Much has been said of late about the need to ban “assault weapons” (AW) or “weapons of war”. Polls show unprecedented support for a nationwide ban on these weapons. When used in the context of legislation or bills, these terms have been defined in a variety of ways, needlessly offend certain gun owners, and may even serve as impediments to effective laws. In this article, we propose a different approach and one that avoids the pitfalls of previous AW bans as well as bills filed since the mass shooting at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
The Problem: Unless one has lived in a cave over the last 20 years or so, it has become apparent that mass shootings have become an increasing concern in the US. The largest massacres have almost always involved the use of weapons like the AR-15 and its relatives in Las Vegas (with the aid of bump stocks), at the Orlando Pulse nightclub, Virginia Tech, Aurora Century Theater, and Sandy Hook Elementary School, as well as in Parkland. One analysis has found that an average of 9 more people are shot and 3 more people are killed in mass shootings in which these weapons or high-capacity magazines (HCM) are used, illustrating the emptiness of the slogan: “Guns don’t kill, people do.”
An analysis conducted for my book, Confronting Gun Violence in America, shows that the number of public mass killings by firearm more than doubled from the 1980s to the 1990s and 2000s. Between 2010 and 2015, the annual number of incidents has again increased sharply, at over four times the frequency observed in the 1980s. More than half of the 30 deadliest mass shootings since 1949 have occurred since 2007. The average number of deaths per year resulting from mass public shootings also has increased and, since 2010, was almost four times that of the 1980s. It is worth noting that the acceleration in the number of large-scale mass shootings occurred following the expiration of the national AWs ban.
The increasing annual number of fatalities is especially noteworthy because great strides have been made in the management of bullet wounds over the last 15 years or so due to lessons learned on the battlefields of Afghanistan. Thus, despite higher survival rates, we see an increasing toll from mass shootings, reflecting the greater lethality of weapons and an increasing proportion of victims who incur multiple bullet wounds. This makes sense as we know that there is a growing number of military-style weapons in the civilian market. The gun industry introduced these weapons into the civilian market in the 1980s in response to the saturation of their core market (white, rural males) with conventional firearms.
The Assault Weapons Ban of 1994: The federal AWs ban, in force between 1994 and 2004, prohibited the manufacture, transfer, and possession of those semi-automatic firearms designated as AWs. The weapons subject to the ban were characterized by features (see below) suitable to military and criminal applications rather than sport shooting or self-defense. Over one hundred firearm models, including certain pistols and shotguns, were covered by the ban. The ban also covered HCMs holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition. This aspect of the ban extended beyond designated AWs as it applied to many non-banned weapons that could be equipped with these magazines. At the time the ban took effect, it was estimated that 1.5 million AWs were privately-owned in the US along with about 25 million HCMs. Millions more of the HCM’s manufactured before the ban were imported into the country by 2000.
The ban yielded mixed results with regard to its effect on violent crime. While there was no discernible reduction in gun crime or gun homicide, in six major cities—Baltimore, Boston, Miami, St. Louis, Anchorage, and Milwaukee—the share of gun crimes committed with weapons covered by the ban declined by between 17 % and 72 % during the ban. Nationally, traces of guns used in crimes were 70% less likely to involve AWs during the ban. Louis Klarevas, author of Rampage Nation, found that gun massacres, defined as incidents involving six or more fatalities, were nearly cut in half during the ban in comparison with the ten-year period preceding it. In the decade following the ban’s expiration, fatalities again increased dramatically, more than tripling the deaths seen during the ban.
The reduction in crime by assault weapons was, in part, offset by the substitution of military-style firearms that technically did not qualify as AWs. Also, during the ban, a study of four cities indicated that guns with HCMs actually rose as semi-automatics were being equipped with them. In addition, the grandfathering provisions of the AWs ban, which allowed weapons and HCMs already manufactured to continue to be sold, undercut its effectiveness. Approximately 25 million of these magazines remained in the country and millions more were available for import from other countries. In fact, manufacturers took advantage of the grandfathering provisions by boosting production of designated AWs in the months leading up to the ban, creating a large stockpile of these items. By contrast, in Australia’s well-known and successful ban, pre-ban weapons were bought back rather than exempted from the ban.
