NRA misleads on assault weapons

Don't believe the NRA spin: The '94 assault weapons ban was full of loopholes, but studies prove it was effective

Topics: Guns, Gun Control, NRA, Assault weapons, assault weapons ban,

NRA misleads on assault weapons (Credit: Reuters/Ralph Freso)

As Democrats move to once again ban assault weapons and NBC host David Gregory gets investigated for using a high-capacity magazine, banned in D.C., as a prop in his interview with the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre, one key question still hasn’t been properly addressed by the media thus far — did the 1994 Assault Weapon Ban actually work?

Even Gregory, who convincingly played a devil’s advocate to LaPierre Sunday, was dismissive of its effect on Sunday. “I mean the fact that that it just doesn’t work is still something that you’re challenged by if you want to approach this legislation again,” he said of the ban to New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer, a supporter of the ban.

There’s a dearth of quality empirical research on the efficacy of the ban, thanks in part to Congress’ statutory limitations on the type of gun violence research the federal government is allowed to conduct. Pro-gun lawmakers made it illegal for research agencies to advocate for gun control, which effectively means looking for any connection between guns and gun violence, but the evidence suggests the law had positive effects, if not as much as advocates would like.

The single formal assessment of the ban, as required by Congress in passing the law, was conducted by criminologists Christopher Koper, Jeffrey Roth and others at the University of Pennsylvania (Koper is now at George Mason). The National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the Department of Justice, paid for the evaluation, which was first conducted in 1999 and updated in 2004, and looked at everything from homicide rates to gun prices.



A few key findings emerged. Overall, banned guns and magazines were used in up to a quarter of gun crimes before the ban. Assault pistols were more common than assault rifles in crimes. Large-capacity magazines, which were also prohibited, may be a bigger problem than assault weapons. While just 2 to 8 percent of gun crimes were committed with assault weapons, large-capacity magazines were used in 14 to 26 percent of of firearm crimes. About 20 percent of privately owned guns were fitted with the magazines.

But even though assault weapons were responsible for a fraction of the total number of gun deaths overall, the weapons and other guns equipped with large-capacity magazines “tend to account for a higher share of guns used in murders of police and mass public shootings,” the study found.

This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone paying attention to the recent history of mass shootings. In just the past year, the same .223 Bushmaster AR-15 assault rifle was used  in the Aurora, Colo., theater massacre, the shooting at the Clackamas Mall in Oregon, the Newtown elementary school shooting, and, just a few days ago, the killing of two firefighters in upstate New York. Jared Loughner used 33-round high-capacity magazines in a handgun to shoot former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and more than a dozen others. Seung-Hui Cho used a 15-round magazine to kill 32 and wound 17 at Virginia Tech in 2007.

An October 2012 study from Johns Hopkins, which looked at newer data than Koper’s, concluded that that “easy access to firearms with large-capacity magazines facilitates higher casualties in mass shootings.”

So, according to the official study, was the ban effective in stopping killings? The short answer is yes, though it’s a bit unclear because of the massive loopholes in the law. “Following implementation of the ban, the share of gun crimes involving AWs [assault weapons] declined by 17 percent to 72 percent across the localities examined for this study (Baltimore, Miami, Milwaukee, Boston, St. Louis, and Anchorage),” the Koper study concluded.

Data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) also shows a significant drop in assault weapon usage in gun crimes. In the five-year period before the enactment of the ban, the weapons constituted almost 5 percent of the guns traced by the Bureau (the ATF is responsible for tracking guns used in crimes), while they accounted for just 1.61 percent of gun traces after the ban went into effect — a drop of 66 percent. The effect accelerated over time, as the guns presumably became harder to find.

The problem with the ban, as both gun rights advocates (seeking to cast aspersions on the law) and gun control proponents (seeking to explain its limited impact) agree, is that it was weak to the point of being meaningless. As the bill made its way through Congress, gun lobbyists managed to create bigger and bigger carve-outs, the largest being the grandfathering in of guns and magazines produced and owned before the ban went into effect. The guns and magazines could also continue to be imported, as long they were produced before the law went into effect.

At that time of the ban, there were already more than 1.5 million privately owned assault weapons in the U.S. and 25 million guns equipped with large-capacity magazines. Another almost 5 million large-capacity magazines were imported during the ban. These could continue to be used and traded completely legally.

“The ban’s exemption of millions of pre-ban AWs and LCMs ensured that the effects of the law would occur only gradually. Those effects are still unfolding and may not be fully felt for several years into the future,” Koper and his colleagues added.

The other big exemption in the law was the narrow definition of what the government considers an assault weapon. The ban initially targeted 18 gun models, and then prohibited any future models that contained two or more “military-style” features. Some of these features are decidedly superficial, such as a collapsable stock or muzzle shroud, leading the NRA to dismiss the category of assault weapons as artificial and “cosmetic.” Indeed, gun manufacturers were able to legally produce and sell nearly identical guns to ones that were now prohibited by making a few minor tweaks.

Since the ban was allowed to lapse in 2004, there hasn’t been another comprehensive national study. There is, however, some encouraging data on the state level. A Washington Post analysis of gun seizures in Virginia showed a significant drop in the number of high-capacity magazines seized by police during the 10 years the ban was in effect, only for the number to return to pre-ban levels after the law expired. In 1994, the year the ban went into effect, police in the state seized 1,140 guns with high-capacity magazines. In 2004, its last year on the books, that number had dropped to 612. By 2006, it was back to over 1,000.

