The Assault Weapons Ban: How Silly Was It?
Revisiting the comically incompetent law which President Obama wishes to reinstate.
December 19, 2012 - 12:00 am
(President Barack Obama announced Tuesday that he is “actively supporting” a proposal to reinstate a ban on so-called “assault weapons.” In addition, he supports a ban on the sale of firearms from one person to another without federal involvement which gun-control groups have dubbed a “gun show loophole,” and a ban on standard-capacity magazines for rifles, pistols, and shotguns. Instead, he would impose an arbitrarily determined ten-round limit to magazines.
California Democrat Dianne Feinstein — who carried a concealed weapons permit while calling for disarming American citizens — is once again promising to introduce an “assault weapons” ban in the U.S. Senate. New York Senator Chuck Schumer also hoped to push for the ban.
Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen doubts the effectiveness of such “knee jerk” decisions, and columnist Charles Krauthammer noted that the last attempt had “no appreciable influence on gun violence or the lethality of individual attacks.”
Which camp is right?
The following article is a reposting of a July 6, 2011 two-part article detailing the dramatic failure of the assault weapons ban.)
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, February 26, 2009:
As President Obama indicated during the campaign, 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.
The fabled “assault weapons ban.”
Few laws ever passed have been as idolized — and misunderstood — as Title XI of the Federal Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, Subtitle A (the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act).
To listen to the Obama administration, the media, or the nominated head of the ATF spin it, the ban made it illegal to purchase machine guns, and outlawed the ownership or use of high-capacity magazines, saving billions, perhaps trillions, of lives.
That mischaracterization is as wrong as it is laughable. The law had nothing to do with machine guns and real military-issue assault rifles, and did nothing to measurably impact violent crime.
The purpose of the law was to ban the sale and importation of certain semi-automatic (one bullet fired per trigger pull) firearms by name, and a wider group of firearms that had an arbitrarily selected list of largely cosmetic features. These features did not affect the rate of fire, accuracy, or range of the firearms impacted. Firearms were determined to be “assault weapons” – a term that was created by the law itself – if it had two or more of the following features:
Semi-automatic rifles able to accept detachable magazines and two or more of the following:
- Folding or telescoping stock
- Pistol grip
- Bayonet mount
- Flash suppressor, or threaded barrel designed to accommodate one
- Grenade launcher (more precisely, a muzzle device which enables the launching or firing of rifle grenades)
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 that can be used as a hand-hold
- Unloaded weight of 50 oz (1.4 kg) or more
- A semi-automatic version of an automatic firearm
Semi-automatic shotguns with two or more of the following:
- Folding or telescoping stock
- Pistol grip
- Fixed capacity of more than 5 rounds
- Detachable magazine
It was a law passed by lawmakers who desired to “do something,” but who didn’t have the expertise or intelligence to pass a law with any real meaning or measurable impact. It resulted in a 10-year timeframe where this …
These rifles are identical in every regard except that the rifle on the top has a small bit of metal under the front sight to which a bayonet could attach, and a small vented tube on the end of the barrel that redirects unburned gases.
Both are AR-15-pattern rifles that came off the same assembly line, fire the exact same ammunition, and use the same magazines.
The former was criminalized for ultimately absurd reasons, so that lawmakers could claim they were doing something about gun violence. Both were legal to sell, buy, and possess during the life of the ban.
The story was the same for almost every weapon impacted by the law. The offending cosmetics were removed, and the same weapon was sold under a different model number for the duration of the ban — while the “pre-ban” versions became items of interest and demand merely because of the additional features.
Instead of having having an impact on the reduction of gun crime, the “assault weapon ban” instead became a near-comical example of the law of unintended consequences. Prior to the introduction of the legislation, demand for the firearms that became the subject of the ban was relatively light. The public’s interest was piqued, and sales skyrocketed, directly as a result of the law. These firearms had almost no statistical representation in crimes (which the National Institute of Justice admitted two years later), and interest in them grew both before the ban and after it was enacted. One of the unintended consequences of the law was that these firearms that had had a small role at the fringes of the marketplace were suddenly desired by millions.
The assault weapons ban didn’t reduce the number of military-style semi-automatic firearms. It greatly increased their numbers, their public acceptance, and had the effect of mainstreaming them, “pre-ban” rifles and cosmetically de-enhanced “post-ban” rifles alike. Thanks to the “ban,” AR-15 pattern rifles are now among the most popular rifles in America, and have been mainstreamed even among the change-resistant hunting fraternity as “modern sporting rifles.”
So if the ten-year ban period did not see a substantial reduction in gun crimes committed with the kind of firearms banned, and the expiration of the law in 2004 did not result in a massive upswing in violence even after these firearms achieved mainstream popularity and acceptance, why would the Obama administration be so strongly in favor of advocating for a renewal of the ban?
