In January, a little more than a month after Adam Lanza killed 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School with an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle, Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduced the Assault Weapons Ban of 2013—an updated and more stringent version of the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban. The bill would have made it a crime to sell, transfer, import, or manufacture AR-15-style rifles and other so-called semi-automatic assault weapons.
Not unexpectedly, the bill was polarizing, and conservative legislators were expected to block any gun control package that included the ban. Earlier this week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid acknowledged the inevitable and told Feinstein that the new assault weapons ban wouldn’t be included in the main Senate gun control bill. Feinstein was disappointed; others were outraged. But they shouldn’t have been. The new assault weapons ban wasn’t a particularly good law to begin with.
It was better, at least, than the porous, imprecise law passed in 1994. That bill’s definition of an “assault weapon” was vague and easily evaded. The 1994 legislation banned all semi-automatic firearms with detachable magazines and certain other militaristic features. Semi-automatic rifles, for example, could not contain more than two features from the following list: a folding or telescoping stock; a pistol grip; a bayonet mount; a flash suppressor; a grenade launcher. Manufacturers soon began producing “post-ban weapons” without those disputed features. And while the bill banned 19 specific models of semi-automatic firearms, it did nothing to stop the gun industry from manufacturing knockoff versions—which they did. As a 2004 Violence Policy Center report put it, “virtually from the inception of the 1994 law America’s firearms industry has easily evaded the ban’s intent and bragged of its success in manufacturing ‘copycat’ or ‘sporterized’ assault weapons.”
The Feinstein-backed 2013 bill was tighter, listing by name 157 firearms that would be specifically banned—including all AR-15-style rifles—while also naming 2,258 “legitimate hunting and sporting rifles and shotguns” that would still be legal. The new bill limited semiautomatic firearms to one militaristic feature, not two. And whereas the 1994 legislation only banned “copies and duplicates” of weapons like the Colt AR-15, the latest bill banned “copies, duplicates, variants, or altered facsimiles with the capability of” the 157 specifically named firearms—a caveat that would seem to prevent gunmakers from making small modifications to existing platforms and selling them under different names. (“Gentlemen, I give you our newest product: the JR-15!”)
The 2013 bill, though, didn’t make it clear why certain guns were banned while others weren’t. What’s the real difference between an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle (banned) and the fixed-stock Ruger Mini-14 semi-automatic carbine (allowed), for instance, besides the fact that the AR-15 has been in the news? Sure, the AR-15 platform is more easily customized, but both guns are semi-automatic weapons that would be dangerous in the wrong hands.
What’s more, the bill grandfathered in every existing semi-automatic weapon “lawfully possessed at the date of the bill’s enactment.” That’s millions and millions of rifles and handguns. Granted, it would be impractical to try and confiscate millions of guns that have been legally purchased. But that’s sort of the point: How effective is any bill that purports to ban assault weapons while leaving millions of them still in use? And, critically, the bill didn’t recognize that semi-automatic “assault weapons” are only used in a small percentage of crimes, as Alex Seitz-Wald noted last month in Salon.
Singling out and banning specific weapons while labeling others as legitimate is an ineffective, headline-driven gun-control strategy. A bullet can kill someone just as easily when fired from a revolver as from an AR-15. Millions of people across the country own and use so-called assault weapons responsibly and legally, and blanket criminalization of their sale and transfer seems guaranteed to engender further resentment and polarization on an issue where common ground is so desperately needed.
Truly effective gun-control measures will account for all guns, not just certain prominent firearms. Restricting magazine capacity; requiring tougher background checks and longer waiting periods; raising taxes on gun and ammunition purchases; devising better strategies to combat gun trafficking; developing guns and gun safes that can only be operated by their owners—these are substantive and sustainable reforms.
Reactively banning certain weapons because they’re perceived to be dangerous might look good on paper. But all guns are dangerous in the wrong hands, and sensible gun control policy needs to start with that assumption and work forward from there. Time’s Swampland blog notes that the assault weapons ban was one of four gun control measures the Senate Judiciary Committee approved this month; the other three “would expand required federal background checks for firearms buyers, increase federal penalties for illegal gun trafficking and boost school safety money.” If those measures fail, then gun control advocates will have something to be angry about.