On his way to meet with victims of mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio last week, President Donald Trump dismissed the notion of a federal assault weapons ban as political fantasy. “I can tell you that there is no political appetite for that at the moment,” he scoffed. “You could do your own polling. There’s no political appetite, probably, from the standpoint of the legislature.”
So-called “assault weapons”—semi-automatic firearms, usually rifles, and usually equipped with large-capacity magazines—have been the common denominator in many of America’s deadliest gun massacres: Sandy Hook, Orlando, Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs, Parkland, and El Paso. (The Dayton shooter used a semi-automatic pistol, but modified to function as a sort of miniature rifle.) And contrary to the president’s assertion, according to a recent Politico/Morning Consult poll, 70 percent of voters support banning such firearms, including 54 percent of Republicans. The same survey found that 73 percent of voters back outlawing high-capacity magazines, which transform military-style firearms into such efficient instruments of death.
Democratic politicians are taking notice. On August 12, freshman representatives Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey and Jason Crow of Colorado—both veterans who flipped Republican-held districts in 2018—co-wrote a USA Today op-ed calling for an end to “easy access to weapons of war.” As the 2020 presidential race heats up, all seven Democrats polling above 1 percent in the latest Quinnipiac poll—former vice president Joe Biden, Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, California senator Kamala Harris, South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, New Jersey senator Cory Booker, and former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke—have expressed support for some sort of ban, too.
“The 1994 assault weapons and high-capacity magazines bans worked,” wrote Biden, who currently leads the field, in a New York Times op-ed last weekend. “And if I’m elected president, we’re going to pass them again—and this time, we’ll make them even stronger.”
As Biden notes, Congress passed a ban once before: in 1994, when then-President Bill Clinton signed into law the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act. Championed by California senator Dianne Feinstein, it banned the manufacture, transfer, or possession of “semiautomatic assault weapons”—a term defined to cover 18 specific guns by make and model, plus all semi-automatic firearms equipped with two or more “military characteristics.” (Any semi-automatic rifle with a bayonet mount and flash suppressor, for example, would be banned via application of this “two-feature test.”) The bill further prohibited the transfer or possession of “large capacity ammunition feeding devices”—detachable magazines capable of accepting more than ten rounds at once.
The law, however, was riddled with exceptions and carve-outs. Grandfather clauses exempted any items manufactured before its effective date. It did not provide for a mandatory or voluntary buyback program, and at the time, an estimated 1.5 million covered firearms and 25 million magazines were already in circulation. Savvy gun manufacturers, meanwhile, dodged the two-feature test by making minor tweaks to firearms they already produced. Florida senator Marco Rubio alluded to this phenomenon in a town hall after Parkland. “In New York, they have passed that ban,” he told Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter, Jaime, was killed in the shooting. “And you know what they’ve done to get around it?...They simply take the plastic tip off.”
The bill also contained an automatic ten-year sunset provision, which required congressional action in order to keep it in force. In 2004, a Republican president, George W. Bush, sat in the White House, and the GOP controlled both the House and the Senate, too. On September 13, 2004, the law expired by its own terms. Democrats never again came close to renewing it.
The most notable effort came in the wake of Sandy Hook, when a man wielding a Bushmaster XM-15 series rifle killed 20 elementary-age children and six staffers in less than five minutes. “The weapons are even more lethal today than they were in 2004,” Feinstein warned at a February 2013 hearing. “It is clear that we need a national solution.” Democratic Senate majority leader Harry Reid ultimately cut the renewal bill from the gun safety package, however, fearing its presence would doom the entire effort. On the Senate floor, the ban earned only 40 votes.
Among the arguments skeptics make today is that the 1994 law was not actually effective at reducing gun violence. In a recent Louisville radio appearance, Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell—long a staunch opponent of anything resembling gun safety legislation—acknowledged that the ban “will probably be discussed” in the months to come. But, he warned, “There’s a good deal of dispute about whether it actually had an impact or not.”
The accuracy of this claim depends on which experts you believe, and on how they define success. In a 2016 book, University of Massachusetts-Boston professor Louis Klarevas found that during the ban, the number of gun massacres—which he defined to mean incidents in which six or more people were killed—fell by 37 percent compared to the decade before. The total number of deaths in gun massacres decreased by 43 percent.
In the decade after it expired, though, he found that the number of massacres increased by 183 percent, and the number of deaths by 239 percent. Similarly, a 2019 analysis of all mass shootings between 1981 and 2017 found that mass shooting fatalities were about 70 percent less likely to occur while the ban was in effect. Based on his findings, in an interview with the Washington Post, Klaveras predicted “drastic reductions” in gun massacres if Congress were to reinstate it today.
Other analyses are more circumspect. As Ars Technica co-founder Jon Stokes argued in a March 2018 Los Angeles Times op-ed, Klaveras’s data set of “gun massacres” is composed mostly of handgun shootings; only five mass shootings that took place before the ban and three that took place during the ban were actually committed using assault weapons. “These numbers are far too small for any sort of statistical inference, especially if you’re trying to build a case for banning tens of millions of legally owned rifles,” he wrote.
