The 1994 Assault Weapons Ban (AWB) in Review

    I know, I know, just hold on. Before you make the inevitable “guns not politics” comment, just hear me out. We’re not doing politics. I’m not going to be screaming about how [political party] is doing a thing, or how they’re coming for the guns or anything like that. This is purely a data-driven exercise. In this article, I’m going to be reviewing a law that is now (almost) 17 years expired. There is an entire crop of gun owners, myself included, who are way too young to remember the bad old years of the 1994 AWB. I’m going to be discussing what the AWB was, what it did, what it didn’t do, what effects it had, and that’s it. No politics. I promise. Think of it as historical analysis.

    Okay, now you can resume crucifying me in the comments. We’re on!

    The 1994 Assault Weapons Ban

    To put it in context for some of you folks, 1994 is two years before I was born. Congress passed The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. The part we’re interested in is the Assault Weapons Ban or AWB for short. Its full text can be read here, but I’ll go over the highlights.

    1. It became a crime to manufacture, transfer, or possess an Assault Weapon*
      1. *The exception being any assault weapon already possessed before the act went into effect on September 13, 1994.
      2. An Assault Weapon was defined as:
        1. A semi-automatic rifle with the ability to accept a detachable magazine and at least two of the following banned features.
          1. A folding or telescoping stock.
          2. A pistol grip.
          3. A bayonet mount.
          4. A flash suppressor or threaded barrel.
          5. A grenade launcher.
        2. A semi-automatic pistol with the ability to accept a detachable magazine and at least two of the following banned features.
          1. A magwell outside the pistol grip.
          2. A threaded barrel.
          3. A barrel shroud.
          4. A manufactured unloaded weight over 50oz.
          5. Being a semi-automatic version of an automatic weapon.
        3. A semi-automatic shotgun with at least two of the following banned features.
          1. A folding or telescoping stock.
          2. A pistol grip.
          3. A fixed magazine that could hold more than 5 rounds.
          4. The ability to accept a detachable magazine.
    2. It became a crime to manufacture, transfer, or possess, any magazine capable of holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition**.
      1. **Exempting those already possessed prior to the bill becoming law.

    But wait, there’s more!

    There’s also a whole laundry list of banned weapons, that also included any “copycats or duplicates”. This included Kalashnikovs, Uzis, Galils, the Colt AR-15, the Steyr AUG, a bunch of Tec-9 derivatives, a bunch of MAC-10 derivatives, and oddly enough the “street sweeper” style of shotgun. I say oddly because earlier that year (1994) the ATF had already declared street-sweeper style shotguns destructive devices, requiring NFA registration and a tax stamp. Specific exemptions to the AWB were given to some 650-odd guns that were specifically named in the bill as being legal.

    The bill also exempted law enforcement and government agencies from these provisions. This is why you can still sometimes find magazines and firearms stamped with FOR MILITARY/LAW ENFORCEMENT USE ONLY.

    Measuring the AWB’s outcome

    Here’s where we get to nerd out a little bit. We know what the AWB banned, but was it effective? Well, how do we measure effectiveness? First, you have to set some sort of defined metric that can be measured. Then, you measure it. Now it can get a lot more in-depth than that, but fortunately, we don’t have to get into the weeds on this one. The AWB actually included a provision that the Attorney General study the effects of the bill, and even gave us metrics. Specifically, violent crime.

    Crimes are, by and large, measured per capita, or the number of incidents per 100,000 people. As an example, the FBI reported 16,425 homicides in the United States in 2019 (source). Divide 16,425 by the estimated US population in 2019 (328,239,523, per the Census Bureau), and multiply by 100,000 for a per capita homicide rate in 2019 of 5.00. Usually, you don’t get such a nice round number, and really there’s a lot of numbers after that second zero, but general practice is to round to the nearest hundredth, sometimes the nearest tenth.

    Okay, so. We have our metric. Violent crime per capita. A simple analysis would be a before and after, but that’s too simplistic. You have to account for half a dozen different factors. For example, what if the violent crime rate is already decreasing before your intervention has an effect? How fast (or slow) is it decreasing? Could something else be having an effect, like removing lead from gasoline? That’s a real theory by the way, and it’s one I believe in.

    The DOJ Report

    First thing’s first, let’s start with the DOJ report. As I mentioned, the AWB included a provision requiring the Attorney General to fund a study on the outcome of the Assault Weapons Ban. A trio of researchers by the names of Christopher Koper, Daniel Woods, and Jeffrey Roth, made a three-part study. Their final report came out in 2004. You can read the full report here, and I encourage you to take a look. It really is interesting reading. I’ll quote from their conclusions here.

    Should it be renewed, the ban’s effects on gun violence are likely to be small at best and perhaps too small for reliable measurement. AWs were rarely used in gun crimes even before the ban. LCMs are involved in a more substantial share of gun crimes, but it is not clear how often the outcomes of gun attacks depend on the ability of offenders to fire more than ten shots (the current magazine capacity limit) without reloading.

    AW stands for Assault Weapon, and LCM stands for Large Capacity Magazine, which is the researcher’s term for a magazine holding more than 10 rounds. They go on to say that:

    [A] study of handgun attacks in one city found that 3% of the gunfire incidents resulted in more than 10 shots fired, and those attacks produced almost 5% of the gunshot
    victims.

    It’s fairly straightforward. The overwhelming majority of violent crimes have fewer than 10 rounds fired by any single perpetrator. Those few that have more shots fired, result in more gunshot victims.

    However, we shouldn’t rely on any one research paper. There’s a lot of resources out there. I’ve selected a few and will be coupling them with their conclusions.

    An examination of the effects of concealed weapons laws and assault weapons bans on state-level murder rates – Mark Gius 2014

    It was also found that assault weapons bans did not significantly affect murder rates
    at the state level.

    Firearm Laws and Firearm Homicides: A Systematic Review – Lois K. Lee, Eric W. Fleegler, Caitlin Farrell, et. al. 2017

    Specific laws directed at firearm trafficking, improving child safety, or the banning of military-style assault weapons were not associated with changes in firearm homicide rates.

    Impacts of the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban: 1994-96 – Jeffrey A. Roth and Christopher S. Koper

    the ban could have reduced murders by an amount that would escape statistical
    detection. However, other analyses using a variety of national and local data sources found no clear ban effects on certain types of murders that were thought to be more closely associated with the rapid-fire features of assault weapons and other semiautomatics equipped with large capacity magazines. The ban did not produce declines in the average number of victims per incident of gun murder or gun murder victims with multiple wounds.

    With all that having been said, I think it is fair to say that the 1994 AWB did not succeed in its stated goals.

    I look forward to reading the comments section.

    Benjamin is a recent graduate living in Virginia with a master’s degree in Criminology. He was introduced to firearms at summer camp when he was thirteen. Ever since his first shot with a .22LR bolt-action he has been in love with shooting sports. He is a moderator on the TFB Discord, which can be found at https://discord.gg/bcVD9zw, and can occasionally be found on twitter @BFriedmanUSA.


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