Federal Assault Weapons Ban

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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 Sept. 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 Sept. 13, 2004, as part of the law’s sunset provision. There have been multiple attempts to renew the ban[1] with no bill reaching the floor for a vote.

Definition of assault weapon

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.

By 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 features from the

Following list of features:

  • Folding or telescoping stock
  • Pistol grip
  • Bayonet mount
  • Flash suppressor, or threaded barrel designed to accommodate one
  • Grenade launcher (more precisely, a muzzle device which enables the launching or firing of rifle grenades)

 

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. In contrast, the term “assault weapon” refers to weapons capable of semi-automatic fire that had those certain features, as listed above. The ban did not cover “assault rifles”, but merely the new category of “assault weapons” which 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 also 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.” 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.

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.”

Compliance

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”. Due to this, some gun-rights groups nicknamed the legislation the “scary gun law.”

The law banned certain feature combinations that many firearms experts considered to be arbitrary. 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. 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.

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 also sold without folding stocks or bayonet lugs, and with standard or “thumbhole” stocks instead of pistol grips. As the production of large-capacity magazines for civilians had also 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. 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.”

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