Federal Assault Weapons Ban

Federal Assault Weapons Ban

The Federal Assault Weapons Ban (AWB) (or Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act) was a subtitle of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, a federal law in the United States that included a prohibition on the manufacture for civilian use of certain semi-automatic firearms, so called "assault weapons". There was no legal definition of "assault weapons" in the U.S. prior to the law's enactment. The 10-year ban was passed by Congress on September 13, 1994, and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton the same day. The ban only applied to weapons manufactured after the date of the ban's enactment.

The Federal Assault Weapons Ban expired on September 13, 2004, as part of the law's sunset provision. There have been multiple attempts to renew the ban,[1] but no bill has reached the floor for a vote.

U.S. Firearms
Legal Topics
Assault weapons ban
ATF Bureau
Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act
Concealed carry in the U.S.
Domestic Violence Offender Gun Ban
Federal Firearms License
Firearm case law
Firearm Owners Protection Act
Gun Control Act of 1968
Gun laws in the U.S. — by state
Gun laws in the U.S. — federal
Gun politics in the U.S.
National Firearms Act
Second Amendment to the Constitution
Straw purchase
Sullivan Act (New York)
Violent Crime Control Act


Definition of assault weapon

Note: there are differing definitions of 'assault weapon' that are listed at Assault weapon. This page refers to the usage in the United States under the previous and proposed assault weapon bans.

Assault weapon refers primarily (but not exclusively) to firearms that had been developed from earlier fully automatic firearms into semi-automatic civilian-legal versions. Semi-automatic firearms, when fired, automatically extract the spent cartridge casing and load the next cartridge into the chamber, ready to fire again; they do not fire automatically like a machine gun, rather, only 1 round is fired with each trigger pull.

In the former U.S. law, the legal term assault weapon included certain specific semi-automatic firearm models by name (e.g., Colt AR-15, TEC-9, non-automatic AK-47s produced by three manufacturers, and Uzis) and other semi-automatic firearms because they possess a minimum set of cosmetic features from the following list of features:

A semi-automatic Kalashnikov AKMS rifle.
An Intratec TEC-DC9 with 32-round magazine; a semi-automatic pistol formerly classified as an Assault Weapon under Federal Law.
Semi-automatic rifles able to accept detachable magazines and two or more of the following:
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

The earlier term assault rifle refers to rifles that are capable of fully automatic fire. By that definition the ban did not cover "assault rifles" at all. Instead, it created a new definition of "assault weapon," a term that was broad enough to encompass all three categories of firearm (rifle, pistol and shotgun) capable of semi-automatic fire and having a combination of features as listed above, but did not include automatic firearms of any type.

Provisions of the ban

The Federal Assault Weapons Ban was only a small part (title XI, subtitle A) of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act.

The act created a definition of "assault weapons" and subjected firearms that met that definition to regulation. Nineteen models of firearms were defined by name as being "assault weapons". Various semi-automatic rifles, pistols, and shotguns were classified as "assault weapons" due to having various combinations of features.

The act addressed only semi-automatic firearms, that is, firearms that fire one shot each time the trigger is pulled. Neither the AWB nor its expiration changed the legal status of fully automatic firearms, which fire more than one round with a single trigger-pull; these have been regulated by the National Firearms Act of 1934 and Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986.

The act separately defined and banned "large capacity ammunition feeding devices", which generally applied to magazines or other ammunition feeding devices with capacities of greater than an arbitrary number of rounds and which up to the time of the act had been considered normal or factory magazines. These ammunition feeding devices were referred to in the media and popular culture as "high capacity magazines or feeding devices". Depending on the locality and type of firearm, the cutoff between a "normal" capacity and "high" capacity magazine was 3, 7, 10, 12, 15, or 20 rounds. The now defunct federal ban set the limit at 10 rounds.

During the period in which the AWB was in effect, it was illegal to manufacture any firearm that met the law's definition of an "assault weapon" or "large capacity ammunition feeding device", except for export or for sale to a government or law enforcement agency. Possession of illegally imported or manufactured firearms was outlawed as well, but the law did not ban the possession or sale of pre-existing "assault weapons" or previously factory standard magazines which had been legally redefined as "large capacity ammunition feeding devices". This provision for "pre-ban" firearms created a higher price point in the market for such items, which lasted until the ban's sunset.

