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Do local bans on assault weapons work?

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In the absence of a federal ban, seven states and a handful of municipalities have outlawed assault weapons. But their impact has been slight. 

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    A Palmetto M4 assault rifle is seen at the Rocky Mountain Guns and Ammo store in Parker, Colo., in this 2012 photo.
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Since Omar Mateen entered a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., earlier this month with an assault-style semiautomatic rifle, killing 49 people, the nation has once again debated whether such weapons should be banned.

In seven states and a handful of municipalities, they already are.

The experience of these states, combined with the limited data compiled during a federal assault-weapons ban that ended in 2004, gives a rough snapshot of how effective such bans are. The answer so far appears to be: not very.

The difficulty of controlling weapons across state lines, the ability of the gun industry to adapt its products, and the complexity of enforcing such laws have led to little substantive change in the number of assault style weapons in circulation in places where bans exist, data and expert analysis conclude. Moreover, they’ve have no discernible effect on crime.

To the gun industry and enthusiasts, the statistics only underscore that assault weapons – which account for a small fraction gun deaths – are not the problem.

To gun control advocates, the numbers show the need for much stricter laws.

What seems clear is that simply having a law on the books will not necessarily have any significant effect.

For example, most of the current state and local bans allow for the grandfathering in of either guns or owners so that people who own assault weapons can continue to own them and pass them down.

New York State is different in that assault weapon owners cannot sell or give away their guns to New Yorkers. They also cannot pass their guns down to their heirs when they die. Instead, the assault weapons must be sold to someone in another state. If the ban stays in place, that could slowly begin to decrease the state’s number of assault weapons.    

From New York to Chicago

But New York is facing other challenges. Though it requires assault weapon owners to register their guns – like four other states – there has been resistance.

“The number of people who registered is very, very small. Maybe 5 percent,” says James Jacobs, director of the Center for Research in Crime and Justice at New York University School of Law and coauthor of a new report on the subject. “These are estimations, but the registration hasn’t been very successful.”

Without an effective registration regime, tracking existing assault weapons becomes extremely difficult. While neighboring Massachusetts and Connecticut also have bans on assault weapons, other nearby states do not. So in the absence of a federal ban on assault weapons, states like New York face the challenge of gun trafficking.

“State and local gun control laws always face the problem of the easy transportability of guns,” says Adam Winkler, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law. “They easily cross city, state, and other borders. So it’s hard for local governments to really control guns in a significant way.”

This problem can be seen in Chicago, which has had a strict ban on assault weapons since Cook County adopted a law in 1993. Under the ban, only police officers and military personnel are allowed to have assault weapons and there is no grandfathering in of guns.

Yet, police here have long complained about the illegal trafficking of assault weapons and other guns from states with less strict gun laws like Indiana, which they say fuels gun violence here.  

On Sunday, a 21-year-old man was killed with a high-caliber assault weapon outside of a church on the city’s South Side. The incident was unusual; most shootings are with handguns in Chicago, authorities say. But assault weapons do play a role in crime here, they add. So far this year, police have taken 104 assault weapons off the street, making up 3 percent of total gun confiscations.

'Bullet buttons' and more

Gun manufacturers are also adept at changing their weapon design to work around laws. The definitions of assault weapons vary from ban to ban, but most state that a gun must have one or two military features. These can include detachable magazines, which allow for quick reloading; folding or telescoping stocks, which help conceal the weapon; pistol grips and or thumbhole stocks, which help a shooter control the weapon; and barrel shrouds, which prevent the gun from burning a shooter.

“When you ban the assault weapon, the manufacturers respond by changing the models of the weapon. They make weapons that look a lot like the ones that are banned, but don’t have all the features that triggered the prohibition,” says Professor Jacobs of NYU. “So if you’ve substituted the new guns for the old bad guns, have you accomplished anything? I think the answer is no. You’ve accomplished nothing.”

In California, for example, gun manufactures created “bullet buttons” to work around the state’s restriction on detachable magazines. If a gun has a bullet button, the magazine can only be removed with a tool, such as a bullet, making it legal under California law.

California is trying to pass further legislation that would close the bullet button loophole, but the workaround reveals just how hard it is to completely ban assault weapons. Experts say that even the federal ban, which was in place between 1994 and 2004, had this problem.

“The ban that was passed in 1994 allowed the industry to continue to manufacture assault weapons during the course of the ban,” says Josh Sugarmann, the executive director of the Violence Policy Center, which advocates for the ban of assault weapons along with other gun control measures.

According to a 2004 VPC study, there were more assault weapons manufacturers at the end of the ban than there were before it. The study estimated that there were more than one million new assault weapons manufactured for sale in the United States during the ban.

In addition, there’s been no clear data showing either a reduction or increase in gun violence due to local bans. An extensive assessment of the federal ban found similar results.  

Mr. Sugarmann says stricter bans are needed, a position echoed by Ronald Holt, a commander in Chicago’s police department who lost his 16-year-old son, Blair, to gun violence. Cook County’s assault weapons ban is named in Blair’s honor.

“Assault weapons should be left in the hands of military personnel and law enforcement agencies,” Mr. Holt says. “They should stay out of the hands of violent criminals and mentally unstable people.”

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