Regulating Semi-Automatic Assault Weapons

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In just the past year, three of the 10 worst mass shootings in modern American history have been carried out with semi-automatic assault weapons.

Americans are outraged that weapons specifically designed for war are consistently being used in horrific mass shootings. While any firearm can be deadly in the wrong hands, it’s clear that elected leaders need to do more to protect communities from particularly lethal firearms that effectively transform determined killers into killing machines.

The easy availability of semi-automatic assault weapons has turned places that are supposed to be safe – schools, churches, concerts – into scenes of terror. 

It is possible to protect the rights of law-abiding gun owners and better protect our communities from the hail of gunfire produced by a semi-automatic assault weapon. We are calling on Congress to protect our children and communities by taking urgent action to comprehensively regulate semi-automatic assault weapons the same way we oversee the ownership and sale of fully automatic weapons, also known as machine guns.

History of Assault Weapons

Semi-automatic assault weapons are a class of firearms designed for war. The most common variety, the AR-15, is the civilian version of the M16, a combat rifle designed for use by the United States military. The AR-15 and its many variants are a class of firearm marketed by the gun industry in an attempt to reverse a decline in consumer demand for guns during the 1980s. Today, the firearms industry sells semi-automatic assault weapons to Americans who desire to carry weapons used by the military and law enforcement.

Semi-automatic assault rifles offer a lethal combination: rifle ammunition capable of penetrating bullet-proof vests, coupled with the capability to accept detachable magazines that can hold as many as 100 rounds. For this reason, semi-automatic assault weapons are frequently the guns of choice for individuals who carry out horrific public attacks. Some states have incorporated additional features into their definitions of assault weapons, such as the use of pistol grips or folding stocks.

A Path to Restrict Access to Assault Weapons

We released a policy framework designed to regulate and restrict access to semi-automatic assault weapons. This legislative framework utilizes an existing federal regulatory structure that allows law-abiding Americans to legally possess these firearms, while also addressing the future manufacture and/or sale of these firearms.

The components of our federal framework include:

  • Require all existing semi-automatic assault weapons to be regulated under the National Firearms Act (NFA). This proposal balances the rights of law-abiding gun owners with the need to regulate those firearms with lethal characteristics similar to those already regulated under the NFA.
  • Ban the future manufacture and sale of assault weapons to reduce the easy availability of such weapons to civilians.
  • Increase resources to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) so that it can enforce the NFA with respect to these and other NFA weapons, including resources needed to modernize and upgrade its equipment and technologies. While the NFA imposes a $200 tax on the registration of each NFA weapon, that money currently goes to the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s General Fund, not to ATF. That money should be redirected to ATF to fund its responsibilities under the NFA.

About the National Firearms Act

The NFA, enacted in 1934, was the first federal regulation of the manufacture, transfer, and possession of firearms in response to the mass shootings of the 1920s and heightened violence targeting police. Machine guns, short-barreled rifles, sawed-off shotguns, and silencers are currently regulated under the NFA.

In order to possess NFA firearms, individuals must undergo a background check process that includes the submission of photo identification and fingerprints and requires the registration of the firearm with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Individuals must also pay a $200 transfer tax, an amount that has not changed since the NFA was established in 1930 — when this tax was equivalent to approximately $3,700 in today’s dollars.

In 1986, Congress banned the future manufacture and production of machine guns for civilian sale, but continued to allow the lawful possession and transfer of machine guns that were owned prior to the ban’s effective date as long as they were registered in accordance with requirements of the NFA.  Because of the NFA’s effective regulatory regime and the availability of equally dangerous semi-automatic assault weapons, the use of NFA weapons in crime is rare. Only 3 of 1,000 firearms recovered in crimes and traced by ATF are machine guns.

The Lapsed Federal Assault Weapons Ban

In 1994, Congress adopted the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which made it “unlawful for a person to manufacture, transfer, or possess” a semi-automatic assault weapon. The bill defined the phrase “semi-automatic assault weapon” to include 19 named firearms and copies of those firearms, as well as certain semi-automatic rifles, pistols and shotguns with at least two specified characteristics from a list of features. The federal ban also prohibited the transfer and possession of any new large capacity ammunition magazine, defined as a magazine capable of holding more than ten rounds of ammunition.

The law was adopted with a sunset clause, however, and expired in 2004 — thus, these weapons and magazines that were formerly banned under the federal law are currently legal unless banned by state or local law. Despite its limited duration, studies show that the federal assault weapon ban resulted in a marked decrease in the use of assault weapons and large capacity ammunition magazines in crime. One study found that in several major cities, the share of recovered crime guns that were assault weapons declined by at least 32% after the federal ban was adopted.

State-Level Bans on Assault Weapons

Seven states have enacted their own bans on assault weapons: California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York. Each of these laws grandfathers pre-ban weapons, meaning that individuals who possessed prohibited assault weapons prior to the ban may generally keep them — provided that certain requirements are met. Five of the seven states require registration of grandfathered weapons, and a similar set of states prohibit the transfer of grandfathered weapons, making such weapons unavailable to civilians who do not already have them.

For example, after the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, Connecticut filled gaps in its assault weapons ban and required grandfathered weapons to be registered with the state. Any lawful owner of an assault weapon banned as of April 4, 2013, had until January 1, 2014, to apply to the state for a certificate of possession to continue to possess the assault weapon. As of August 2015, 51,763 assault weapons were registered to private owners in Connecticut.  Transfer or sale of these weapons is now almost universally prohibited in Connecticut.

Courts have consistently upheld state assault weapons bans against the gun lobby’s unfounded legal challenges.