Expiration of the ban

Opponents of the ban claimed that its expiration has seen little if any increase in crime, while Senator Feinstein claimed the ban was effective because "It was drying up supply and driving up prices. The number of those guns used in crimes dropped because they were less available."[2] The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) stated it "can in no way vouch for the validity" of Brady Campaign's claim that the ban was responsible for violent crime's decline.[3]

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studied the "assault weapon" ban and other gun control schemes, and found "insufficient evidence to determine the effectiveness of any of the firearms laws reviewed for preventing violence."[4]


AWB advocates and opponents alike stated that the AWB allowed firearms manufacturers to make minor changes to make their affected firearms legal, and they both described the features affected by the ban as "cosmetic".[5][6] For this reason, some gun-rights groups[who?] nicknamed the legislation the "scary gun law".[citation needed]

The law banned certain feature combinations that many firearms experts[who?] considered to be arbitrary.[citation needed] Manufacturers complied with the law by removing the banned features while leaving the core functionality of the weapons intact. For this, they were criticized as attempting to circumvent the spirit of the law by many gun control groups and even by then-president Bill Clinton.[citation needed] Pro-gun groups responded by pointing out that the manufacturers made and sold exactly what was permitted, and that they could not be held to any standard higher than the law itself.[citation needed]

For example, the AB-10 was a legal version of the TEC-9, with barrel threading and barrel shroud removed; the XM-15 was a legal AR-15 without barrel threading or a bayonet mounting lug; post-ban semi-automatic AK-47s were sold without folding stocks or bayonet lugs, and with standard or "thumbhole" stocks instead of pistol grips. As the production of magazines holding in excess of 10-rounds for civilians had been prohibited, manufacturers sold their post-ban firearms either with newly manufactured magazines with capacities of ten rounds or less, or with pre-ban manufactured high-capacity magazines, to meet changing legal requirements.

The ATF technology branch determined in 1994 that muzzle brakes were not impacted by the AWB, and that muzzle brakes on threaded barrels were not an assault weapon feature, so long as they were welded or soldered in place.

The law prohibited newly manufactured detachable magazines with a capacity of more than ten rounds manufactured after enactment of the law from sale, transfer, or importation. One effect was the increased importation from other countries of large quantities of magazines manufactured before the ban.[citation needed] Former Warsaw Pact countries had large quantities of AK-47 magazines of various capacities that could fit a variety of both pre-ban and post-ban AK-47 variants. Existing stocks of pre-ban American-made magazines were likewise exempt from the ban; this resulted in a brief surge in domestic manufacture of high-capacity magazines before the law took effect. Large capacity magazines manufactured post-ban for military and law enforcement were stamped or etched with the logo "LEO" (for "Law Enforcement Only") and it was illegal for civilians to possess LEO magazines during the ban.

With the ten-round limit on magazine capacity in effect, and some form of concealed carry of firearms legal in over 38 states, manufacturers had an added incentive to design smaller frames at or below the ten-round capacity, thus replacing the previously popular 9mm and .45 ACP higher capacity pistols. Since they could no longer manufacture the popular 15- and 17-round magazines to consumers, continuing to market the large frames designed for such made less sense. Glock introduced their 10-round capacity 9mm semi-automatic pistol, the Glock 26, in August 1994, in apparent anticipation of the legislation. In 1995, the Kahr Arms company was founded; they debuted their ultra-compact 9mm pistol, the K9. In the years that followed, all manufacturers of semiautomatic pistols followed suit, developing a large array of concealable ten-round pistols in various calibers, including 9mm, 10mm, .40 S&W, and .45 ACP.

In March 2004, Kristen Rand, the legislative director of the Violence Policy Center, criticized the soon-to-expire ban by stating "The 1994 law in theory banned AK-47s, MAC-10s, UZIs, AR-15s and other assault weapons. Yet the gun industry easily found ways around the law and most of these weapons are now sold in post-ban models virtually identical to the guns Congress sought to ban in 1994."[7]

Assault weapons ban in New York politics

New York's version of the law is very similar to the Federal version, but New York's version does not have a sunset provision. According to the laws of the State of New York, a magazine with a capacity of more than 10 rounds manufactured after September 14, 1994 cannot be legally possessed by anyone other than a law enforcement officer. A provision of the Federal law required the date of manufacture to be stamped on every newly manufactured "large capacity" magazine. Because that requirement is no longer in effect, the New York magazine ban becomes potentially unenforceable except with respect to those magazines manufactured during the ban and marked according to federal regulations then in effect.

