In 1994, Congress enacted a ban on assault weapons that stayed in force for 10 years. It was allowed to sunset in 2005 thanks to Republican control of the federal government and the influence of the National Rifle Association (NRA).
Here’s an underrated detail about the ban that ought to resonate today in America: It worked.
Mind you, this was a partial ban – filled with exemptions and grandfather clauses to protect gunowners – and it hardly was given adequate time to impact the nation’s unprecedented gun violence. But when the smoked cleared, the results were “staggering,” in the words of one leading expert, Louis Klarevas of the University of Massachusetts at Boston.
“For his 2016 book ‘Rampage Nation,’ Klaveras collected data on every gun massacre — which he defines as six or more people shot and killed — for the 50 years before 2016,” the Washington Post reported in a 2018 analysis urging reinstatement of the ban. “His aim was to see whether there was any change in the number of gun massacres while the 10-year federal ban on assault weapons was in place.” Here’s what he found:
“Compared with the 10-year period before the ban, the number of gun massacres during the ban period fell by 37 percent, and the number of people dying from gun massacres fell by 43 percent. But after the ban lapsed in 2004, the numbers shot up again — an astonishing 183 percent increase in massacres and a 239 percent increase in massacre deaths.
“Klarevas says that the key provision of the assault weapons bill was a ban on high-capacity magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds. “We have found that when large capacity mags are regulated, you get drastic drops in both the incidence of gun massacres and the fatality rate of gun massacres.”
The findings were not isolated. A new Northwestern University study concluded “that the ten-year ban likely prevented as many as 11 mass shootings, and had it remained in place, as many as 30 more mass shootings could have been prevented,” reports Chicago PBS station WTTW. Lori Ann Post, professor of emergency medicine and medical sciences at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, had this to say as the study’s lead author:
“I find that if you prevent the access to assault weapons, high-capacity magazines, and semi-automatic or rapid-fire guns, it prevents the actual incident itself,” Post said. “Other studies have looked at how to reduce the lethality of these events. But I find that people don’t even go out and do a mass shooting in the absence of an assault rifle.”
A New York University study published in 2019 concluded “Mass-shooting related homicides in the United States were reduced during the years of the federal assault weapons ban of 1994 to 2004.” It employed different methodologies but came to similar conclusions:
“Assault rifles accounted for 430 or 85.8% of the total 501 mass-shooting fatalities reported in 44 mass-shooting incidents. Mass shootings in the United States accounted for an increasing proportion of all firearm-related homicides…(and) mass-shooting fatalities were 70% less likely to occur during the federal ban period.”
In 2017, the New York Times surveyed 32 gun-policy experts of varied perspectives as to the effectiveness of gun-violence policy measures. It laid their responses next to research on public opinion. Although these are five years old, the findings could not be more relevant today.
At the top of the list of the most effective measures, there was a four-way tie: Assault weapons ban, semiautomatic gun ban, high-capacity magazine ban and barring sales to all violent criminals. But public support was dramatically higher for banning sales to criminals (85 percent) than for the specific weapons’ bans (62-67 percent).
The most-favored solution with the public was – and is – universal background checks at 87 percent. Universal checks for both gun and ammo buyers ranked just below an assault-weapons ban for effectiveness.
Today, most of the talk of bipartisan compromise in Congress focuses on the lower-hanging fruit of background checks, red-flag laws and the like. The apparent improbability of passing even such a minimalist measure as background checks with those approval numbers speaks volumes about the dysfunction of American democracy.
Even a common-sense solution such as the implementation of universal background checks would have an indirect impact on the gun-violence pandemic, at best. That’s totally different from an assault weapon ban having been proven to obtain tangible results in the short run.
In President Joe Biden’s passionate appeal Thursday for stronger gun control – including an assault-weapons ban — he conceded that “If we can’t ban assault weapons then we should raise the age to purchase them from 18 to 21.”
That might have been a nod to political reality, but it would inadvertently represent a validation of civilian ownership of military weapons of war. The Second Amendment no more provides for that than for personal possession of grenade launchers and anti-aircraft missiles.
With due respect to Biden’s political plight, assault weapons represent the hill that Democrats should be willing to die on.
It would be better for Congress to do nothing – and let Republicans own that fact in the 2022 midterms – than for it to fail to reinstate a measure that so clearly demonstrated to get results.
That fact – and the numbers that so convincingly back it up – cannot be swept under anyone’s political rug.