Garen Wintemute, the director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis Medical School, looked at his state’s experience and found a troubling pattern in who purchases guns that were once banned. First, “among those purchasing handguns legally, those with criminal records were more likely than others to purchase assault-type handguns,” he told Salon. Second, “among those purchasing handguns legally who had criminal records, those purchasing assault-type handguns were much more likely than those purchasing other types of handguns to be arrested for violent crimes later.” He wasn’t able to study rifles because the state’s archive of purchases was limited to handguns.

Abroad, the data is even more convincing. In Australia, a 1996 mass shooting that left 36 dead led the conservative government to act swiftly to ban semi-automatic assault weapons with a much stronger law. They did not grandfather in old guns and paid to buy back old ones. Gun-related homicide plummeted by 59 percent between 1995 and 2006, with no corresponding increase in non-firearm-related homicides. Meanwhile, gun suicides — which are responsible for most firearm deaths in most developed countries —  dropped by a whopping 65 percent. Robberies at gunpoint also dropped significantly. In the decade prior to the ban, there were 18 mass shootings. In the decade following it, there were zero.

The resounding success of the Australian model shows where the U.S.’s attempt to ban assault weapons failed. By the same token, it shows where we could succeed by implementing a real ban without the carve-outs of the the 1994 law.

Alex Seitz-Wald

Alex Seitz-Wald is Salon's political reporter. Email him at aseitz-wald@salon.com, and follow him on Twitter @aseitzwald.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 22
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Talking Heads, 1977
    This was their first weekend as a foursome at CBGB’s, after adding Jerry Harrison, before they started recording the LP “Talking Heads: 77.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Patti Smith, Bowery 1976
    Patti lit up by the Bowery streetlights. I tapped her on the shoulder, asked if I could do a picture, took two shots and everyone went back to what they were doing. 1/4 second at f/5.6 no tripod.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Blondie, 1977
    This was taken at the Punk Magazine Benefit show. According to Chris Stein (seated, on slide guitar), they were playing “Little Red Rooster.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    No Wave Punks, Bowery Summer 1978
    They were sitting just like this when I walked out of CBGB's. Me: “Don’t move” They didn’t. L to R: Harold Paris, Kristian Hoffman, Diego Cortez, Anya Phillips, Lydia Lunch, James Chance, Jim Sclavunos, Bradley Field, Liz Seidman.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Richard Hell + Bob Quine, 1978
    Richard Hell and the Voidoids, playing CBGB's in 1978, with Richard’s peerless guitar player Robert Quine. Sorely missed, Quine died in 2004.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bathroom, 1977
    This photograph of mine was used to create the “replica” CBGB's bathroom in the Punk Couture show last summer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So I got into the Met with a bathroom photo.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Stiv Bators + Divine, 1978
    Stiv Bators, Divine and the Dead Boys at the Blitz Benefit show for injured Dead Boys drummer Johnny Blitz.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ramones, 1977
    “The kids are all hopped up and ready to go…” View from the unique "side stage" at CBGB's that you had to walk past to get to the basement bathrooms.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Klaus Nomi, Christopher Parker, Jim Jarmusch – Bowery 1978
    Jarmusch was still in film school, Parker was starring in Jim’s first film "Permanent Vacation" and Klaus just appeared out of nowhere.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Hilly Kristal, Bowery 1977
    When I used to show people this picture of owner Hilly Kristal, they would ask me “Why did you photograph that guy? He’s not a punk!” Now they know why. None of these pictures would have existed without Hilly Kristal.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Dictators, Bowery 1976
    Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators with his girlfriend Jody. I took this shot as a thank you for him returning the wallet I’d lost the night before at CBGB's. He doesn’t like that I tell people he returned it with everything in it.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Alex Chilton, Bowery 1977
    We were on the median strip on the Bowery shooting what became a 45 single sleeve for Alex’s “Bangkok.” A drop of rain landed on the camera lens by accident. Definitely a lucky night!

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bowery view, 1977
    The view from across the Bowery in the summer of 1977.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ramones, 1977 – never before printed
    I loved shooting The Ramones. They would play two sets a night, four nights a week at CBGB's, and I’d be there for all of them. This shot is notable for Johnny playing a Strat, rather than his usual Mosrite. Maybe he’d just broken a string. Love that hair.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Richard Hell, Bowery 1977 – never before printed
    Richard exiting CBGB's with his guitar at 4am, about to step into a Bowery rainstorm. I’ve always printed the shots of him in the rain, but this one is a real standout to me now.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Patti Smith + Ronnie Spector, 1979
    May 24th – Bob Dylan Birthday show – Patti “invited” everyone at that night’s Palladium show on 14th Street down to CBGB's to celebrate Bob Dylan’s birthday. Here, Patti and Ronnie are doing “Be My Baby.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Legs McNeil, 1977
    Legs, ready for his close-up, near the front door of CBGB's.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Suicide, 1977
    Rev and Alan Vega – I thought Alan was going to hit me with that chain. This was the Punk Magazine Benefit show.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ian Hunter and Fans, outside bathroom
    I always think of “All the Young Dudes” when I look at this shot. These fans had caught Ian Hunter in the CBGB's basement outside the bathrooms, and I just stepped in to record the moment.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Tommy Ramone, 1977
    Only at CBGB's could I have gotten this shot of Tommy Ramone seen through Johnny Ramones legs.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bowery 4am, 1977
    End of the night garbage run. Time to go home.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>