A 2004 University of Pennsylvania study prepared for the Department of Justice found that crimes involving assault weapons fell in several major cities during the ban, but crimes involving large-capacity magazines did not. And although assault weapons—rifles in particular—are the weapon of choice for mass shooters, they were used in no more than 8 percent of all gun crimes in the first place. Criminals, in other words, simply turned to different weapons, and the law didn’t implicate enough firearms to have a broad impact. “Should it be renewed,” the researchers wrote, “the ban’s effects on gun violence are likely to be small at best and perhaps too small for reliable measurement.”
Those substantive limitations—and the 1994 law's temporary status—leave open the possibility that it reveals little about a more robust version’s potential to curtail gun violence. “[T]he ban’s exemption of millions of pre-ban [assault weapons] and [large-capacity magazines] ensured that the effects of the law would occur only gradually,” added Christopher Koper, the 2004 study’s principal author. “These effects are still unfolding and may not be fully felt for several years into the future.” At this point, 15 years after the old ban expired, those claiming to know what an overhauled scheme would do about mass shootings are offering, at best, an educated guess.
The most significant difference between the 1994 law and modern proposals is the inclusion of a plan to take existing firearms and large-capacity magazines out of circulation. So far, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Pete Buttigieg have endorsed making voluntary buybacks part of any ban renewal effort. In May, Cory Booker hinted to CNN that he'd favor a mandatory version. And Beto O’Rourke explicitly called for mandatory buybacks after the El Paso shooting, which took place in the district he once represented in Congress. "I know this is not politically easy," he said at the time. "Regardless of what it does to our prospects going forward, you've got to speak the truth and be clear about what the solutions are."
Other countries have experimented with buybacks in the wake of similar tragedies. In New Zealand, which banned semi-automatic weapons after the March 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings, citizens handed in more than 11,000 guns in the first month of a mandatory buyback program. In Australia, after 35 people died in a 1996 shooting, officials collected about 650,000 guns in a compulsory buyback of their own. As Vox’s Zach Beauchamp notes, homicide and suicide firearm death rates in Australia dropped by 42 percent and 52 percent, respectively, in the years that followed. The country has experienced only one mass shooting in the 23 years since.
These results are encouraging, but their relatively small scale makes it difficult to determine whether a U.S. analogue would have the same effect—and how much it would cost. By one estimate, there were 3.2 million guns in Australia at the time of the buyback. New Zealand officials believe their total is around 1.2 million guns, although they don’t know how many are subject to the semi-automatic weapons ban.
By contrast, according to a 2018 study conducted by a Swiss university, U.S. civilians own some 393 million firearms—a number greater than the country’s population. Although most of these are handguns, some estimates pin the number of semi-automatic rifles at between 15 and 20 million, according to The Trace. Instituting a buyback in America, in other words, would be a far more complicated logistical undertaking. Furthermore, Australia’s buyback cost about $230 million in U.S. dollars, while New Zealand has set aside nearly $100 million—so far. If these figures are any indication, the price tag here could quickly run into the billions.
A modern assault weapons ban would also probably update the 1994 law’s “two-feature” test, which prohibited semi-automatic weapons that include one or more “military characteristics” from a congressionally-prescribed menu. Today, seven states and the District of Columbia have their own bans on the books. Legislatures in four of those jurisdictions—California, Connecticut, D.C., and New York—have instead adopted a one-feature test, in an effort to make it harder for manufacturers to evade scrutiny by making cosmetic changes to existing models.
A 2019 federal renewal bill, introduced by Feinstein in January and now pending in the Senate, incorporates the one-feature test, too. It would prohibit 205 enumerated “military style-assault weapons”—an increase from the 18 named in the 1994 law—and outlaw pistol stabilizing braces, which allow shooters to brace assault pistols against the shoulder, rifle-style. Earlier this month, the Dayton shooter used one of them to shoot 26 people in 32 seconds.
Of course, in Mitch McConnell’s Republican-controlled Senate, the bill isn’t going anywhere. And like the 1994 version, this proposal still includes concessions to the gun lobby: It grandfathers in lawfully-possessed firearms and magazines, for example, and does not provide for any kind of buyback. But given that senators Klobuchar, Warren, Booker, Harris, and Sanders are all co-sponsors, it is at the very least a likely starting point for future discussions. And co-sponsorship aside, as noted above, several of these candidates have vowed to take even more aggressive action if they were to win in 2020.
None of these candidates are proposing to end America’s gun violence epidemic using only an assault weapons and large-capacity magazines ban. The ban, instead, is offered alongside policies like federal licensing programs, or "red flag" laws that allow courts to confiscate guns from those who pose a risk to others. A 2019 Boston University study found that suites of reforms that reinforce one another, including laws mandating background checks and barring violent offenders from obtaining guns, are the most effective means of reducing firearms deaths.
As mass shootings grow more frequent and more deadly, however, voters are turning their attention to the tools that make such tragedies possible in the first place. A quarter-century after a U.S. president first tried to ban assault weapons, a new crop of White House hopefuls is looking for the chance to do him one better.
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Originally Appeared on GQ