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Did the assault weapons ban of 1994 bring down mass shootings? Here’s what the data tells us

The Clinton-era ban on assault weapons ushered in a period of fewer mass shooting deaths. (AP Photo/Dennis Cook)

A spate of high-profile mass shootings in the U.S. has sparked calls for Congress to look at imposing a ban on so-called assault weapons – covering the types of guns used in both the recent Buffalo grocery attack and that on an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.

Such a prohibition has been in place before. As President Joe Biden noted in his June 2, 2022, speech addressing gun violence, almost three decades ago bipartisan support in Congress helped push through a federal assault weapons ban in 1994, as part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act.

That ban was limited – it covered only certain categories of semi-automatic weapons such as AR-15s and applied to a ban on sales only after the act was signed into law, allowing people to keep hold of weapons purchased before that date. And it also had in it a so-called “sunset provision” that allowed the ban to expire in 2004.

Nonetheless, the 10-year life span of that ban – with a clear beginning and end date – gives researchers the opportunity to compare what happened with mass shooting deaths before, during and after the prohibition was in place. Our group of injury epidemiologists and trauma surgeons did just that. In 2019, we published a population-based study analyzing the data in a bid to evaluate the effect that the federal ban on assault weapons had on mass shootings, defined by the FBI as a shooting with four or more fatalities, not including the shooter. Here’s what the data shows:

Before the 1994 ban:

From 1981 – the earliest year in our analysis – to the rollout of the assault weapons ban in 1994, the proportion of deaths in mass shootings in which an assault rifle was used was lower than it is today.

Yet in this earlier period, mass shooting deaths were steadily rising. Indeed, high-profile mass shootings involving assault rifles – such as the killing of five children in Stockton, California, in 1989 and a 1993 San Francisco office attack that left eight victims dead – provided the impetus behind a push for a prohibition on some types of gun.

During the 1994-2004 ban:

In the years after the assault weapons ban went into effect, the number of deaths from mass shootings fell, and the increase in the annual number of incidents slowed down. Even including 1999’s Columbine High School massacre – the deadliest mass shooting during the period of the ban – the 1994 to 2004 period saw lower average annual rates of both mass shootings and deaths resulting from such incidents than before the ban’s inception.

From 2004 onward:

The data shows an almost immediate – and steep – rise in mass shooting deaths in the years after the assault weapons ban expired in 2004.

Breaking the data into absolute numbers, between 2004 and 2017 – the last year of our analysis – the average number of yearly deaths attributed to mass shootings was 25, compared with 5.3 during the 10-year tenure of the ban and 7.2 in the years leading up to the prohibition on assault weapons.

Saving hundreds of lives

We calculated that the risk of a person in the U.S. dying in a mass shooting was 70% lower during the period in which the assault weapons ban was active. The proportion of overall gun homicides resulting from mass shootings was also down, with nine fewer mass-shooting-related fatalities per 10,000 shooting deaths.

Taking population trends into account, a model we created based on this data suggests that had the federal assault weapons ban been in place throughout the whole period of our study – that is, from 1981 through 2017 – it may have prevented 314 of the 448 mass shooting deaths that occurred during the years in which there was no ban.

And this almost certainly underestimates the total number of lives that could be saved. For our study, we chose only to include mass shooting incidents that were reported and agreed upon by all three of our selected data sources: the Los Angeles Times, Stanford University, and Mother Jones magazine.

Furthermore, for uniformity, we also chose to use the strict federal definition of an assault weapon – which may not include the entire spectrum of what many people may now consider to be assault weapons.

Cause or correlation?

It is also important to note that our analysis cannot definitively say that the assault weapons ban of 1994 caused a decrease in mass shootings, nor that its expiration in 2004 resulted in the growth of deadly incidents in the years since.

Many additional factors may contribute to the shifting frequency of these shootings, such as changes in domestic violence rates, political extremism, psychiatric illness, firearm availability and a surge in sales, and the recent rise in hate groups.

Nonetheless, according to our study, President Biden’s claim that the rate of mass shootings during the period of the assault weapons ban “went down” only for it to rise again after the law was allowed to expire in 2004 holds true.

As the U.S. looks toward a solution to the country’s epidemic of mass shootings, it is difficult to say conclusively that reinstating the assault weapons ban would have a profound impact, especially given the growth in sales in the 18 years in which Americans have been allowed to purchase and stockpile such weapons. But given that many of the high-profile mass shooters in recent years purchased their weapons less than one year before committing their acts, the evidence suggests that it might.The Conversation

Michael J. Klein, Clinical Assistant Professor of Surgery, New York University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

10 comments

Priscilla Feral June 9, 2022 at 9:48 am

Undoubtedly it’s a goal of the gun lobby to normalize military-style weapons for the nutters who fantasize ending someone’s life. When types of assault rifles are made acceptable in our culture, they become more prevalent, and violence increases.

