The Federal Assault Weapons Ban

The federal ban lapsed in 2013, after only ten years on the books. Politics was not the only reason.

A 1994 federal law banning assault weapons expired in 2004, and as of 2013 Congress has not passed a law to replace it. Although federal law currently regulates the purchase and sale of firearms and where they may be carried (for example, federal law prohibits carrying weapons on school grounds), a federal ban on assault weapons would further limit the type of weapons you may purchase in the first place.

Even without a current federal ban, both federal and state laws do define who may acquire firearms, and when and where you may carry them, as mentioned above. Several states have also enacted assault weapons bans similar to the 1994 federal ban.

To learn more about federal gun permitting laws, see Federal Gun Control Laws. And if you want to learn more about state gun laws, including concealed carry permitting and carrying in your state, see Gun Control Laws. Click the link to the topic of your choice under the section entitled “Gun Control Laws Information,” or the link to your state under the section entitled “Gun Laws by State”.

Defining “Assault Weapons”

The term “assault weapons” does not have a single definition, but generally refers to “military-like” firearms, which often have detachable large-capacity magazines. They can quickly fire multiple rounds, hit more targets, and kill with more efficiency than other firearms.

Assault weapons are also sometimes called “semi-automatic” weapons, which refers to the way that they reload automatically, but fire only one bullet for each pull of the trigger. This is in contrast to fully automatic weapons that load automatically and also fire continuously as long as the trigger is depressed.

The difficulty in defining assault weapons makes legislation—and its efficacy—less straightforward than other gun control laws, as discussed further below.

Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994

The federal assault weapons ban of 1994 (part of the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act) was enacted in response to a mass shooting that occurred at a California elementary school in 1989, which killed several children and injured many more.

The ban expired in 2004, and although there have been several attempts, Congress has not yet passed a new federal assault weapons ban as of 2013.

Problems with the 1994 Federal Ban

Although it undoubtedly kept many dangerous weapons off the market, there were several problems with the 1994 federal ban.

First, the ban’s efficacy was undermined in part by provisions that allowed assault weapons and large-capacity magazines manufactured prior to 1994 to remain on the market and in circulation (and to be imported from other countries). Because of this, as many as 200 million assault weapons remained in legal circulation in the United States.

The second problem was in how assault weapons were defined. The ban enumerated 18 kinds of firearms, along with numerous military-like features that made a weapon illegal for civilian purchase and possession. Firearms manufacturers responded by tweaking their designs just enough so as not to fall into the definition, which left the resulting modified weapons just as dangerous as their banned counterparts.

Finally, as mentioned above, the ban’s “sunset provision” meant that it automatically expired in 2004 when Congress did not formally renew it. This left the U.S. without a federal weapons ban after only a decade of having one. It is difficult to analyze how effective the ban was and all that could be done to improve it after such a short period of time.

These problems were a result of legislative compromise; the ban was the imperfect result that both sides could agree upon. Any new federal ban will encounter the same legislative push and pull, and will likely be equally imperfect—though in different ways—as the 1994 ban was.

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