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How would a new US ban on assault rifles work? (+video)

A new federal ban on sales of assault rifles and high-capacity magazines, likely to be proposed in the next Congress, would probably be similar to a ban that expired in 2004.

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In addition, the Feinstein bill probably would ban the ownership, transfer, or manufacture of any rifle that is capable of accepting a detachable magazine and has two or more of these five characteristics: a folding or telescoping stock, a pistol grip, a bayonet mount, a muzzle flash suppressor or threaded barrel capable of accepting such a suppressor, or a grenade launcher.

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The legislation also would prohibit the sale or ownership of any ammo-feeding device such as a magazine or belt capable of holding more than 10 rounds.

This sounds comprehensive, but it is important to note that the legislation contains one very large loophole. As Feinstein notes in her press release, anyone who currently has a legally owned assault rifle would be able to keep it. It would be legal to continue to resell these weapons. So America’s assault rifle arsenal would not get much smaller. It would just not get any larger.

It's unclear if the law as Feinstein wrote it up in 2005 would have prevented Mr. Lanza's mother from obtaining the rifle and magazines used in the assault on Sandy Hook Elementary School. Under the terms of the bill, Nancy Lanza would not have been able to buy either of them new, but she would have been able legally to obtain them used on the open market. 

According to new Congressional Research Service (CRS) primer on US gun-control laws, there are no good data on the current number of assault rifles in civilian hands. But a 1994 study estimated that Americans owned 1.5 million such weapons.

Proponents of banning assault rifles argue that they have no place in civilian gun stocks, particularly if outfitted with high-capacity magazines, notes the CRS study. Opponents of the ban say the guns are being singled out solely due to their appearance.

“Opponents ... argue that the statutorily defined characteristics of a semiautomatic assault weapon [are] largely cosmetic, and that these weapons [are] potentially no more lethal than other semiautomatic firearms,” writes CRS analyst William Krouse.

Mr. Krouse notes that there are no definitive data indicating whether the number of people shot and killed with assault weapons went down during the 10 years they were banned. Other experts, however, say there is some evidence that gun murders rose in Mexico after the assault weapons ban expired in 2004. According to a study by a group of New York University political scientists, areas of Mexico adjacent to states that allowed the resumption of assault weapons sales saw a “substantial” rise in the use of these weapons in killings, while areas next to California, which maintained a state-level ban, did not.


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