That is something we hope to resolve in Part 2.
On March 30, the 30th anniversary of the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, Jim Brady, who sustained a debilitating head wound in the attack, and his wife, Sarah, came to Capitol Hill to push for a ban on the controversial “large magazines.” Brady, for whom the law requiring background checks on handgun purchasers is named, then met with White House press secretary Jay Carney. During the meeting, President Obama dropped in and, according to Sarah Brady, brought up the issue of gun control: “to fill us in that it was very much on his agenda,” she said.
“I just want you to know that we are working on it,” Brady recalled the president telling them. “We have to go through a few processes, but under the radar.”
In every practical respect, the firearms-related provisions of the “assault weapons ban” were an objective failure. But absurd restrictions on firearms weren’t the only part of that legislation that passed only to succumb to an outcome quite different than it’s anti-gun progenitors had in mind.
Along with creating the term “assault weapon,” this Clinton-era law also created the similarly arbitrary term “high-capacity magazine.”
A detachable magazine is a container that holds cartridges for a given firearm, and the number of cartridges typically varied with the size and the purpose of the weapon at hand and the size of the cartridge it fired. Small turn-of-the-century handguns typically carried magazines of just 6-7 cartridges. The standard magazine capacity of many pistols that became popular in the 1980s was 15 rounds or more. The standard capacity of military grade rifles and carbines was 20-30 rounds. As time progressed, firearm designers were finding ways to put a larger number of cartridges in the magazines of their weapons.
When legislators decided that the “assault weapons ban” should also include a restriction on the number of cartridges that any given magazine could hold, they declared that any magazine that held a greater amount of cartridges was a “high capacity” magazine. It didn’t matter to them that many of the firearms in question had as their standard capacity magazines with round counts from 13-30 rounds or more, or that some of these firearms had had such a capacity since before the congressmen and congresswomen writing the law were born.
Congress arbitrarily decided that 10 rounds was “enough” for American citizens, and included provisions that once the law went into effect, any magazine manufactured after the date the law went into effect that had more than ten rounds would be illegal for anything other than law enforcement use.
Like the firearms provisions of the bill, these magazine provisions also had unintended consequences.
As it turns out, firearms magazines are both typically very robust and reliable in design, and incredibly easy to mass manufacture. Once made, they last indefinitely.
Between the time Congress started signaling that they would create a magazine capacity restriction and the implementation of the law, factories worked 24 hours a day, 7 days a week churning out millions of nothing but high-capacity magazines, which were stockpiled by manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers, and retailers in massive warehouses.
As a result, “high capacity magazines” for most common firearms were freely available throughout the life of the ban. As e-commerce came into early maturity during this time period, many high-capacity magazines were more available than they had been before the ban was signed into law.
Congress had neglected to make the possession or sale of high-capacity magazines illegal, and only outlawed the manufacture of new magazines.
The law had another unforeseen result. As companies looked to introduce new models of pistols, they determined that if they were going to be forced to make pistols limited to a magazine capacity of just 10 rounds, it would be advantageous for them to make these new pistols as small as possible for the concealed carry market. The Glock 26 and Kahr K9 were introduced the following year, and were among the first of a new breed of powerful, ultra-concealable handguns known as “subcompacts.” Similar designs from other companies quickly followed.
Objectively, based purely on the numbers, the assault weapons ban increased both the number of and public acceptance of semi-automatic, military-style rifles, and created a new class of powerful, concealable handguns.
Put another way, the assault weapons ban not only put more guns into the market, it encouraged the development of smaller, more powerful, semi-automatic firearms.
Why, then, would the Obama administration want to reintroduce the ban?
Rest assured, if the administration could find broad support for a reinstatement of the expired ban, it would do everything in its power to fix the mistakes of the past.
Instead of banning a list of guns by name or arbitrary cosmetic features or banning just the manufacture of magazines, they would attempt to model their ban on some of the more restrictive state bans, such as those in California, Maryland, and New York, which would no doubt result in more unintended (and sometimes unbearably cute) consequences.
Attempting to impose such a restrictive and prohibitionist law is far harder today in a nation where judicial interpretations favoring individual gun rights are ascendant. It would take a dramatic and drastic turn of events to undermine the growing gun rights movement and to generate the sort of popular support for more national gun control laws.
Such firearms would have to be used, repeatedly and with great affect, to generate massive levels of violence and the media furor needed to revive a flagging gun control movement. It would almost take a massive covert operation delivering thousands of weapons to violent felons to make this even potentially viable.
Luckily, we all know that can’t happen here.