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How to Build a Better Assault Weapons Ban

Or: Why the NRA's best argument is still bunk

Getty Images/Thomas Cooper

Wayne LaPierre, chief executive of the National Rifle Association was back in the spotlight on Wednesday—this time to appear before a congressional committee contemplating new gun violence legislation. And while LaPierre got emotional at a few points, he spent most of his testimony trying to make a pragmatic argument: "We need to be honest about what works and what does not work," LaPierre said, in a prepared statement. "Proposals that would only serve to burden the law-abiding have failed in the past and will fail in the future."

LaPierre didn’t specify which past laws he had in mind, but it’s a safe bet that he was thinking about two high-profile pieces of legislation from the early 1990s. One was the Brady Law, which created a system of background checks for people purchasing guns. The other was the 1994 crime bill, which included a ban on some assault weapons. LaPierre is hardly the only person who thinks those laws demonstrate the futility of gun control. Most experts agree that the cumulative effect of the laws was, at best, modest.1

But it’s one thing to say gun laws haven’t significantly reduced gun violence, quite another to say they couldn’t. Both the Brady Law and assault weapons ban had serious, specific flaws. The most conspicuous problem with the Brady Law was that it didn’t affect private sales: You could buy a gun from a non-licensed dealer—say, at a gun show—without anybody checking to make sure you didn’t have a criminal record or some other characteristic that made it illegal for you to have a weapon. The big loophole in the assault rifle ban was that its definition of prohibited weapons, which manufacturers were able to circumvent by making minor modifications to existing guns. But gun control advocates have learned a lot since that time. And that's one reason to think the proposals now on the table could have a bigger impact than their predecessors did.

To be fair, it's not as if architects of the Brady Law or assault weapons ban thought either law would have a huge impact on crime. It’s easy to forget now, but enactment of the Brady Law culminated a decade of political struggle against the opponents of gun control, particularly the National Rifle Association. It took the election of Bill Clinton, who had promised to sign such a bill as president, to break the logjam—and even then it was a struggle. "I remember going up to the final day of that vote, we were whipping it for over a month," says Jim Kessler, who was an aide to then-Congressman Charles Schumer, one of the law's co-sponsors, and is now senior vice president for policy at Third Way. "We did not have the support of the speaker, we did not have the judiciary chairman, Jack Brooks of Texas, we had to do it on our own—and up to the day of the vote, we felt we might not have the votes to pass." Given that political reality, the advocates of gun laws knew they would be settling for highly imperfect legislation. One hope was that passing Brady would demonstrate the political viability of gun legislation, making it possible to pass stronger legislation later on. "The NRA had such a stranglehold around the neck of Congress, we knew that if we were going to get anything through, it had to be narrow," says Richard Aborn, a former prosecutor who was president of the Brady Campaign during the early 1990s.

But advocates of gun legislation in the 1990s didn’t simply lack sufficient political power. They also lacked know-how. At the time, experts didn’t really understand gun shows—and they certainly didn’t grasp the role that gun shows might play in facilitating sales once the Brady Law was in effect. "The notion of private sales and, in particular, gun show leakage was not on ours, or anybody else’s, radar screen," Aborn says. And even if lawmakers had been thinking about gun shows, it's not clear how much they could have done to restrict sales, at least in that political environment: Requiring private dealers to run full background checks, cross-checking identifications with criminal records and such, would have been time-consuming and in some cases unwieldy. Tom Diaz, a former Democratic staffer for the House Judiciary Committee and former policy analyst at the Violence Policy Center, explains, "There was no established system to do the background check. It seems easy now, but in the mid-1990s there were no 'apps' and the communication among computers was fragile. It was just much easier and more realistic to require federal firearms licensees—i.e., dealers—to do the background check, since they were already regulated under existing law."

Veterans of the assault weapons ban fight recall facing similar obstacles. Lack of technology wasn’t an issue, but lack of understanding about guns was. Diaz, author of a forthcoming book called The Last Gun: How Changes in the Gun Industry Are Killing Americans and What It Will Take to Stop It, remembers the crafting of that bill as a decidedly amateur exercise: 

In the case of the assault weapons ban, it was as inelegant as this: a bunch of politicians (mostly in the Senate, then in the House as the Senate bill became the vehicle) who knew (and some still know) precious little or even nothing at all about guns in general and assault weapons in particular literally sewed together (1) a list of guns, like Uzis and AKs, and (2) a silly list of "features" (bells and whistles) that "defined" in law what an assault weapon was supposed to be. If the gun had two or more of these features, well, it was an assault weapon. The defect was that manufacturers easily just eliminated the bells and whistles, but kept the major design features that make assault weapons so problematic, namely the ability to accept a high-capacity magazine, and a pistol grip to hold the gun for rapid fire.

One sign that the advocates of new gun laws have learned from the past is that their proposals are more sophisticated, and savvy, than the ones they put forward last time.2 Under the assault weapons proposals circulating now, including the proposal from California Senator Diane Feinstein, a gun would be illegal if it had just one criteria of an automatic rifle, rather than two. Lawmakers are also talking about new restrictions on high-capacity magazines. Christopher Koper, a criminologist at George Mason who was co-author of the official Justice Department review of the old assault weapons ban, thinks a stronger law has potential. "Restrictions like the old ones on assault weapons and large capacity magazines probably won't lower the overall rate of gun crime," he says, "but they may modestly reduce shootings by reducing gun attacks with particularly high numbers of shots fired. My best estimate is that the impact on shootings would be under 5 percent overall. I wouldn't consider this trivial, however, given the seriousness and social costs of shootings."

More important, advocates for gun laws have quietly shifted their priorities. The assault weapons ban continues to get the most publicity, but the real focus—for advocates and the lawmakers they support—is on a better system of background checks. "Universal background checks… would have much greater impacts," Koper says. "That could be a game-changer, but they also need to make sure the law is accompanied by meaningful penalties and enforcement." The advocates for new gun laws seem to grasp that last point. And that includes the president. Obama has already ordered law enforcement agencies to trace the history of guns they seize in crimes. It was one of the executive orders he issued when he unveiled his full gun plan.

To be clear, this doesn’t mean that the new push for gun legislation is destined to succeed—or to have dramatic effects on crime. Lawmakers in more conservative and rural districts remain reluctant to take on the National Rifle Association and its allies. And even the new laws will have loopholes. The more government regulates gun purchases from legal dealers, for example, the more criminals will seek to get them illegally. And the more government limits the manufacturer certain types of weapons, the more criminals will use older, grandfathered versions—or get them from overseas.

But even a modest impact on violence would represent progress. It would create a framework on which future lawmakers can build stronger regulations and, in the meantime, it would save at least a few lives. "Just because we can’t do everything doesn't mean we shouldn’t do everything we can," says Aborn. "Will it stop all gun crime? No. But … we don’t say repeal the murder statutes because it doesn’t stop all murders. There have to be reasonable expectations and a reasonable expectation is that it will make a difference and save some lives."

  1. For a compelling argument that the 1994 assault weapons ban had some beneficial effect, it's hard to do better than Alex Seitz-Wald's account in Salon. Wald's conclusion is consistent with what I've heard since—that the ban, while hardly foolproof, reduced violence at the margins.
  2. For a detailed look at how the new assault weapons proposal is different from the old one, see Brad Plumer of the Washington Post.