choose to believe in? Remember, the argument we’re analyzing today isn’t about whether a total gun ban would reduce shootings, though we’ll leave the imagination to wonder how lawmakers could ever make over 400 million guns simply go away. We’re arguing whether an assault weapon ban is effective in reducing mass shootings, and violent crime in general.
It simply isn’t.
This is one of the simplest truths left to come to terms with when all the data are analyzed and all the other facts are laid bare: No matter how well-written the legislation may be, no matter how zealously authorities devote resources to seizing certain firearms and jailing their owners, those who would commit mass shootings, murders, and violent crime will always have access to firearms.
To support that argument, let’s look at the types of firearms and weapons used by criminals to kill. Of all murders recorded in 2018 by the FBI, rifles accounted for 297 deaths. Handguns accounted for 6,603 deaths, and shotguns and all firearms not described otherwise accounted for 3,365 deaths. The last point to declare once again and for all is the inarguable fact that prohibits a piecemeal or total gun ban from ever working: A criminal intent on committing a mass shooting, murder, or other crime will not decide against it because he or she must use a handgun, or shotgun, or some other gun instead of an “assault rifle.”
An assault weapon ban never has not changed that and it never will. The only thing a gun ban does is restrict the Second Amendment rights of Americans. To argue a certain type of firearm should be prohibited from ownership by Americans in a factually useless attempt to reduce shootings is to fail to grasp the scope and intent of the Second Amendment.
The Second Amendment was not written by those who escaped tyranny for the purpose of hunting. Nor was it written to provide a means for the individual’s self-defense. It was written to ensure American citizens will always have the physical force which might some day be required to once again protect liberty and their Constitutional rights from tyranny. In 2020, perhaps even those on the far left of the political spectrum would concede such a necessity exists.
That’s a fact.