What is an "assault weapon"?
An "assault weapon" is a firearm with certain features that make it easier to shoot lots of bullets across a wide area in a short time. Most assault weapons are semi-automatic versions of fully-automatic machine guns designed specifically for the military. Assault weapons can be handguns (like the Uzi or TEC-9) or long guns (like the AR-15 rifle or the Street Sweeper shotgun).
What features make a gun into an assault weapon?
Some assault weapon features, like pistol grips, second handgrips, or barrel shrouds, make the gun easier to hold with two hands. This allows the shooter to spray an area with bullets without taking careful aim, and to control the gun without getting burned as the barrel heats up. Others, like detachable magazines, make it easier to maintain a high rate of fire for an extended period of time. Still others, like flash suppressors, allow the shooter to conceal his position. These features, most of which were specifically designed for the military, are unnecessary for hunting or target shooting.
What is the federal assault weapon ban?
In 1994, after a string of mass killings committed by criminals with assault weapons, Congress passed a law banning certain assault weapons. The 1994 law named 19 specific models, and also banned "copies or duplicates" of those models. In addition, the law outlawed guns that have two or more specified assault weapon features. Guns that were legally possessed before the effective date of the law remain legal.
What is the "sunset clause"?
The 1994 assault weapons ban included a "sunset clause" providing that the law would be automatically repealed on September 13, 2004. President Bush professed support for renewing the ban, but refused to lobby Congress to pass new legislation. When Congress failed to act to extend the ban, assault weapons again became legal under the provisons of federal law.
During the time of the 1994-2004 ban, I heard that criminals were still able to commit crimes with assault weapons. How was that possible?
The 1994 law includes several loopholes that unscrupulous gun makers and dealers exploited to continue making and selling assault weapons that Congress intended to ban. As a result, many assault weapons remained available.
Some gun companies made inconsequential design changes (like moving a screw or replacing a flash suppressor with a "muzzle brake") and gave the gun a new name. The new name got the gun off of the prohibited list, and the minor change arguably put it out of reach of the law's "copies or duplicates" language. For example, the banned TEC-9 became the legal AB-10.
Also, some gun companies copied assault weapons that were originally made by other manufacturers. For example, Bushmaster's XM15 was a copy of the banned Colt AR-15, with one minor design change. Functionally equivalent in all relevant respects to its banned cousin, the XM15, like innumerable other AR-15 variants, remained legal. The DC-area sniper allegedly used a new Bushmaster XM15 to shoot 13 victims, killing 10.
Finally, because the 1994 law allowed the continued ownership and sale of "pre-ban" assault weapons, those weapons remained available.
What is Congress doing to renew the assault weapons ban and address the loopholes in the 1994 law?
The opportunity to reauthorize federal laws allows Congress to address problems with implementation and take steps to improve the 1994 assault weapons ban to ensure it will work as intended. Two bills that have been introduced on Capitol Hill would go far in realizing the original intent of the 1994 law by ensuring that military-style assault weapons are banned from the civilian marketplace.
Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) has introduced S. 645, the "Assault Weapons Ban and Law Enforcement Protection Act," in the Senate. In the House of Representatives, a companion bill, H.R. 1312, is being sponsored by Representative Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY). Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) has also introduced S. 620, the "Assault Weapons Ban Reauthorization Act," in the Senate. This legislation would renew and strengthen the 1994 ban to effectively prevent the gun industry from circumventing Congressional intent by continuing to manufacture and market deadly assault weapons.
Unfortunately, the current leadership in Congress has refused to bring any of these bills up for consideration, instead focusing on a number of National Rifle Association-sponsored initiatives that would protect corrupt gun dealers and foment the illegal trafficking of firearms, including assault weapons, in the United States.