In the wake of the school shooting in Newton, Connecticut, some politicians are calling for the reinstatement of the assault weapons ban.
Second Congressional District Rep. John Kline is among those that are skeptical a new ban would work. He told MPR News that it’s not clear the first ban was all that effective.
“It’s not clear — you’d have to go back and do an in-depth analysis — that that resulted in a safer America,” he said.
Kline is correct that the data are mixed.
The assault weapons ban went into effect in 1994 and expired 10 years later. The ban focused on the manufacture, transfer or possession of certain semiautomatic firearms and magazines that held no more than 10 rounds, according to a Congressional Research Services report from 2004.
It did not apply to machine guns which fire multiple rounds in a few seconds because those guns have been heavily regulated in the United States since the 1930s.
There were two major criticisms of the ban: that it didn’t apply to firearms manufactured before 1994 and that the law was written so narrowly that gun manufacturers could tweak their products so that they didn’t fall under the new restrictions.
As to whether the ban had a big impact on gun violence, Kline is correct: it’s unclear.
First, there’s no evidence that it reduced gun violence generally, said Robert Spitzer who is the chair of the Political Science Department at SUNY Cortland.
Indeed, a 2004 study conducted by the Jerry Lee Center of Criminology at the University of Pennsylvania for the U.S. Department of Justice found that while gun crime declined during the same period of time that the ban was in place, the study’s authors could not “clearly credit the ban with any of the nation’s recent drop in gun violence.”
However, the same study found that during the same period of time the share of gun crimes involving weapons covered by the ban declined by 17 percent in several major cities.
Eugene Volokh, who is a law professor at UCLA, said it’s difficult to draw conclusions from that statistic because offenders could have used any number of other guns that weren’t banned.
“They’ll use less of the banned thing, they’ll use more unbanned thing,” he said. “But the effects will be exactly the same because for functional purposes the banned and the unbanned are basically the same.”
Spitzer said the statistic underscores good policy. It’s important to keep weapons under the old ban out of the hands of criminals because they are more powerful.
“The notion is that assault weapons have a particularly high degree of fire power for a number of reasons,” he said. “You want to keep those out of criminal hands… That doesn’t mean no guns were used. It means that assault weapons were used in fewer instances of crime when the ban was in effect.”
Spitzer pointed out that the ban could have prevented James Holmes from obtaining the weapons he used in the July, 2012, Aurora, Col., movie theater shooting.
Kline’s claim is accurate: it’s not clear that the assault weapons ban had a major impact on gun violence.
Minnesota Public Radio, Gun control: Deep divisions among Minn. DC delegation, by Brett Neely, Dec. 18, 2012
The New York Times, Assault weapons ban comes to end: A dud?, By Deborah Sontag, Monday, April 25, 2005
The Washington Post, Everything you need to know about the assault weapons ban, in one post, by Brad Plumer, Dec. 17, 2012
Congressional Research Services, Gun Control Legislation, by William J. Krouse, Nov. 12, 2012
Interview, Eugene Volokh, professor, University of California, Los Angeles, law school, Dec. 28, 2012
Interview, Robert Spitzer, Chair, Political Science Department, SUNY Cortland, Dec. 28, 2012
Email exchange, Joe Olson, professor, Hamline University School of Law, president of the Minnesota Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance, Dec. 28, 2012