NYS Penal Law § 265.02(6) makes it a class D felony to possess "a large capacity ammunition feeding device," which is defined in Penal Law § 265.00(23) as "a magazine, belt, drum, feed strip, or similar device, manufactured after [September 13, 1994], that has a capacity of, or that can be readily restored or converted to accept, more than ten rounds of ammunition." Possession of unmarked "large capacity" magazines made after the sunset of the federal ban thus subject New Yorkers to felony charges. Police and prosecutors may be able to determine actual manufacture dates of seized magazines from information not generally available to consumers, such as the dates of magazine design changes and parts assembly numbers. The New York ban thus leaves possessors of unmarked post-ban magazines at risk of felony charges since they may not know the magazines were manufactured post-sunset and not pre-ban. However, the prosecution must be able to prove that the subject in possession of the magazine had knowledge that it was in fact a post ban magazine.

During the period of the federal ban, ATF would issue rulings as to whether attachment of a given muzzle device on a post-ban rifle was permissible because it acted only as a brake, or impermissible because it acted as a flash suppressor. As with magazines, the New York regulatory scheme implicitly relied upon such federal regulatory determinations for enforcement of the state's ban. With the sunset of the federal ban, ATF is no longer concerned with classifying muzzle devices. New York residents now may acquire or modify rifles attaching what they believe to be muzzle brakes, but which at some point New York police or prosecutors may deem to be flash suppressors, resulting in arrest or prosecution for unwitting possession of a banned rifle. [See NYS Penal Law § 265.00(22) defining "Assault Weapon" to include "a semiautomatic rifle that has an ability to accept a detachable magazine and has at least two of the following characteristics... (iv) a flash suppressor or threaded barrel designed to accommodate a flash suppressor." There is no definition of "flash suppressor" in § 265.00, which contains all definitions for the ban, thus leaving grounds for arrest and prosecution uncertain until what is or is not a "flash suppressor" is resolved by state courts or clarified by statute.]

Assault weapons bans in other states

In addition to New York (see above), Massachusetts and New Jersey, have enacted similar bans. Cook County of Illinois has enacted a similar, but more restrictive ban. California enacted one of the first bans on semi-automatic rifles in 1989, adding stricter measures to the law several times since. Connecticut has enacted a partial ban.

Effect on crime

It was noted by the National Institute of Justice that should the ban be renewed, its effects on gun violence would likely be small at best and perhaps too small for reliable measurement due to assault weapons rarely being used in gun crimes even before the ban.[8] It should be noted that the United States Department of Justice has not clarified as to whether or not the "assault weapons" used in violent crime were semi-automatic or automatic weapons, and what percentage of semi-automatic ("assault weapons" under legal definition) were used in violent crimes.

A 1999 preliminary study commissioned by the Department of Justice on the Assault Weapons Ban found that firearm related murders dropped 11% from 1994 to 1995, though the "limited [study] time frame weakens the ability of statistical tests to discern effects that may be meaningful from a policy perspective," therefore the ban’s "short-term influence on gun violence has been uncertain, due perhaps to the continuing availability of grandfathered assault weapons, close substitute guns and large capacity magazines, and the relative rarity with which the banned weapons were used in gun violence even before the ban."[9]

The Violence Policy Center (VPC) blamed the gun industry: "Soon after its passage in 1994, the gun industry made a mockery of the federal assault weapons ban, manufacturing 'post-ban' assault weapons with only slight, cosmetic differences from their banned counterparts. The VPC estimates that more than one million "assault weapons" have been manufactured since the ban's passage in 1994."[6]

In 2001, Koper and Roth of the Jerry Lee Center of Criminology, University of Pennsylvania, published a peer-reviewed paper called The Impact of the 1994 Federal Assault Weapon Ban on Gun Violence Outcomes: An Assessment of Multiple Outcome Measures and Some Lessons for Policy Evaluation. They found that:

