The 1994 Assault Weapons Ban
A Public Opinion Nightmare

Ryan VanOrden


On September 13th 1994, HR4296, the so-called Assault Weapon's Ban, was signed into law. Under the guise of reducing crime, it outlawed future manufacture and importation of several specific firearms, and arbitrarily limited choice features of all future firearms eligible for sale in the United States. Proponents of the bill touted military look-alike rifles as "dangerous weapons of mass destruction" in an effort to win public support for an outright ban on such "evil" features as bayonet lugs, folding stocks, and curved magazines.

While they may have succeeded in convincing a narrow majority of legislators to vote in favor of the ban, they did not succeed in convincing the American public, especially not those who even pretended to know anything about firearms.

The resulting public outcry among the gun-owning community of the United States galvanized the gun lobby, and has contributed to the outcomes of every subsequent election. Ironically, this law may prove to be the beginning of a marked trend that unifies gun owners as a more homogenous voting block than ever before.

In a somewhat twisted display of constitutional irony, the Assault Weapons Ban contains a ten-year sunset clause. Unless renewed by a subsequent act of Congress, the law will simply disappear on September 14th of 2004. Weapons and accessories that have been illegal for the last ten years will once again appear new on shelves around the country.

In this essay we will examine the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban, its effects on public opinion and the following elections, and demonstrate that a renewal of the ban in September of 2004 would be political suicide for many candidates hoping for reelection in November.


Anatomy of a Ban In order to fully understand the effects of the Assault Weapon's Ban and how they relate to public opinion, we must first examine the law itself and its implications. According to information garnered from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence(tm), "the federal assault weapons ban, was passed as part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. President Clinton signed it into law on September 13, 1994." [1] It is also known as " The 1994 Public Safety and recreational Firearms Use Protection Act" (though it has little or nothing to do with protecting any firearms use) or simply as "The Crime Bill". [2]

The law specifically names 19 different firearms as patently illegal, and specifies that three or more of the following features present on a single firearm constitutes an assault weapon.

  • A folding or telescoping stock
  • A pistol grip
  • A bayonet mount
  • A flash suppressor, or threads to attach one (a flash suppressor reduces the amount of flash that the rifle shot
    makes. It is the small birdcage-like item on the muzzle of the rifle)
  • Muzzle capable of acting as a grenade launcher.
  • Magazine capacity over 10 rounds

Weapons manufactured, imported, or configured in such a manner prior to the passage of the 1994 Act were "grandfathered" as having a "pre-ban" status. This had a two-pronged effect on the gun market. One was a steady and almost immediate inflation in prices of pre-ban weapons and high capacity magazines, their now limited availability causing an artificial stratification in price structure. Second, was the introduction of various "post-ban" weapons designed to circumvent the particulars of the law, while providing a similar function or appearance to their pre-ban counterparts, albeit minus the full cosmetic effect or hefty price tag.

The price of these pre-ban weapons skyrocketed in the months prior to the ban and has been rising slowly but steadily over the last ten years. Manufacturers, fearing the worst, stepped up production of these banned items in order to insure that profitable amounts were on hand once the Bill was inevitably passed. For example, the cost of the AR-15 series of rifles has more than doubled since the Ban first was introduced into Congress in April of 1994. [3]

Post-ban look-alike rifles, though lacking some or all of the banned features, are often functionally identical to their pre-ban predecessors, and fill a market vacuum created by the passage of an ineffective, bean-counting law that a only a tax-collector could be proud of. Indeed the term "assault weapons" is a misnomer. Gun Digest defines true assault weapons as "...fully automatic, selective-fire, or equipped with mission-specific features designed only for military and law enforcement application." [4] (Emphasis added.)

Regardless of one's position on gun control, it is evident that the so-called Assault Weapon's Ban did nothing to curb violent crime. Indeed, in many ways it was a solution to a non-existent problem. The ban did not help to eliminate crime, it did not get weapons currently on the open market out of the hands of any criminals, nor did it even target the types of firearms most commonly favored by miscreants and lowlifes. In a study done by the Florida Assault Weapons Commission, it was found that between 1986 and 1989 assault weapons were used in only 17 or .23% of the 7,500 gun crimes committed. [5]


Public Support

Initially, the idea of a law to ban assault weapons seemed to enjoy widespread support among both the American people and members of Congress; but later, after the ban was already passed, the American people began to wakeup to the fact that the promises of safer streets had been empty and impotent.

