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 What was the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban?

The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (the “Act”) was a federal law that comprehensively addressed crime and law enforcement issues. The Act contained the creation of new federal death penalty offenses, the introduction of the Violence Against Women Act, and requirements for tracking sex offenders.

A key provision of the Act made it “unlawful for a person to manufacture, transfer, or possess” a semi-automatic assault weapon of various classes and models and large-capacity ammunition magazines. The provision addressing semi-automatic assault weapons (the “Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Act”) is one of the most recognized sections of the Act, so much so that the law has become popularly known as the Federal Assault Weapons Ban.

The Act was signed into law in 1994 by President Clinton. The Federal Assault Weapons Ban – specifically dealing with the ban on assault weapons – included a sunset provision, which provided that the Act would expire in 20 years (2014) unless new legislation was passed to keep the law alive. There has been no new legislation, so the Act has expired.

What Prompted the Enactment of the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban?

Efforts to create restrictions on assault weapons at the federal government level intensified in 1989 after a teacher and 34 children were shot in Stockton, California, with a semi-automatic Kalashnikov-pattern rifle. Another factor was the Killeen, Texas Luby’s cafeteria shooting in October 1991, which left 23 people dead and 27 wounded. The July 1993 101 California Street shooting, where eight people were killed and six were wounded, also contributed to the ban’s passage.

The Act was meant to address public concerns about mass shootings by restricting firearms that met the criteria for what it defined as a “semiautomatic assault weapon” and magazines that met the criteria for what it defined as a “large capacity ammunition feeding device.

Three former presidents supported the Act. In May 1994, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan wrote to the U.S. House of Representatives to support banning “semi-automatic assault guns.” They cited a 1993 CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll that found 77 percent of Americans supported a ban on manufacturing, selling, and possessing such weapons.

Was there Debate Concerning the Assault Weapons Ban?

Various parties challenged The ban in the courts, alleging violations of their rights under the Constitution. Specifically, those parties challenged the ban as unconstitutional under the Commerce Clause. The ban was also alleged to violate the Equal Protection Clause. It was argued that it banned some semi-automatic weapons that were functional equivalents of exempted semi-automatic weapons and that to do so, based upon a mix of other characteristics, served no legitimate governmental interest.

The reviewing court held that it was “entirely rational for Congress… to choose to ban those weapons commonly used for criminal purposes and to exempt those weapons commonly used for recreational purposes.” The ban was never challenged under the Second Amendment.

Arguments have also indicated that studies show that the ban was ineffective on criminal activities. Research regarding the effects of the ban is limited and inconclusive. There is insufficient evidence to determine the ban’s effectiveness in reducing the overall homicide rate.

The ban was in effect for a limited period, and the vast majority of homicides are committed with weapons that are not covered by it. There is tentative evidence that the ban has reduced fatalities and injuries from mass shootings, as assault weapons are more frequently used for those crimes.

Unsurprisingly, the National Rifle Association (NRA) opposed the ban. In November 1993, NRA spokesman Bill McIntyre said assault weapons “are used in only 1 percent of all crimes.” The low usage statistic was supported in a 1999 Department of Justice brief.

Have There Been Efforts to Renew the Assault Weapons Ban?

The Obama administration was in favor of reinstating the ban. Between 2003 and 2008, several bills were introduced by various senators and representatives.

Efforts were renewed again in 2012 following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newton, Connecticut. Senator Feinstein introduced a bill entitled the “Assault Weapons Ban of 2013.” The bill was similar to the 1994 ban but differed in that it would not expire. The Texas GOP and the NRA opposed the bill, and when brought to a vote, it failed along party lines by a Senate vote of 40 in favor and 60 against. Other attempts to pass legislation banning assault weapons include:

  • An assault weapons ban was proposed in new legislation in 2015. The legislation addressed a variety of assault weapons and accessories, including semi-automatic pistols and shotguns, firearm stocks, barrel shrouds, and high-capacity magazines
  • There was an assault weapons ban legislation proposed in 2017. The bill sought to “amend…the federal criminal code to make it a crime to knowingly import, sell, manufacture, transfer, or possess a semiautomatic assault weapon (SAW) or large capacity ammunition feeding device (LCAFD).”
  • On March 23, 2021, President Joe Biden proposed a new ban on assault weapons after the 2021 Atlanta spree of spa shootings and the 2021 Boulder grocery store shooting, killing 10 people, including an on-duty police officer. On July 29, 2022, the House of Representatives narrowly voted to pass new sweeping firearms restrictions, 217 in favor and 213 against. However, the bill went to the Senate, where it lingered until expiring at the end of the term.

What Does this Mean for Assault Weapons Now?

Although the federal weapons ban has expired, several states have fairly comprehensive gun laws, including restrictions on assault weapons. States with some form of ban are categorized according to how they define assault weapons, what activities are restricted with assault weapons, and whether there are any grandfather provisions.

Ten states have assault weapons bans. California became the first state to enact a ban on assault-style weapons in 1990. Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York followed suit. Illinois and Washington passed similar legislation. The District of Columbia has had restrictions in place dating back to 1932. Each state delineates its own definition of assault-style weapons in its laws.

But the term generally covers the same types of firearms, such as the AR-15-style rifle used in the Uvalde school shooting and the Highland Park shootings in 2022. The definitions generally focus on the more common features of assault weapons (high-capacity firing, for example) or on the parts that can readily be assembled into an assault weapon.

Do I Need Legal Help for an Issue with Assault Weapons?

The Federal Assault Weapons Ban may have expired, but there are still applicable state laws governing the manufacture, transfer, distribution, sale, and possession of assault weapons. Serious penalties and jail time can result in anyone violating these gun laws. Further, efforts continue at the federal level to renew or enact a federal assault ban.

If you are uncertain of your rights in your particular state, it is prudent to consult with a criminal lawyer to understand the most up-to-date status of the state and federal laws regarding assault weapons.

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