The Assault Weapons Ban: How Silly Was It?
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.