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The U.S. Has Restricted Assault-Style Weapons Before. Did It Work?


In the wake of mass shootings in Georgia and Colorado, President Biden has renewed calls for stronger gun laws, including new limits on semiautomatic assault-style weapons and large-capacity magazines and expanded background checks. For years, the AR-15 and other assault-style weapons have been the firearm of choice for many killers carrying out mass shootings. A decade-long federal ban on those types of weapons ended in 2004. A central question resurfacing now is, how well did that prohibition work? NPR's Eric Westervelt has this report.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: If mass shootings are a uniquely American menace, Kris Brown, head of Brady: United Against Gun Violence, says easy access to semiautomatic weapons and large ammo clips are its main fuel.

KRIS BROWN: When we had a ban on those kinds of weapons that Joe Biden helped put into effect, we saw a 25% reduction in gun violence associated with those kinds of slaughters.

WESTERVELT: Mass shootings, Brown says, are a smaller part of the nation's much larger gun problem. Some 70% of gun homicides involve a handgun, not an assault-style rifle. And more than half of all suicides involve firearms. And there are nearly 400 million firearms already in circulation in America. But in at least 10 mass shootings in the last decade, including four of the Top 5 deadliest, some form of semiautomatic assault-style rifle was used, and most of them involved large-capacity magazines. New restrictions, Brown argues, would help protect the public.

WESTERVELT: Some people - we don't know who they are - but today, tomorrow, who are in a grocery store or go to the movies or in school, it will save their lives.

BROWN: The federal law restricting assault-style rifles and high-capacity magazines ran from 1994 to 2004. It barred the manufacture, sale and civilian use of new guns. If you already owned a semiautomatic assault style rifle, it was grandfathered in. And the law had other big loopholes, including allowing some copycat weapons. Research shows it worked only marginally to reduce overall gun crime and murder rates. But a growing body of research shows it did work when it came to mass shootings.

JOHN DONOHUE: There was a very appreciable drop in both the number of incidents and an even bigger drop in the number of deaths.

WESTERVELT: John Donohue, who has studied the issue, is the Carlsmith Professor of Law at Stanford University. Recent research, including his, shows that in the decade after the ban was lifted, mass killing fatalities increased dramatically, even as overall violent crime trended downward. And in the last five years, Donohue points out, if you remove the lost pandemic year, mass shooting fatalities in which assault-style rifles were used have mushroomed.

DONOHUE: You saw more mass shootings in the five years than you had seen in the previous 10 years. So things are not only getting worse since the Federal Assault Weapons Ban ended, but they're getting worse faster.

WESTERVELT: In the Colorado and Georgia shootings in which 18 people were killed, both suspected gunman legally purchased and used handguns, not rifles. But in Boulder, police say the suspect used a semiautomatic pistol, a Ruger AR-556, that can easily be converted to an assault-style rifle, just with a smaller barrel and stock. Just days earlier, a judge struck down a local ordinance that banned assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines.

Far less talked about was the 1994 federal law's provision banning new sales of large-capacity magazines. Daniel Webster directs the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Prevention and Policy. His research estimates that strengthening licensing laws and reducing the supply of those larger magazines can help cut deaths in mass shootings by 56%.

DANIEL WEBSTER: And again, that data indicating that the laws that focus on ammo capacity show the most clear, measurable reductions in shootings.

WESTERVELT: In a statement to NPR, the National Rifle Association said, regrettably, gun control advocates have already rushed to politicize this horrific situation. Gun control advocates weren't happy either. At his first formal press conference, President Biden barely mentioned the issue. Kris Brown at Brady called that tone deaf and very disappointing. Eric Westervelt, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.