Former President Bill Clinton was among those pushing for the assault weapon ban to be reinstated, despite studies indicating the ban had little effect when in place.
Clinton signed the ban into law in 1994 but it expired in 2004. It hasn’t been renewed since.
“The tragedies keep happening, while the one thing that we know can reduce the number and the death tolls of mass shootings has not been done: reinstituting the ban on assault weapons and the limit on high-capacity magazines,” Clinton wrote in an op-ed in Time magazine that was published Thursday, Aug. 8.
“I worked hard to pass and was proud to sign the ban on these weapons of war into law, and the results were clear: mass shooting fatalities declined while they were in effect and have risen sharply since they were allowed to lapse.”
The law imposed a 10-year ban on the “manufacture, transfer, and possession” of certain semiautomatic firearms designated as assault weapons.” It grandfathered in assault weapons and large-capacity magazines manufactured before Sept. 13, 1994.
At the time, there was an estimated 1.5 million privately owned assault weapons in the country and nearly 25 million firearms equipped with the magazines, according to investigators (pdf) who researched the effects of the ban. The assault weapons were used in about two percent of gun crimes.
The investigators said the ban had “mixed success.”
The share of gun crimes in which assault weapons were used declined but that was due primarily to the reduction in assault pistols, and that the decline in assault weapon use was offset by steady or rising use of other guns equipped with large-capacity magazines.
“Because the ban has not yet reduced the use of [the magazines] in crime, we cannot clearly credit the ban with any of the nation’s recent drop in gun violence. However, the ban’s exemption of millions of pre-ban assault weapons and [the magazines] ensured that the effects 2 of the law would occur only gradually. Those effects are still unfolding and may not be fully felt for several years into the future, particularly if foreign, pre-ban [magazines] continue to be imported into the U.S. in large numbers,” the authors wrote in the report, which was submitted to Congress in 2004 (pdf).
If the ban were renewed, it might not affect gun crime.
“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,” the authors wrote.
They said the ban, if kept in place, might impact gunshot victimizations but predictions were “tenuous.”
The 2004 report updated two previous reports by the researchers, who were led by Christopher Koper.
Koper and Jeffrey Roth wrote in the second report, which examined the effects from 1994 through 1996 and was published in 1999 (pdf) that all gun bans seem to produce mixed evidence.
“The inconsistency of previous findings may reflect, in part, the interplay of several effects that a ban may have on gun markets. To reduce criminal use of guns and the tragic consequences of such use, a ban must make the existing stockpile of guns less accessible to criminals by, for example, raising their purchase prices. However, the anticipation of higher prices may encourage gun manufacturers to boost production just before the ban takes effect in the hope of generating large profits from the soon-tobe collectors’ items,” they wrote.
“Immediately after the ban, criminals may find it difficult to purchase banned weapons if they remain in dealers’ and speculators’ storage facilities. Over the long term, however, the stockpiled weapons might begin flowing into criminals’ hands, through straw purchases, thefts, or “off-the-books” sales that dealers or speculators falsely report to insurance companies and government officials as theft.”
People pushing for the ban’s reinstatement have cited other studies, including one published this year that said, “mass-shooting related homicides in the United States were reduced during the years of the federal assault weapons ban of 1994 to 2004.” The researchers calculated the yearly rates of mass shooting fatalities as a proportion of total firearm homicide deaths and per U.S. population.
Koper, an associate professor at George Mason University’s Department of Criminology, Law, and Society has since said that the expiration of the ban led to some issues.
”The federal ban had preventative value,” Koper told The Trace this year. “It helped prevent crimes committed with the magazines. And after the ban expired, we saw an increase in attacks with these magazines, which tend to have more deaths and injuries.”
In a study published last year that Koper co-wrote, researchers found that data in recent years shows that “assault weapons and other high-capacity semiautomatics together generally account for 22 to 36 percent of crime guns, with some estimates upwards of 40 percent for cases involving serious violence including murders of police.”
“Assault weapons and other high-capacity semiautomatics appear to be used in a higher share of firearm mass murders (up to 57 percent in total), though data on this issue are very limited,” they added. “Trend analyses also indicate that high-capacity semiautomatics have grown from 33 to 112 percent as a share of crime guns since the expiration of the federal ban—a trend that has coincided with recent growth in shootings nationwide. Further research seems warranted on how these weapons affect injuries and deaths from gun violence and how their regulation may impact public health.”
Number of Assault Weapons; Trump on Ban
No one knows how many assault weapons are in the United States because there’s no national registry for guns.
“Those numbers don’t exist because there’s no national registry,” Jan Kemp, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, told McClatchy last year. “Because by law, we are not allowed to have a national registry.”
A National Rifle Association director said that there are between 8.5 million and 15 million assault rifles in circulation.
President Donald Trump has said in the wake of mass shootings that he supports so-called red flag laws, which enable police and judges to take away guns from people found unstable, as well as expanded background checks, but that there’s “no appetite” for an assault weapons ban.
“There is no political appetite for that at this moment. If you look at the—you could speak, you could do your own polling. And there’s no political appetite, probably, from the standpoint of legislature,” Trump told reporters on Wednesday.
“But I will certainly bring that up. I’ll bring that up as one of the points. There’s a great appetite—and I mean a very strong appetite—for background checks. And I think we can bring up background checks like we’ve never had before. I think both Republican and Democrat are getting close to a bill on—they’re doing something on background checks.”