There are federal and state legislation that restrict the manufacture, transfer, ownership and possession of weapons. What is defined as a weapon varies from state to state, and at the federal level as well, according to each piece of legislation. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act was a federal law that comprehensively addressed crime and law enforcement issues.

A key provision of this Act made  it “unlawful for a person to manufacture, transfer, or possess” a semi-automatic assault weapons (various classes and models) and large capacity ammunition magazines.

The law banned certain assault weapons, but also had other objectives, including the creation of new federal death penalty offenses, introduction of the Violence Against Women Act, and requirements for tracking of sex offenders.

The provision (Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Act) addressing  semi-automatic assault weapons is one of the most recognized sections of the Act, so much so that it is  has become popularly known as the Federal Assault Weapons Ban.

It was signed into law in 1994 by President Clinton. The Federal Assault Weapons Ban—that portion dealing specifically with the ban on assault weapons—included a sunset provision which caused the ban to expire in 2014 in the absence of new legislation.

What Prompted the Enactment of the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban?

There were many events that escalated efforts to pass legislation to ban certain assault weapons. For example, concurrent with the passage of the law, there were several mass shootings as well as other violent and high-profile events in the months leading up to the introduction of the bill which eventually became the law. The result was the increased momentum to expand existing federal laws and introduce new restrictions.  

Was there Debate Concerning the Assault Weapons Ban?

The ban was challenged in the courts by various parties, alleging violations of their rights under the Constitution. Specifically, those parties challenged the ban as unconstitutional under the Commerce Clause and the Equal Protection Clause. As well, there have been arguments that studies show that the ban was ineffective on criminal activities.

Have there Been Efforts to Renew the Assault Weapons Ban?

Several legislations were introduced to renew or replace the assault weapons ban even before it expired in 2014.

  • 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.
  • 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 seeks 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).”

As of January 2019, not a single effort to renew or replace the assault weapons ban have been successful.

What Does this Mean for Assault Weapons Now?

Although the federal weapons ban expired, there are other federal laws that may impact  how you possess, manufacture or transfer a firearm. As well, various states have fairly comprehensive gun laws, including restrictions on assault weapons.

California, New York, and Massachusetts are just three states which have enacted legislation banning or restricting the possession, transference or manufacture of assault and deadly weapons.

States that have 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.

Massachusetts, for example, has a two-point ban. First there is a ban on the sale, transfer or possession of the types of assault weapons specifically identified by statute (which it defines to include “copies” and “duplicates).”

Second, there is a ban on the types of semi-automatic weapons identified in the definitions in the expired Federal Assault Weapons Ban. Other states have adopted definitions that focus on the more common features of assault weapons (which when present trigger a ban—high capacity firing, for example) or focus 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 may still be applicable laws governing the manufacture, transfer, distribution, sale, and possession of assault weapons. As well, there are state laws in play which may provide an expanded definition of assault weapons.

Serious penalties and jail time can result for any person who violates 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.