The 1994 Assault Weapons Ban Fact & Fiction

As the current debate surrounding firearms heats up, in particular regarding devices often incorrectly referred to as “assault weapons” and “high capacity” magazines, many gun control advocates are demanding a renewal of the 1994 Assault Weapons which expired in 2004. The ’94 AWB was responsible for non-retroactively prohibiting the possession of “assault rifles” that had certain features (pistol grips, bayonet lugs, flash hiders etc.) and magazines of capacities greater than 10rds. What it was not responsible for is any reduction in the crime rate during the time it was in effect, and here is why.

Before graduating with a bachelor’s degree from St. Anselm, those students in their senior year majoring in criminal justice are required to write a comprehensive research paper on a crime-related topic of their choosing. I choose to write about gun control; the title of my paper being “The Effectiveness of Federal and State Gun Control Measures at Reducing Crime Rates”. One area of legislation I examined was the 1994 AWB. I dove deep into areas and aspects of crime that are rarely if ever are mentioned when discussing the topic of gun control. I did this not only by examining existing scholarly research but also by closely analyzing crime rates of varying types to see what, if any effects the ban had. What I found flies in the face of nearly all the so-called facts and evidence that gun-control advocates offer in support of renewing what was clearly a failed piece of legislation from the ground up.

I wrote the paper before this current climate ensued, but I firmly believe my findings discussed below are more relevant now than ever before. It is my hope that when accurate, true facts such as these come to light people will be unwilling to support any renewal of the ’94 AWB. Perhaps philosopher George Santayana explained this situation best, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. So for the sake of all law-abiding gun owners who were and would be affected again, please do not forget that an assault weapons ban has been tried before and that it was a failure.

Myth: The 1994 Assault Weapons Ban was responsible for the sharp reduction in crime during the 1990’s and early 2000’s.

 Facts: It is indeed true that crime drastically declined beginning in the early 1990’s, but few if any criminologists believe the decline to be a result of the ’94 AWB. Instead, there are three major factors that are widely held to be responsible for the drop.

Crack – The 1980’s witnessed what is now referred to as the crack epidemic. It was a period of steadily increasing addition to crack cocaine by lower-income individuals, usually within inner cities, that was accompanied by a great deal of drug-related violent crime. In the early 1990’s, for reasons still debated, the crack epidemic suddenly ended.

Prison – The national average of incarcerated individuals per 100,000 rose from 292 in 1990 to 444 in 1997. Many of these individuals were responsible for the violent crime associated with the crack epidemic, and incarcerated as a result of laws aimed at crack that carried strict mandatory sentences.

Police – In 1994 Congress appropriated 9 billion dollars to hire an estimated 100,000 additional police officers, greatly increasing the ability of law enforcement to respond to and combat crack and violent crime.

Furthermore, the violent crime rate began to decline in 1993 (1,926,017 incidents) from its peak in 1992 (1,932,274 incidents), one year before the ban. It continued to decline throughout 1994 (1,857,670 incidents), and although that was indeed the year the ban was passed, it did not go into effect until near the end of the year in September, thus 1994 represents in large part a pre-ban year.

Myth: Crime began to again increase once the ban expired in 2004.

Facts: Crime did slightly increase in 2005, however much of this increase was property crimes such as theft and burglary. The second half of 2005 was a year of economic downturn and slow growth, events many criminologists attribute to rising crime rates, particularly those monetary related.

This slight increase was similar to spikes in firearm homicides that occurred in 2002 and 2003, and the national violent crime rate in 2001, during which time the ban was in effect. Furthermore, the spikes in robberies that were committed with a firearm correlated with spikes in robberies committed with other weapons. By 2009, 5 years after the ban expired and “assault weapons” and “high capacity” magazines were freely available, the violent crime rate was lower than it had ever been during the AWB despite an increase in the national population by nearly 50 million since 1994

Myth: “Assault Weapons” are popular amongst criminals and widely used in crime

Facts: This is flat-out untrue. Almost every study that has examined the prevalence of “assault weapons” has found that it is exceptionally rare that they are used during the commission of a crime. Take a look at the following statistics, reported as part of research studies conducted by criminologists during the early 1990’s regarding “assault weapons” prominence amongst criminals:

In 1993, 16% of murders and 8% of ATF trace requests involved an AW in NYC. During the past while researching gun legislation in NY I have found the NYPD to use a very liberal (in the traditional sense of the term) interpretation of what constitutes an AW, so I believe these statistics to be comparatively high.

According to the ATF, none of the ten most frequently traced firearms in 1994 were “assault weapons”. Instead they were mostly cheap .25 and .38 pistols.

According to criminologist Gary Kleck, only 1.8% of firearms recovered as part of criminal investigations were “assault weapons”.

When interviewed by the LA Times in 1992 the LA Sheriff’s department reported only 28 of 341 homicides, and the LAPD only 2% of homicides involved an “assault weapon”.

Only 8% of prisoners reported having possessed an “assault weapon” when questioned in 1993, and less than 1% said they had used it during the commission of the crime for which they were imprisoned.

It is also worthy to mention that in 1994 almost 80% of firearms submitted for trace requests to the ATF were handguns; few were rifles (11%) or shotguns (10%). The percentage of rifles is actually comparatively high, as many studies have found the number to hover around 3-5%.

Myth: “High capacity” magazines dramatically increase the carnage of shootings and result in criminals firing dozens of rounds without needing to reload.

Facts: Aside from the technical impossibility of continuous fire that the media seems to believe is not only possible but frequent, it is rather uncommon that anywhere approaching 10rds are ever fired by suspects during the commission of a crime. While recent events such as the shootings in CO and CT are tragic, they exceptionally rare and constitute only a fraction of a percent of all criminal shootings. Take a look at the following numbers regarding shots fired:

In NYC in 1994 the NYPD reported the average number of shots fired by suspects during shootouts with police was 3.7. These are altercations which typically have a higher number of shots fired than other types of shootings.

Studies cited by Gary Kleck found a similar trend, with well under 10rds fired during homicides.

The number of gunshot wounds sustained by those admitted to Washington D.C.’s main trauma ward was 4 or less for 92% of victims. This was during the height of the crack epidemic in a city well known for a high violent crime rate.

Between 1974-1995 when semi-automatic rifles and “high capacity ” magazines were gaining popularity, firearm fatality rates actually decreased from 4.3 to 3.3 to 2.9%.

Written by Marcus Dilloff, posted by Massachusetts Firearms Lawyer Jesse C. Cohen