"The ban may have contributed to a reduction in gun homicides, but a statistical power analysis of our model indicated that any likely effects from the ban will be very difficult to detect statistically for several more years. We found no evidence of reductions in multiple-victim gun homicides or multiple-gunshot wound victimizations. The findings should be treated cautiously due to the methodological difficulties of making a short-term assessment of the ban and because the ban's long-term effects could differ from the short-term influences revealed by this study."[10]

The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence examined the impact of the Assault Weapons Ban in a 2004 report entitled On Target: The Impact of the 1994 Federal Assault Weapon Act.[11] The report looked at 1.4 million guns involved in crime and determined that "since the law’s enactment ... assault weapons have made up only 1.61% of the guns ATF has traced to crime — a drop of 66% from the pre-ban rate" and that the Act prevented 60,000 assault weapon crimes over its 10-year period.

Other views of the ban's effectiveness at reducing crime have been more critical; indeed, many authorities have questioned as to whether crime reduction was the principal intent of the Assault Weapons Ban. According to Dave Workman, the senior editor of GunWeek, a publication of the Bellevue, Wash.-based Second Amendment Foundation:

"The Clinton-era 'assault weapons ban' was more symbolic than anything else. The reason it was so overwhelmingly supported by the gun control movement was because it represented a federal ban on firearms based on cosmetic circumstances - what they looked like - not on their lethality. It was to condition the public to accept a piecemeal destruction of the Second Amendment."

Efforts to renew the ban

On March 2, 2004, with the 'sunset' of the ban on the horizon, assault weapon ban supporter Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) attached a ten-year extension to the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban to the Senate's Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act. With the Feinstein amendment, the bill was voted down 8-90.

Assault Weapons Ban and Law Enforcement Protection Act of 2007

In February 2007 a bill, H.R. 1022, called the Assault Weapons Ban and Law Enforcement Protection Act of 2007 sponsored by Representative Carolyn McCarthy of New York (D) was introduced that would reinstitute and expand the ban on assault weapons. It reduces the number of requirements for a firearm to be classified as an assault weapon from two to one. It additionally includes, in H.R. 1022 Section L, the expansion of the legal term assault weapon to any

"... semiautomatic rifle or shotgun originally designed for military or law enforcement use, or a firearm based on the design of such a firearm, that is not particularly suitable for sporting purposes, as determined by the Attorney General. In making the determination, there shall be a rebuttalable presumption that a firearm procured for use by the United States military or any Federal law enforcement agency is not particularly suitable for sporting purposes, and a firearm shall not be determined to be particularly suitable for sporting purposes solely because the firearm is suitable for use in a sporting event."

On the April 18, 2007 showing of MSNBC's program, Tucker, Tucker Carlson interviewed McCarthy concerning the Virginia Tech massacre and her proposed reauthorization of the Assault Weapons Ban. He asked her to explain the need to regulate barrel shrouds, one of the many provisions of the Act.[12] She responded that more importantly the legislation would ban large capacity "clips" used in the Virginia Tech massacre and that the class of guns chosen were those used by gangs and police killers. However, a panel concluded it would not have made a difference in that situation.[13] After admitting that she did not know what a barrel shroud was, McCarthy incorrectly stated, "I believe it is a shoulder thing that goes up."[14]

The Bill was referred to the United States House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security on March 19, 2007. As of December 17, 2007, the bill had 60 cosponsors.[12]

This bill never became law.

Assault Weapons Ban Reauthorization Act of 2008

H.R. 6257 was introduced by Mark Kirk (R Ill.-10) on 12 June 2008 and sought to re-instate the Assault Weapons Ban for a period of ten years, as well as to expand the list of banned weapons. This bill was referred to the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security on July 28, 2008. It had four co-sponsors supporting it: Michael N. Castle (R Del.-1), Mike Ferguson (R N.J.-7), Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R Fla.-18) and Christopher Shays (R Conn.-4).