The manner in which weapons covered by the ban were defined also undermined its effectiveness. The federal ban and current state laws define “AWs” by their features, some of which are irrelevant to the harm the weapon can produce. Under the 1994 ban, an assault weapon included semi-automatic rifles capable of accepting detachable magazines and possessing two or more of the following features:
- Folding stocks for concealment and portability;
- Pistol grip protruding conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon;
- A bayonet mount;
- A flash suppressor or threaded barrel designed to accommodate a flash suppressor; or
- A grenade launcher.
Definitions based on these features create a loophole by allowing manufacturers to circumvent the law simply by making minor modifications to a weapon. For example, removing flash suppressors and bayonet mounts makes a weapon no less dangerous but can get around a features-based definition.
Overall, the 1994 ban showed some promise but the potential effectiveness was reduced by the grandfathering provisions and the features-based definition of “assault-style” weapons. In addition, those evaluating the law made the point that the ban’s exemption of millions of AWs and HCMs manufactured before the ban meant that the impact of the law would be gradual and would not be fully realized for several years beyond its expiration, especially as HCMs made before the ban kept pouring into the market.
A New Approach Focusing on Weapon Lethality: The first AW ban in the US, The Roberti-Roos Assault Weapons Control Act of 1989, was enacted in California following the massacre of schoolchildren by a drifter who fired 106 rounds of ammunition in three minutes with a semi-automatic military-style weapon. The law defined an AW as one with “a high rate of fire and capacity for firepower that its function as a legitimate sports or recreational firearm is substantially outweighed by the danger that it can be used to kill and injure human beings.” Unfortunately, the law failed to explicitly define such terms as ‘high rate of fire,’ and ‘capacity for firepower”. Instead of defining these terms and banning weapons that met these definitions, the law listed over 50 specific banned guns, and added some cosmetic features (collapsible stock, flash hider, etc.) which have no impact on a gun’s lethality.
When the Federal Government enacted its AW ban in 1994, it borrowed the list of California-banned guns, included the various design features but dropped any reference to lethality; i.e., no mention of ‘high rate of fire’ or ‘capacity for firepower’ at all. This opened the door for gun rights advocates to claim that, functionally, there is no real difference between an AR-15 and any other kind semi-automatic rifle.
To address this void, I propose identifying the most dangerous firearms and regulating them, not on the basis of what they look like but on their ability to kill and injure as many people as possible in the shortest time frame. National gun expert Mike Weisser proposes a method of scoring the lethality of a firearm on the basis of five factors: This system is an objective one which is not influenced by cosmetic modifications intended to circumvent regulations.
- Caliber – Larger and faster projectiles tend to cause more damage to human tissue, although the design of bullets and the materials used to make them are also important;
- Capacity – The number of cartridges that can be fired without reloading;
- Loading mechanism – The speed at which a rifle can be reloaded;
- Action – Time required to fire a single cartridge and bring the next cartridge into the breech;
- Design flexibility—the ability of a firearm to accommodate accessories, some of which increase lethality (e.g., lasers, electronic aiming devices, fore grips).
Once a scoring system is in place, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) has the expertise and facilities in place to evaluate each firearm on the market and give it a lethality score. This will allow for a classification of firearms on the basis of their lethality, with regulation increasing with the growing lethality of the category in which a firearm belongs. Restrictions that might be considered can vary from complete bans to special licenses and vetting for owners of more lethal weapons, registration requirements, special taxes, longer waiting periods, increasing penalties for noncompliance, and storage requirements for more dangerous weapons. One option for semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15 is to regulate them under the National Firearms Act, as is done with fully automatic firearms.
Thomas Gabor, Ph.D. is a criminologist, sociologist and author of Confronting Gun Violence in America
 Quinnipiac Poll, February 20, 2018; https://poll.qu.edu/national/release-detail?ReleaseID=2521
 Everytown for Gun Safety, Analysis of Recent Mass Shootings; https://crimeresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/everytown-mass-shooting-analysis.pdf
 Christopher S. Koper, America’s experience with the Federal Assault Weapons Ban. In D. Webster and J. Vernick (eds.), Reducing Gun Violence in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013, p.161.
 Christopher S. Koper, America’s experience with the Federal Assault Weapons Ban. In D. Webster and J. Vernick (eds.), Reducing Gun Violence in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013, p.166.
 Mike Weisser, Measuring Gun Lethality; https://mikethegunguy.files.wordpress.com/2016/07/measuring-gun-lethality.pdf