The issue of gun control is, by all accounts, hyper-partisan and prone to inaction. Yet, in light of frequent mass shootings, it is important to reexamine the arguments surrounding the effectiveness of an assault weapons ban, which is often touted as a panacea to these instances of mass violence. An assault weapons ban, which was the law of the land for an entire decade, would prohibit the use of semi-automatic weapons classified as “assault weapons.” So, the question is: would a renewed assault weapons ban make our communities safer or not?
In March of 2013, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein sponsored a renewal of the Assault Weapons Ban in a bill that closely resembled its 1994 predecessor. This bill calls for all manner of restrictions on so-called “assault weapons.”
Please, forgive the quotations I’ve thrown around this term, but they are needed as “assault weapon” lacks a true definition in the public mind.
If you mention “assault weapons” to most people, they might think of machine guns or military rifles. However, the 2013 Assault Weapons Bill defines assault weapons as pretty much whatever Dianne Feinstein says they are.
Included in the list of proscribed weapons: “a shotgun with a revolving cylinder,” “a semiautomatic rifle with a pistol grip” and “pistol with a fixed magazine that can accept more than 10 rounds,” as well as dozens of others.
According to this language, a pistol is an assault weapon if its magazine can hold more than 10 rounds. With this in mind, it makes sense that so much propaganda railing against the ownership of “assault weapons” frames the battle as one against military-style semi-automatic rifles. The specter of the AR-15 is a common target for gun control advocates.
According to FBI statistics, however, semi-automatic rifles account for very few murders.
In 2013, all rifles accounted for just 3 percent of gun homicides. The semi-automatic variety is such a small portion of this total that statistics on its use in homicides aren’t kept.
Despite the horrors of Tucson, Columbine and Sandy Hook, overall gun homicide rates have seen a remarkable drop in the last 20 years.
According to a 2013 Department of Justice (DOJ) Study, gun homicides decreased 39 percent from 1993 to 2011. The decrease per capita is closer to 50 percent, and the numbers strongly suggest that the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban had nothing to do with this drop.
Homicide rates started falling in the mid-‘90s and were hovering around four gun murders per 100,000 people by the late-‘90s. When the Assault Weapons Ban expired and wasn’t renewed in 2004, those rates stayed more or less the same. In 2011, the last year included in the DOJ study, the figure was at 3.6, the lowest rate of any year in the study.
This remarkable drop was part and parcel of an overall decrease in crime rates that occurred in the 1990s. According to Inimai Chettier of The Atlantic, crime rates are about half of what they were at their 1991 peak. Explanations for this fortunate phenomenon abound. They include low inflation, the trickle down effect of Roe v. Wade and a lower proportion of youth relative to the overall population, but virtually no one credits the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban.
This doesn’t stop Sen. Feinstein from staking a claim on lowering crime rates. Unfortunately for her, the DOJ disagrees.
In a 2004 study measuring the effectiveness of the overall ban, the DOJ declares: “We cannot clearly credit the ban with any of the nation’s recent drop in gun violence.”
An assault weapons ban would not solve the problem of gun violence. Let’s be honest, a ban on assault weapons is a reaction to the mass shootings we’ve seen throughout the country. We should remember that these deaths, as awful as they are, make up a tiny fraction of gun homicides as a whole.
The majority of deaths are frequently the result of would-be petty crimes, gang violence and the drug trade. They don’t burden our collective conscience because they aren’t even news anymore due to their ubiquity.
There are at least 300 million guns currently in the United States, and law-abiding citizens own the vast majority of those weapons.
And, in the very near future, we will have to come to grips with 3D-printed guns (yes, that’s already a real thing), so doubling down on gun control strikes me as a futile exercise.
An assault weapons ban would not be a solution to gun violence but rather a perfunctory substitute for a solution.
Gun violence stems from deeply entrenched socio-economic problems, and if we want to actually solve the root issue generating all this violence, that is where we should focus our efforts.
Gun control is a divisive topic in political circles and a huge point of contention between our two competing political parties.
Of course, you don’t have to be involved in politics at all to know that a presidential candidate’s views on gun control play a significant role in how popular he or she ultimately is.
As of Sept. 8, the United States was averaging 1.05 mass shootings per day in 2015, with a mass shooting being defined as an incident in which four or more people are shot. With a statistic like that, how could you argue that something doesn’t need to be done about gun control?
However, the idea of controlling the manufacturing and selling of assault weapons specifically opens a whole new can of worms.
While most gun crimes are committed with handguns, an Everytown for Gun Safety analysis of all American mass shootings between January 2009 and July 2014 discovered that 156 percent more people were shot and 63 percent more people were killed when shooters used assault weapons or high-capacity magazines than other types of firearms. With this statistic in mind, it is easy to understand why there is a concern about the ease with which the public can access guns classified as “assault weapons.”
It is no secret that the 1994 Federal Assault Weapon Act was ineffective.
In a 2004 report, the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence reported that, “in the five-year period before enactment of the Federal Assault Weapons Act (1990-1994), assault weapons named in the Act constituted 4.82 percent of the crime gun traces the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and explosives (ATF) conducted nationwide. Since the law’s enactment, however, these assault weapons have made up only 1.61 percent of the guns ATF has traced to crime.”
So while the ban did have an effect, it wasn’t one large enough to justify the ban itself. Yet, I would not say that an assault weapons ban is going to be ineffective no matter what. The 1994 ban, in and of itself, was flawed.
The major problem with it was that it only applied to semi-automatic weapons that were manufactured after the date that the act was passed, meaning that an estimated 1.5 million assault weapons already in circulation prior to 1994 were unaffected. It is safe to say that, that statistic is the only explanation one would need as to why the ban was ineffective.
Another major problem with the assault weapons ban was that the law’s definition of an assault weapon made it easy for manufacturers to adjust guns’ features in order to evade the ban. For example, any semiautomatic rifle with a bayonet mount and a pistol grip was an “assault weapon.” However, a semiautomatic rifle with just a pistol grip was technically legal.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein is the author of the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban, and since its expiration in 2004, she has pushed for similar legislation to be reenacted.
In 2013, after the Sandy Hook shooting, she introduced a new assault weapons bill that failed to pass due to its similarity to the original act.
Something that would make a new assault weapons ban more effective would be to require reporting of multiple sales of “assault weapons” by gun dealers nationwide, just as has been required for multiple sales of handguns since 1975.
These kind of reports would provide crucial intelligence regarding firearms trafficking.
Another more effective way of regulating the use of semiautomatic guns would be to require individuals wanting to purchase or possess an assault weapon to first obtain a permit. Such a law already exists for fully automatic guns, the National Firearms Act of 1934.
This kind of system seeks to find a balance between protecting the public from potentially dangerous activity while allowing law-abiding gun owners to engage in these activities.
While I acknowledge that this balance is delicate and difficult to achieve, I’m also optimistic enough to wholeheartedly believe that it is not impossible.