"In January 1995, ABC News/Washington Post interviewers found that 77 percent wanted Congress to keep in place "a law making it illegal to sell assault weapons." In April and in June, roughly identical numbers in the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll said Congress should keep the ban. Only two in ten disagreed.

A Yankelovich Partners poll in April 1995 approached the issue differently. Yankelovich asked whether it should be illegal for people to own handguns or, separately, to own semiautomatic assault guns. Forty percent favored making it illegal to own handguns; 55 percent did not. Forty-eight percent supported making it illegal for citizens to own semi-automatic assault guns; 50 percent dissented.

The public is dubious about the effects of a ban on assault weapons. In the Yankelovich poll, 46 percent said making the sale or possession of semiautomatic weapons illegal would reduce the amount of violent crime; 51 percent said it would not." [6]

Since that time, the trend of public apathy or outright hostility towards the effectiveness of the Assault Weapons ban has been slowly and quietly continuing to grow. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 had the unforeseen consequence of re-exposing millions of Americans to the longstanding ideals of self-protection in the face of danger. Gun permit applications in Oakland County Michigan skyrocketed from an average of 2,200 per year to over 8,000 following the September 11th terrorism attacks on the world trade center. [7] The tides of gun ownership appear to be shifting.


Effective Lobbying Efforts and the NRA

It is patently obvious that, like most gun control legislation, the Assault Weapons ban of 1994 was not popular among many members of the National Rifle Association. With the first news of the impending bill, groups like the NRA and the more grassroots GOA (Gun Owners of America) launched a lobbying move to block it. Members were encouraged to contact their representatives and let them know that voting against this bill was important to their reelection.

The result was the bill passing by the narrowest of margins, with a vote count of 216 for the bill, 214 against and with 3 abstaining; it was numbered as one of the narrowest victories in legislative history. [8] Gun owners, divided by political infighting between weekend hunters (who see no need for assault weapons) and strict constitutionalists (who obviously do) were unable to effectively rally together for a common cause.

Those gun owners who felt disenfranchised by the ban took up the torch once more to stir up public support against the legislators who favored the ban. By painstakingly comparing the lists provided by the Office of the Clerk to the U.S. House of Representatives concerning who voted for and against the 1994 ban and the lists of winners in the 1994 and 1996 elections, we can get a minimal idea of those who were defeated as a direct result or at least partly because of the ban. Among those who sought reelection, 33 were summarily defeated in 1994 and six more in 1996. [9]

In 1996, due to successful lobbying by gun owners nationwide, the house voted 239 to 173 to repeal the Assault Weapons Ban as ineffective. [10] The bill was then allowed to die in the Democrat controlled Senate and the Assault Weapons Ban stood.

While there is no accurate way to measure the effects of gun control legislation in each individual race, and this evidence can be considered consequential at best, it should be noted that many members of the Democratic Party consider gun control to be an issue to be avoided as harmful to their campaigns.

Clinton-Gore strategist James Carville said, "I don't think there is a Second Amendment right to own a gun. But I think it's a loser political issue." [11]

By the 2000 elections, the NRA had rallied a greater measure of support and unity throughout the gun owning community. The monthly magazines distributed to all dues-paying NRA members contained report cards for individual candidates in races nationwide, ranking them solely on their stances on gun control. This had a unifying effect on gun owners and allowed them to see the candidates voting records in black and white and as they compared to others.

Indeed it was claimed by former President Bill Clinton that the lobbying efforts of the NRA and other pro-gun groups that were directly responsible for the Democratic loss of the House of Representatives in the 2000 election and partially responsible for Al Gore's loss of the Presidency to George W. Bush. In an interview with CBS News on December 18th 2001, "You've got to give it to them, they've done a good job. They've probably had more to do than anyone else in the fact that we didn't win the house this time. And they hurt Al Gore." [12]

USA Today quipped, "Guns played a key role in Gore's loss of Arkansas, Tennessee, and West Virginia, any one of which could have delivered him the presidency." [13]

In the recent 2002 elections, of the 246 candidates endorsed by the NRA for the House of Representatives, 232 seats were won. This clearly demonstrates the effectiveness of the NRA's Get out the Vote programs and gun lobby report cards.


The Future of the Assault Weapons Ban

Guns are and will continue to be a major issue in American politics. The passage of the nefarious Assault Weapons Ban and its inability to effectively fight real crime gave rise to an increasingly unified movement of gun owners who simply won't stand for any more useless legislation that only serves to limit the rights of honest law abiding citizens.

