CPRC on Assault Weapon Bans Confirms “Relative Rarity” of Rifle Use in Murders

Gun Rights

In 1994, Congress enacted the Title XI of the Federal Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, imposing a ban on so-called “assault weapons.” The law prohibited the manufacture, transfer, or possession of a “semiautomatic assault weapon,” as listed (e.g., Colt AR-15) or defined (including any semiautomatic rifle that could accept a detachable magazine and had two or more of the specified cosmetic features, like a folding or telescoping stock). The law’s sunset provision repealed the law ten years after it was passed. The Attorney General was required to study the impact of the legislation on violent crime and report back to Congress. Once the ban expired in 2004, it was not renewed.

Since then, gun control advocates at the state and federal level, including President Joe Biden, have not stopped agitating to have similar assault weapon laws reinstated, claiming that these ordinary, popular firearms are “high powered,” “exceptionally deadly,” and “excessively dangerous.” President Biden, the most virulently anti-Second Amendment occupant of the Oval Office to date, appears to personally define “assault weapon” to include any semiautomatic firearm, has repeatedly called for a new ban, alleging that “150 million Americans” have died from gun violence since 2007, and that “mass shootings went down” during the ban and “tripled” once the 1994 ban expired.

Like most of Biden’s over-the-top rhetoric on guns, his assertion that the 1994 ban reduced crime is unsupportable. Two separate studies by the federal Department of Justice (DOJ) on the impact of the ban (here and here) found the ban had no discernible effect on violent crime. A more recent study in 2017 concluded that “[s]pecific laws directed at … the banning of military-style assault weapons were not associated with changes in firearm homicide rates.”

The Crime Prevention Research Center (CPRC, crimeresearch.org) examined Biden’s claim about mass shootings in particular and concluded that there “was no drop in the number of attacks with assault weapons during the 1994 to 2004 ban.” While there was an increase after the ban sunset, “the change is not statistically significant. More importantly, if Biden’s claim is correct, we should see a drop in the percent of attacks with assault weapons during the federal ban period and then an increase in the post-ban period, but the exact opposite is true.”

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One of the DOJ studies explained the study’s outcome, in part, by reference to the “relative rarity with which the banned weapons were used in gun violence even before the ban.” New research from the CPRC reinforces this finding. Using data from the FBI UCR reports, the CPRC has examined the share of murders committed with any kind of rifle over time, including before, during and after the 1994 federal ban. The Center’s research looked at two indicators of rifle use, in murders generally, and as a share of the more specific class of firearm murders.

Three years before the federal ban, in 1991, the share of firearm murders with rifles (FMR) was 5.18%, and rifles were involved in 3.44% of all murders (MR). At the start of the ban, the share of FMR was already down to 4.69%, while the MR percentage fell slightly, to 3.27%. During the “assault weapon” ban, both numbers spiked twice to exceed the pre-ban levels: first in 1997 (5.95% FMR, 4.03% MR), and again in 2002 (5.12% FMR, 3.42% MR), before reaching somewhat lower levels by the time the ban expired in 2004 (4.29% FMR, 2.97% MR).

Although it may be tempting to attribute these drops, as slight as they are, to the effect of the ban, an analysis over the longer term shows that the ban had no effect on the frequency of use of rifles in murders. In the 12-year period after the ban ended (2005-2017), both the FMR and MR numbers continued to drop and generally stayed below (in some years, well below) what they had been before and during the ban. In 2019, the numbers began a steady rise but, as of 2022, were still below both the 1994 and 2004 numbers (at 3.66% FMR, 2.80% MR).

The CPRC commentary states “it is interesting to see what a small share of murders are committed with any type of rifle and how even that share has fallen over time,” adding that there “was no statistically significant difference in rates before the ban compared to the assault weapon ban period.”

There’s a lesson in these numbers, but it’s not one that gun control advocates are interested in. Joe Biden will almost certainly make gun control, and in particular, an assault weapons ban, a cornerstone of his reelection campaign. It’s particularly ironic, then that his first campaign video of 2024 opens with him intoning, “Freedom. Personal freedom is fundamental to who we are as Americans. There’s nothing more important. Nothing more sacred. That’s been the work of my first term… To protect our rights…. The question we’re facing is whether in the years ahead, we have more freedom or less freedom. More rights or fewer.” While Biden gets worked up over “MAGA extremists…lining up to take those bedrock freedoms,” he should, perhaps, spare a thought to how perverse it is to present himself as a champion of fundamental constitutional rights.  

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