Reimpose a federal ban on assault weapons

Posted on October 11, 2017

The mass murderer in Las Vegas (58 killed, nearly 500 hurt) reportedly had 23 guns in that hotel room. At least 12 were assault weapons equipped with “bump-fire” stocks which allowed those weapons to mimic machine guns.

The NRA has suggested that bump-fire accessories are the problem. We welcome their support for legislation to ban those devices (see our model bill here).

But bump-fire devices are just the tiniest bit of the America’s longstanding problem of gun violence and our more recent epidemic of mass shootings. We need federal legislation for background checks on all gun transfers, of course. But we also need to reimpose a federal ban on assault weapons.

Remember how we got here:

  • On January 17, 1989, a man walked onto an elementary school playground in Stockton, California with a semiautomatic version of an AK-47 assault weapon. He spray-fired 106 rounds in three minutes, wounding 29 students and one teacher and killing five children between the ages of 6 and 9. This was, at the time, the worst school shooting in history.
  • That day, I was the newly-hired state legislative director for Handgun Control Inc. (HCI), now called the Brady Campaign. Before the Stockton schoolyard massacre, we were not thinking about assault weapons legislation. But after Stockton, that’s the problem state legislators wanted to address.
  • From 1989 to 1993, HCI helped enact statewide assault weapon bans in California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, New Jersey and New York, and passed lesser laws restricting assault weapons in a dozen other states and localities.
  • In November 1993, Diane Feinstein (with considerable help from Howard Metzenbaum) passed a fairly comprehensive ban on assault weapons through the U.S. Senate. (I was the HCI lobbyist for this.)
  • In September 1994, President Bill Clinton signed the assault weapons ban into law as a provision of that year’s omnibus crime control act.

The federal ban was in effect from 1994 to 2004, but it expired when neither the U.S. House nor Senate would pass a bill to continue it—even though then-President George W. Bush said he supported and would sign such legislation.

Assault weapons are different because they are designed for rapid fire.

An assault weapon is a gun that incorporates the features of a modern military rifle or submachine gun, enabling the shooter to fire numerous bullets very rapidly, and yet keep control of the gun. For example, the most-used assault weapon in mass shootings is the AR-15, a semiautomatic copy of the U.S. military’s M-16. It is designed with a pistol grip so it can be fired rapidly from the shoulder or hip; it is designed with a barrel shroud so the non-trigger hand can keep the gun stable during rapid fire; it is designed to accept very large capacity magazines so there is little pause to reload.

The parts or features of an assault weapon are not there to look scary (as the NRA suggests); they are there to make it possible for the shooter to do scary things. With these features, any deranged person can empty a 30-round magazine as fast as he or she can pull the trigger, while maintaining control of the gun—and then quickly insert another fully-loaded magazine.

Assault weapon massacres are now committed with alarming frequency:

  • In Aurora, Colorado on July 20, 2012, a man with four guns including a Smith & Wesson version of the AR-15 assault rifle equipped with a 100-round magazinekilled 12 people and wounded 58 others in a crowded movie theater.
  • In Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012, a man with a Bushmaster version of the AR-15 assault rifle shot his way through the Sandy Hook Elementary School killing 20 children aged 6 and 7, as well as 6 faculty members.
  • In San Bernadino, California on December 2, 2015, a married couple armed with Smith & Wesson versions of the AR-15 assault rifle killed 14 people and wounded 22 others at a Christmas party.
  • In Orlando, Florida on June 12, 2016, a man armed with a SIG Sauer variation of the AR-15 assault rifle killed 49 people and wounded 58 others at a gay nightclub, making it the deadliest incident of violence against LGBT people in U.S. history.

A database compiled by Mother Jones magazine shows that assault weapons were used in eight of the nine high-profile mass shootings since July 2015.

This is happening in large part because the assault weapons ban expired.

The federal ban successfully reduced the use of assault weapons in crime. And the ban certainly reduced the rate of mass shootings. And after the ban expired, mass shootings nearly tripled.

But you don’t even need to examine data to acknowledge that the five major mass shootings over the past five years—Las Vegas, Orlando, San Bernadino, Newtown and Aurora—are nothing like the incidents before 2004. That’s 159 people killed and more than 600 wounded in just five attacks, all committed with the same kind of gun. Denying the assault weapons problem is very much like denying climate change: the effects are obvious.

Nobody is arguing that the United States would solve its gun violence problems simply by banning assault weapons. But why would any civilized nation allow them to be sold, as we do, to anyone? No other civilized nation does.

By the way, a new poll shows that 72 percent favor and only 21 percent oppose banning these guns.