Despite less than 4% of Americans involved in killing wildlife for fun, the gun lobby is using the dying hunting industry to keep semi-automatic weapons like the AR-15 rifle in circulation. That’s a national disgrace.
The plan for the future should be a federal ban on assault weapons, as the data in the article shows that the result is fewer mass shootings.

Also, the end of the hunting industry and the violence it also represents can’t come soon enough.

Sam Tyler June 9, 2022 at 2:19 pm

Ms. Feral does not realize that that small percentage that hunt are using these animals to feed their family. Does she not eat meat or fowl. Somebody slaughtered those animals.

CT-Patriot June 9, 2022 at 6:04 pm

Department of Justice funded a study to analyze this very topic, and it concluded that the assault weapon prohibition had “mixed” results.

Researchers noted there was a decline in crimes committed with firearms classified as assault weapons, but noted “the decline in AW use was offset throughout at least the late 1990s by steady or rising use of other guns.”

A RAND review of gun control studies, which was updated in 2020, concluded there’s “inconclusive evidence for the effect of assault weapon bans on mass shootings.” Research published in Criminology & Public Policy the same year (2020) concluded that bans on assault weapons “do not seem to be associated with the incidence of fatal mass shootings.”

Bottom line, if someone wants to shoot at someone else, they will find alternative ways to do so.

Culture and society has been broken and needs to be addressed.

After all, we do not ban sports cars for fatal accidents or airplanes. We also do not ban knives which are used more likely in a crime vs a firearm.

Priscilla Feral June 9, 2022 at 8:10 pm

Dear Sam, Of course I don’t put animals on my menu. No trophy hunters — the fewer than 1 percent in CT, hunt for food. It’s about stealing the lives of beautiful wild animals, and that atrocity is falling out of fashion.

Piberman June 9, 2022 at 8:39 pm

Ms Feral:
How does one define “military style weapon” ? Most violent homicides reportedly involve semi-automatic pistols. Routinely carried by military personnel. Even if all military style weapons like AR-15’s were removed we’d still have tens of thousands of violent homicides and suicides in the US.

Any ideas on how we might encourage owners of “military style weapons” to turn them ?
Would criminals turn in their inventories ? And how would we stop the illegal import of military style weapons when we can’t (current Administration) control our southern border ?

The very idea that we can stop truly heinous violent homicides by removing certain firearms seems enticing. But with the exception of Australia (a special case) we have no prior example among western nations showing successful turning in of special classes of weapons.

If AR-15’s were turned in by legal and illegal owners would we materially reduce the annual estimated 10,000 violent homicides in our major cities ? Not likely because its common variety handguns that are used in those homicides.

In a nation with an estimated 400 million circulating firearms (legal and illegally acquired) and with millions and millions of Americans hunting wild animals with their long weapons the odds of reducing gun violence/homicides are not promising.

A good start is asking why our local and state elected officials remain so reluctant to require guns be stored at home in gun safes ? The silence of their response is deafening.

Justataxpayer June 9, 2022 at 9:04 pm

The further reason to support the 2nd Amendment is what is being displayed on CBS, NBC, LSMNBC etc. When the government can provide this show to us on TV, further reason for people to shop against tyranny.

Michael McGuire June 10, 2022 at 10:57 am

Ms. Ferel

This is not a gun issue, or anything ‘more prosaic’ and the like can fix. This is a moral issue and the product of our post secular society.

Said another way, the problem is us (as in me and you), not others.

M Murray June 11, 2022 at 11:08 am

Military style assault weapons are rifles capable of select fire or fully automatic weapons. With a single pull of a trigger, they fire multiple rounds. Sporting firearms do not have that capability and are only capable of firing one round with each pull of the trigger. The anti-Constitutionalists like to refer to sporting firearms as military weapons or assault weapons in order to cause confusion and gain support for their cause. As for Mrs. Feral, she would have us all be vegetarians and give up our delicious food sources that taste so good and would love to ban eating our favorite foods too.

Peter Franz June 11, 2022 at 8:04 pm

Mr. Murray, there’s more than a little confusion in your response. The “what’s an assault weapon” is long and boring, and is often THE red herring used to cloud the topic of gun safety. Let’s be clear, a room full of mutilated children, torn apart by a weapon the shooter NEVER should have been allowed to purchase, is what “gains support” for the gun safety cause, not your fake interpretation.

People seeking to save children’s lives are anything but “anti-constitutionalists”. The assault weapons ban worked on saving lives, and, here’s the kicker: was repeatedly challenged but never was found to be in violation of the US Constitution.

CT-Patriot June 13, 2022 at 6:56 am

the ban had no measurable impact on the number of shootings or the number of shooting deaths while it was in effect.

They cite data from the 2005 National Research Council and the 2004 National Institute of Justice

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