The Once And Future History Of The Federal Assault Weapons Ban

President Clinton signing the 1994 assault weapons ban

President Bill Clinton signing the “Clinton Crime Bill” that included the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban.

In 1992, the United States elected Bill Clinton 42nd President of the nation. President Clinton was a Democrat who enjoyed a Democratic majority in both the House and Senate his first two years in office. As such, he was able to pass a lot of legislation in those first two years, including the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (known colloquially as the “Clinton Crime Bill”). 

Then Delaware Senator (and later Vice President) Joe Biden wrote the Clinton Crime Bill. Democrat Jack Brooks from Texas sponsored the legislation in House of Representatives. The bill constituted a wholesale overhaul of the American criminal justice system.  Among other things, the Clinton Crime Bill extended prison sentences for many crimes, increased funding for community policing, and increased the number of federal crimes eligible for the death penalty. 

For American gun owners, the most dramatic part of the Clinton Crime Bill was Title XI, Subtitle A: The Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act. You might know it as either the “Federal Assault Weapons Ban” or the “1994 Assault Weapons Ban.”

What Was The 1994 Assault Weapons Ban?

Senator Dianne Feinstein pitching a renewal of the assault weapons ban in 2017

Sen. Dianne Feinstein pitching a renewed assault weapons ban in 2017.

The 1994 Assault Weapons Ban was the pet project of Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein from California. Among other things, it banned the manufacture of nine specific guns based on a mixture of cosmetic and functional features. The firearms mentioned in the Assault Weapons Ban included the semi-automatic variants of the AK-47, AR-15, Uzi. Galil, Beretta AR-70, FN-FAL, and Steyr AUG, as well as the semi-automatic versions of the M-10 and TEC-9 pistols.  The ban also prohibited all shotguns with rotary magazines. 

What Became Illegal

In order to keep manufacturers from developing new firearms that fell outside of the Assault Weapons Ban, Congress included in the law a list of features that made a firearm an illegal “assault weapon.” They were: 

  1. Semi-automatic rifles having the ability to accept a detachable ammunition magazine and at least two of the following traits:
    1. A folding or telescoping stock.
    2. A pistol grip that protrudes beneath the firing action.
    3. A bayonet mount.
    4. A flash hider or a threaded barrel designed to accommodate one.
    5. A grenade launcher.
  2. Semi-automatic pistols having the ability to accept a detachable ammunition magazine and at least two of the following traits:
    1. An ammunition magazine attaching outside the pistol grip.
    2. A threaded barrel capable of accepting a barrel extender, flash hider, forward hand grip, or silencer.
    3. A heat shroud attached to or encircling the barrel (this permits the shooter to hold the firearm with the non-trigger hand without being burned).
    4. A weight of more than 50 ounces unloaded.
    5. A semiautomatic version of a fully automatic firearm.
  3. Semi-automatic shotguns having at least two of the following traits:
    1. A folding or telescoping stock.
    2. A pistol grip that protrudes beneath the firing action.
    3. A fixed magazine capacity of more than five rounds.
    4. Ability to accept a detachable ammunition magazine.

The Assault Weapons Ban criminalized the manufacture or import of any new firearm with these features, but existing models were grandfathered in.

The Assault Weapons Ban also criminalized the manufacture or sale of new so-called “high capacity” magazines (anything over 10 rounds).  Once again, existing models were grandfathered in.  So, you could still buy preexisting magazines holding more than ten rounds, but you couldn’t own a new “high capacity” magazine unless you were a law enforcement officer. 

The Assault Weapons Ban went into effect on September 13, 1994. It affected both the crime rate and the American gun owner in many different ways. 

Price Increases 

Almost immediately after the Assault Weapons Ban was signed into law, the price of “pre-ban” firearms and magazines shot through the ceiling. 30-round AR-15 magazines suddenly became treasured relics of a bygone era. 17-round Glock magazines could fetch $100 or more. The price of “pre-ban” guns skyrocketed in much the same way that prices went up during the political uncertainty surrounding the 2008 Presidential election.

Panic Buying Of “Assault Weapons” 

Firearms manufacturers were forced to make many adjustments in order to comply with the Assault Weapons Ban.  For instance, new models of popular pistols like the Beretta 92 and Glock 17 shipped with lower capacity, ten-round magazines.  But this negated one of their key selling points (higher ammo capacity). As a result, the firearms market saw renewed interest in the 1911 pistol, which was designed from the start to hold only eight rounds. Kimber introduced its Custom model in 1997, which had many out-of-the-box features that were previously added by gunsmiths after purchase. Wilson Combat’s 1-2 punch of high-quality, high-end pistols and reliable magazines for the 1911 sparked renewed interest in the 1911 as a defensive firearm. 

Manufacturers of some “banned” models (like the FN-FAL) found it difficult to adapt to the new regulations. However, the adaptability of the AR-15 and AK platforms meant that manufacturers like DoubleStar were able to fairly easily change their existing designs to comply with the law.

AK-style rifles built during the Assault Weapons Ban shipped with a muzzle brake, fixed stock, and 10-round magazine. The creative energy put into making the AR-15 comply with the ban is still being felt today. Because the “firearm” part of the AR is the lower receiver and features a pistol grip and removable magazine (two features that made it an “assault weapon”), the upper receiver was (and still is) essentially a blank slate. Barrel length (within legal limits), muzzle devices (just not a “flash suppressor”), and accessory rails were customized and developed. Manufacturers quickly realized that the demand for the AR-15 was growing, so many rolled out ban-compliant models of their own. 