The 1994 ban, as written, includes a sunset period of ten years from its passage into law. Unless renewed by an act
of Congress and again signed into law by President George W. Bush, firearms that have been demonized as illegal "weapons of mass destruction" will once again suddenly be legal to manufacture and import. Artificially inflated values of so-called pre-ban weapons will drop dramatically, as brand-new weapons roll off the factory milling machines and the cosmetically castrated weapons of the ten-year prohibitionary period will be legally modified by their owners to include all of those features once declared "too evil" to be on a modern civilian's rifle.

Make no mistake, anti-gun activists and legislators will make every attempt to reinstate an even more restrictive and permanent ban, but given the current political climate and Congressional representation, coupled with the growing tendency of gun owners to vote as a group, you will most likely see a massive successful campaign by grassroots activists to soundly defeat the ban once and for all.

In a survey of gun owners conducted by the Author on the internet-based web forum www.thefiringline.com, 78.95% of 114 responding gun owners claimed that the 1994 ban had influenced their voting practices and would continue to influence them in the 2004 election.


Did the '94 Assault Weapons ban affect your vote? Will it affect your vote in 2004? Yes it did affect my vote and WILL affect my vote in '04 90 78.75%
Yes it did affect my vote but WILL NOT in '04 1 0.88%
No it did not affect my vote but it WILL in '04 3 2.63%
No it did not affect my vote and it WILL NOT in '04 3 2.63%
I was ineligible to vote in '94 but it WILL affect my vote in '04 17 14.91%
I was ineligible to vote in '94 and it WILL NOT affect my vote in '04 0 0%
Approx 6.5% Margin for error Total: 114 votes 100%


Additionally, 14.91% of those responding were ineligible to vote in the 1994 election, but stated that an act of Congress in regards to the Assault Weapons Ban would affect their votes in the 2004 election. These are individuals who were presumably too young to vote, and interestingly enough also too young to own a gun when the Assault Weapons Ban was passed, and have had to live under its restrictions the entire time they have owned a firearm.


Conclusion

Gun ownership is becoming increasingly salient in the minds of American voters. The failure of the Assault Weapons Ban to deter violent crime and the resulting lack of public support will be its death knell in 2004. In order for the gun owners to insure its quiet sunset into oblivion they will need to band together once more and ensure that each representative knows that a renewal of the ban will result in their electoral defeat in November of that year.

1 "The Assault Weapons Ban," Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, Aug. 2002
http://www.bradycampaign.org/facts/gunlaws/awb.asp

2 Adams, Les The Second Amendment Primer, Birmingham: Palladium Press, 1996: 142

3 Roth, JA, Koper, CS, "Impacts of the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban: 1994-96," National Institute of Justice Research
in Brief, (U.S. Department of Justice, March 1999).

4 Lewis, Jack and David E. Steele, Assault Weapons, Wisconsin: Krause, 2000: back cover.

5 Mack, Richard I. From My Cold Dead Fingers: Why America Needs Guns, Utah: MC Printing, 2000: 82

6 Bowman, Karlyn H. Assault Weapons Ban: The Voters Want It, or Maybe They Don't, Roll Call Apr. 1, 1996.

7 Gray, Kathleen "Attacks add to demand for metro gun permits" The Detroit Free Press Oct. 16 2001.

8 Office of The Clerk, US House of Representatives Final Vote Results for Roll Call 156 5/5/1994
http://clerkweb.house.gov/cgi-bin/vote.exe?year=1994&rollnumber=156

9 Research by Author, comparing lists located at the Office of the Clerk Website (links follow)
'94 Ban http://clerkweb.house.gov/cgi-bin/vote.exe?year=1994&rollnumber=156

94 Election Results: http://clerkweb.house.gov/elections/1994/94Stat.htm

'96 Election Results: http://clerkweb.house.gov/elections/1996/96Stat.htm

10 Office of The Clerk, US House of Representatives Final Vote Results for Roll Call 92 3/22/96
http://clerkweb.house.gov/cgi-bin/vote.exe?year=1996&rollnumber=92

11 Cox, Chris "Don't Be fooled, the Fight Continues" America's First Freedom Oct. 2002: pg 23

12 "Freedom's Faithful Retake the Field" America's First Freedom Aug 2001: pg 35

13 "Freedom's Faithful Retake the Field" America's First Freedom Aug 2001: pg 34

Source: http://www.awbansunset.com/essay_vanorden1.html

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