This bill never became law, as it was still in Subcommittee when Congress ended the 110th Session on 3 January 2009.[15]

Urban policy agenda of President Obama

Shortly after the November 4, 2008 election, Change.gov, the website of the office of then President-Elect Barack Obama, listed a detailed agenda for the forthcoming administration. This includes "making the expired federal Assault Weapons Ban permanent."[16] This statement was originally published on Barack Obama's campaign website, BarackObama.com.[17] When President Obama took office on January 20, 2009, the agenda statement was moved to the administration's website, WhiteHouse.gov, with its wording intact.[18][19]

On February 25, 2009, the newly sworn-in Attorney General, Eric Holder, repeated the Obama Administration's desire to reinstate the Federal Assault Weapons Ban.[20] The mention came in response to a question, about 20 minutes into to a joint press conference with DEA Acting Administrator Michele Leonhart, discussing efforts to crack down on Mexican drug cartels. Attorney General Holder said: "[...] 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."[21]

However on April 16, 2009, President Obama stated that he will not push for the reinstatement of the Assault Weapons Ban in the United States even though he still believes that it "made sense". Obama has proposed instead to ratify an inter-American treaty known as CIFTA (Inter-American Convention Against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives, and Other Related Materials) to curb international small arms trafficking. The treaty makes the unauthorized manufacture and export of firearms illegal and calls for nations in this hemisphere to establish a process for information-sharing among different countries' law enforcement divisions to stop the smuggling of arms, to adopt strict licensing requirements, and to make firearms easier to trace.[22]

See also


  1. ^ H.R. 2038, H.R. 3831, H.R. 5099, H.R. 1312, H.R. 1022, H.R. 6257
  2. ^ Was assault-weapon ban a dud?
  3. ^ Torsten Ove (2004) Assault Weapon Ban’s Effectiveness Debated, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 3/26/04
  4. ^ http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/rr5214a2.htm]
  5. ^ Finally, the end of a sad era -- Clinton Gun Ban stricken from books! National Rifle Association
  6. ^ a b Violence Policy Center Issues Statement on Expiration of Federal Assault Weapons Ban Violence Policy Center
  7. ^ Senate-Passed Assault Weapons "Ban" Will Do Little to Keep Assault Weapons Off Our Streets, Violence Policy Center (VPC) Warns Violence Policy Center
  8. ^ An Updated Assessment of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban: Impacts on Gun Markets and Gun Violence, 1994-2003 National Institute of Justice
  9. ^ Impacts of the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban: 1994-96 National Institute of Justice
  10. ^ SpringerLink - Journal Article
  11. ^ On Target: The Impact of the 1994 Federal Assault Weapon Act Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence
  12. ^ a b "Assault Weapons Ban and Law Enforcement Protection Act of 2007 (Introduced in House)". Library of Congress THOMAS database. February 13, 2007. http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c110:H.R.1022:. Retrieved 2007-05-13. 
  13. ^ "Gun Purchase and Campus Policies". http://www.governor.virginia.gov/TempContent/techPanelReport-docs/10%20CHAPTER%20VI%20GUN%20PURCHASE%20AND%20CAMPUS%20GUN%20POLICIES.pdf. Retrieved 2011-04-12. 
  14. ^ "'Tucker' for April 18 - Tucker - MSNBC.com". Msnbc.msn.com. April 19, 2007. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/18200226/. Retrieved 2008-09-06. 
  15. ^ [1]
  16. ^ Change.gov Urban Policy
  17. ^ http://origin.barackobama.com/issues/urban_policy/ BarackObama.com Urban Policy
  18. ^ whitehouse.gov Urban Policy
  19. ^ http://www.factcheck.org/askfactcheck/did_obama_promise_last_year_to_ban.html FactCheck.org
  20. ^ http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/story?id=6960824&page=1 ABC News: Obama to Seek New Assault Weapons Ban
  21. ^ http://www.c-span.org/Watch/watch.aspx?MediaId=HP-A-15821 C-SPAN.org
  22. ^ Tapper, Jake; Sunlen Miller (April 17, 2009). "President Obama to Face Opposition from Gun Lobby, Possibly Democrats, to Ratify Treaty on Firearms Trafficking". ABC News. http://blogs.abcnews.com/politicalpunch/2009/04/president-ob-18.html. Retrieved 2009-05-05. 

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