The Assault Weapons Ban’s Impact On Crime

The Assault Weapons Ban had, at best, mixed results on crime. As early as 1999, the Department of Justice said the bill’s “impact on lethal gun violence is unclear.” The DOJ found that “the ban has failed to reduce the average number of victims per gun murder incident or multiple gunshot wound victims,” and that the “criminal use of the banned guns declined, at least temporarily, after the law went into effect, which suggests that the legal stock of preban assault weapons was, at least for the short term, largely in the hands of collectors and dealers.” 

In other words, one of the chief results of the Assault Weapons Ban was that the government found out, once again, that law abiding gun owners tend to follow the law, and criminals tend to break the law. All it took to figure this out was banning a whole bunch of firearms. 

Other Effects of The Assault Weapons Ban

The Assault Weapons Ban was controversial from the very start, but one of the things it succeeded in doing was firing up the political impulses of gun owners. Membership in the NRA and other gun rights organizations blossomed. More notably, voters in the 1994 mid-term election turned the House of Representatives over to the Republicans, thanks, in no small part, to Democratic support of the Assault Weapons Ban

Life In A Post-Ban World

The Assault Weapons Ban included a “sunset” provision that stated that, unless Congress and the President acted otherwise, the ban would be removed from the books on September 13, 2004. Since the Assault Weapons Ban’s effects on crime were muddy at best, it was allowed to expire. From there, newly-manufactured standard-capacity magazines were once again legal to own in most states. 

Innovation in the firearms industry soon followed. In 2007, Magpul introduced its groundbreaking polymer 30-round magazine, the PMag. And soon, magazine-fed shotguns based on the AK operating system were a staple of 3 Gun competitions. Pistol-caliber AR-15s — especially those with an arm brace instead of a stock — are now a popular choice for home defense and competition now that the arbitrary weight limit of 50 ounces is no longer the law of the land. 

Guns that were affected by the assault weapons ban

See this? Pretty much all of this was banned back in 1994, but is now perfectly legal to own in most of America.

Seven states, including California, New York, and Massachusetts, have assault weapons bans of their own. In those states, the capacity of newly-manufactured magazines is limited to 10 rounds, and certain features such as folding stocks and pistol grips can make a gun an illegal “assault weapon.” 

One of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban’s more lasting effects was the adoption of the AR-15 as “America’s Rifle.” Take a look at the pre-ban prices for some of the firearms listed prohibited by the Assault Weapons Ban: 

AK Variants: $550 and up
Beretta AR-70: $1050+
FN-FAL: $1100 – $2100
AR-15: $825–$1,325 

$825 was the entry point for an AR-15 back in 1994. Today, a decent middle-of-the-road AR-15 like the Colt 6920 costs around $825 dollars. Entry-level ARs like the S&W M&P15 cost significantly less. All of the other guns on the list cost about the same (or a bit more) than they did in 1994. But the price of AR-15s has plummeted, leading to their widespread adoption.  

The Future Of The Assault Weapons Ban

After two horrific massacres in one weekend, there is now talk of another federal assault weapons ban. In fact, a bill has already been written and will be introduced in the House of Representatives after the August recess.  At the time of the writing of this post, nearly 200 House members have signed onto the bill. Political pundits claim it will almost certainly pass the House of Representatives and move on to the Senate. If it passes the Senate, it will go to the President’s desk, where he will either sign it and make it the law of the land or veto it and end the process for now. 

The new legislation follows the same standards and definitions that California uses in its assault weapons ban.  If just ONE of a laundry list of features is included on a firearm, then that otherwise legal firearm turns into an illegal “assault weapon.” The new legislation also bans the manufacture and import of standard-capacity magazines holding more than ten rounds.

Just like the old Assault Weapons Ban, the new legislation would grandfather in existing firearms and magazines. So, if it passes, you won’t have to turn in your AR-15. That being said, there are some politicians (including some Presidential candidates) who have suggested that the government should implement mandatory “buy-backs” similar to those recently instituted in New Zealand.

Can You Identify an “Assault Weapon?”

Politicians and gun control advocates often play up the militaristic appearance of “assault weapons.” They then adopt this narrative into law by basing the definition of “assault weapons” on arbitrary, superficial features.  This is what happened in California and, unfortunately, some members of Congress are now proposing to adopt California’s definition of “assault weapon” as part of a federal ban.  In any event, since “assault weapons” are banned in California and the law supposedly tells us exactly what is legal and what isn’t, it should be pretty easy to spot the difference between a rifle that is an “assault weapon”and one isn’t, right?

Take a look at these three rifles. Can you tell which one is considered an “assault weapon” using California’s definition? 

AWB Compliant AR-15 rifles

It was a trick question. NONE of these three rifles are considered an “assault weapon” under California law.  

The first two rifles are based on the AR-15 platform, but the top rifle is actually a perfectly legal pump-action rifle (like a typical hunting shotgun). The second rifle does not have a pistol grip, making it essentially a “featureless” rifle that is not considered to be an “assault weapon.” The third rifle is a Ruger Mini-14, which is a ban-compliant gun that is tricked out in tactical furniture. 

You can see why gun owners get frustrated when politicians ban guns on the basis of their appearance.

Tomorrow’s Change Starts Today

As the saying goes, the future belongs to those who show up for it.

There is plenty of evidence that the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban had little, if any, overall effect on crime. However, it greatly restricted the ability of legal gun owners to purchase magazines and accessories for some of America’s most popular sporting arms. Now, years later, it is still not clear if it had any effect on mass shootings.

If there is another federal assault weapons ban in our future, it’s up to each of us to do our part to preserve and expand our Second Amendment rights, both for the present day and for generations to come.