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Glossary

Definitions for some of the more commonly used terms and phrases in the gun debate.

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Why “Assault Weapon” Bans Don’t Prevent Crimes

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Firearms that gun control supporters call “assault weapons” are used in only a small percentage of crimes. For example, gun control supporters have claimed that the congressionally-mandated study of the “assault weapon” and “large” magazine ban of 1994-2004 reduced crime,1 but here is what the study2 said:

  • “At best, the assault weapons ban can have only a limited effect on total gun murders, because the banned weapons and magazines were never involved in more than a modest fraction of all gun murders.”
  • “The evidence [that it reduced crime] is not strong enough for us to conclude that there was any meaningful effect (i.e., that the effect was different from zero). ... [W]e found no statistical evidence of post-ban decreases in either the number of victims per gun homicide incident, the number of gunshot wounds per victim, or the proportion of gunshot victims with multiple wounds. Nor did we find assault weapons to be overrepresented in a sample of mass murders involving guns.”
  • “We were unable to detect any reduction to date in two types of gun murders that are thought to be closely associated with assault weapons, those with multiple victims in a single incident and those producing multiple bullet wounds per victim.

Gun control supporters also claim that a follow-up study concluded that the use of assault weapons in crime declined by more than two-thirds because of the ban. This, however, is what that study3 said:

  • “AWs declined from 5.4% of crime gun traces in 1992-1993 to 1.6% in 2001-2002, a decline of 70%.” (Emphasis added.) Traces are not synonymous with crimes, however.4
  • “AWs were used in only a small fraction of gun crimes prior to the ban: about 2% according to most studies and no more than 8%.”
  • “Because the ban has not yet reduced the use of LCMs in crime, we cannot clearly credit the ban with any of the nation’s recent drop in gun violence.”
  • “There has not been a clear decline in the [criminal] use of ARs, though assessments are complicated by the rarity of crimes with these weapons and by substitution of post-ban rifles that are very similar to the banned AR models.”
  • “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 and LCMs were used in only a minority of gun crimes prior to the 1994 federal ban, and AWs were used in a particularly small percentage of gun crimes.”
  • “The relative rarity of AW use in crime can be attributed to a number of factors. Many AWs are long guns, which are used in crime much less often than handguns.”
  • “Specific data on shots fired in gun attacks ... suggest that relatively few attacks involve more than 10 shots fired. The few available studies on shots fired show that assailants fire less than four shots on average, a number well within the 10-round magazine limit imposed by the AW-LCM ban, but ... it is usually unclear how many cases, if any, involved more than 10 shots. An exception is the aforementioned study of handgun murders and assaults in Jersey City. Focusing on cases for which at least the type of handgun (semi-automatic, revolver, derringer) could be determined, 2.5% of the gunfire cases involved more than 10 shots.”

The nation’s murder rate was declining before the federal “assault weapon” ban was imposed in September 1994, and has continued to decline since the ban expired in September 2004. However, California’s and Maryland’s bans were followed by increases in murder. During the first five years after California’s 1989 “assault weapon” ban, the state’s murder rate increased 26 percent, compared to 10 percent in the rest of the country. During the first five years after California expanded the ban in 2000, the state’s murder rate increased 10 percent, compared to a five percent decrease in the rest of country. Since 1994, when Maryland prohibited magazines of over 20 rounds and required registration of “assault pistols,” its murder rate has decreased 41 percent, while in the rest of the country murder has decreased 48 percent.5

Some of the ways that criminals could commit crimes with firearms, if an “assault weapon” and “large” magazine ban were imposed, include:

  • A criminal could steal “assault weapons” and/or “large” magazines, or buy them on the black market or via a straw purchaser. If a ban on manufacturing such firearms and magazines were imposed, it would not apply to the millions of such firearms and countless millions of such magazines already owned, or to the tens of millions of handguns that use the same kind of magazines.
  • Criminals could use one or more pistols and numerous 10-round magazines. The mass murder that took place at Virginia Tech — the worst in our history — was committed with two pistols: one designed to use 15-round magazines, the other designed to use 10-round magazines. The police recovered 17 empty magazines and two loaded ones at the scene, and “The [investigating] panel concluded that 10-round magazines that were legal would have not made much difference in the incident. Even pistols with rapid loaders could have been about as deadly in this situation.”6 In the multiple murder at Columbine High School, in Colorado, the killer who fired the most rounds did so with multiple 10-round magazines.7
  • Criminals could use ultra-compact handguns that hold only 10 rounds. One of the great ironies of the federal “assault weapon” and “large” magazine ban of 1994-2004, was that its 10-round magazine limit inspired the development of a new generation of the kinds of firearms that gun control supporters have historically most wanted to see banned: compact handguns they call “Saturday Night Specials.”8 But whereas the compact handguns of yesteryear held five or six rounds of low-powered handgun ammunition, the compacts developed in response to the 1994 ban hold 10 rounds of medium-powered handgun ammunition.
  • Criminals could use more-powerful handguns. Another result of the 1994 magazine ban was to inspire gun owners to switch from handguns holding over 10 rounds of lower-powered ammunition, to handguns of the same size holding 10 rounds of more-powerful ammunition.
Show Footnotes

1. For example see Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s website’s “Stopping the spread of deadly assault weapons“ page.

2. Jeffrey A. Roth, Christopher S. Koper, “Impact Evaluation of the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act of 1994, Urban Institute, March 13, 1997.

3. Christopher S. Koper, “An Updated Assessment of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban: Impacts on Gun Markets and Gun Violence, 1994-2003,” Report to the National Institute of Justice, June 2004.

4. See BATFE, ATF Firearms Trace Data Disclaimer (select any state and view page 2); William J. Krouse, Gun Control: Statutory Disclosure Limitations on ATF Firearms Trace Data and Multiple Handgun Sales Reports, Congressional Research Service, May 27, 2009, p. 3; and Keith Bea, CRS Report for Congress, “Assault Weapons”: Military-Style Semi-automatic Firearms Facts and Issues, May 13, 1992.

5. See FBI Uniform Crime Reports Data Tool for years through 2010, and FBI, Crime in the United States 2011, Table 4.

6. Virginia Tech Review Panel, “Mass Shootings at Virginia Tech: Report of the Review Panel,” April 16, 2007. See page 92 for discussion of magazines recovered, and page 74 for the conclusion about a 10-round magazine limit.

7. CNN, Report of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office.

8. Between 1979 and 1986, the Brady Campaign, then known as the National Council to Control Handguns and later as Handgun Control, Inc., called for a ban on “easily concealable handguns” that “have one purpose — use in violent crime.” “Criminals,” the group said, “don’t use longer-barreled weapons [rifles and shotguns] because they prefer the concealability of the snubbie [compact handgun],” and “It is the concealability that makes the HANDGUN the favorite weapon of the criminal.” (National Council to Control Handguns, “There is now a nationwide, full-time, professional organization to battle the gun lobby” pamphlet, circa 1975. HCI advertisement, “Now the victims of handguns are fighting back,” New York Times, Jan. 7, 1979; HCI pamphlet, “You CAN do something about handgun violence,” circa 1982; HCI’s “Handgun Facts” brochure, question number six of its “12 Questions and Answers About Handgun Control,” 1984; and HCI advertisement, “A $29 handgun shattered my family’s life,” USA Today, April 4, 1986.) In the same time frame, the National Coalition to Ban Handguns said It is the concealable handgun that threatens and intimidates the citizens of this country — not the rifle and not the shotgun.” (NCBH pamphlet, “20 Questions and Answers,” circa 1981.)

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