Senator Feinstein's assault-weapon ban: How would it work?

Sen. Dianne Feinstein's proposed bill would not ban assault-weapon ownership, but it would ban the manufacture, sale, transfer, or importation of new assault weapons, as well as ban high-capacity magazines.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California speaks in favor of legislation to ban new assault weapons and high-capacity magazines at a briefing on Capitol Hill on Thursday.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California on Thursday introduced long-promised legislation aimed at controlling assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. As critics note, “assault weapon” is a category of firearm that’s difficult to define. Millions of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines are already in the hands of private citizens. So how would Senator Feinstein’s new restrictions work?

First, a general definition: assault weapons are small-caliber, high-powered rifles, pistols, or shotguns that are styled to appear as if they belong in a military or law enforcement arsenal. They are semiautomatic, meaning that each pull of the trigger fires one bullet and then chambers the next round.

True military rifles, such as the M16A2, are automatic, capable of firing multiple bullets with one pull of the trigger. But civilian ownership of automatic weapons has been tightly controlled in the US since the 1930s.

Feinstein’s bill is not a flat ban on assault-weapon ownership. Instead, it would ban the manufacture, sale, transfer, or importation of new assault weapons, as well as all ammunition feeding devices capable of holding more than 10 rounds. The legislation grandfathers in existing weapons and high-capacity magazines in private hands as legal.

The legislation bans more than 150 firearms by name. According to the bill, these include all AR-15 types, which are civilian derivatives of the military M-16; all AK-47 types, which are derivatives of the famous Soviet assault rifle of the same name; and MAC weapons, Thompson weapons, and Uzis, among others.

Beyond that, the legislation would restrict weapons according to their characteristics. Falling into this category would be semiautomatic rifles that can accept a detachable magazine, and have at least one military-style feature from this list: pistol grip; forward grip, folding, telescoping, or detachable stock; grenade launcher or rocket launcher; barrel shroud; or threaded barrel.

Pistols and shotguns with similar features would also be covered by the legislation’s restrictions.

These restrictions are somewhat tougher than those contained in the assault weapons ban that was the law of the land from 1994 to 2004. Under that law, a weapon had to have two of the military style features, instead of one, to be categorized as an “assault” weapon. The new bill would also ban some of the stylistic workarounds that manufacturers used to get around the previous legislation, such as thumbhole stocks, which mimic a pistol grip.

“One criticism of the ’94 law was that it was ... too easy work around. Manufacturers would simply remove one of the characteristics, and the firearm was legal. The bill we are introducing today will make it much more difficult to work around,” said Feinstein at a Thursday press conference.

However, in some ways, the bill is most different than the old not for the way it categorizes new assault weapons, but for the manner in which it treats existing assault weapons and magazines in private hands.

If a current assault weapon owner wishes to sell or otherwise transfer the firearm, for instance, the new bill requires that the transferee undergo a background check carried out either by the FBI or a state-level agency. It is difficult to see how the federal government could enforce this provision without a registry of existing assault weapons – something gun-rights groups vehemently oppose as government intrusion on Second Amendment rights.

As for existing high-capacity ammunition feeding devices, the bill would prohibit their further sale or transfer, according to Feinstein’s summary of the legislation. That means they would remain lawful to own for those who already have them, but not to get rid of, except to destroy.

The bill would establish a safe storage requirement for grandfathered assault rifles. Feinstein has yet to specify exactly what this would entail, though in the past she has talked about wanting to require trigger locks for such weapons.

Finally, the new legislation would also allow states and localities to use certain federal funds to hold voluntary buy-back programs for grandfathered assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

Gun owner groups said they would oppose all aspects of the proposed reinstatement of assault weapon and high-capacity magazine restrictions.

“Senator Feinstein has been trying to ban guns from law-abiding citizens for decades,” said the National Rifle Association in a statement.

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