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"Assault Weapons" | "Large" Magazines

August 8, 2016

"Assault Weapons" and "Large" Magazines

  • The congressionally-mandated study of the federal “assault weapon ban” of 1994-2004 found that the ban had no impact on crime, in part because “the banned guns were never used in more than a modest fraction of gun murders.” (Urban Institute[1]) Rifles of any type are used in only two percent of murders. (FBI[2])

  • “Murder rates were 19.3% higher when the Federal [assault weapon] ban was in effect.”[3]
  • Americans own over eight million AR-15s and buy hundreds of thousands of new ones every year. (ATF[4])

  • AR-15s are the most commonly used rifles in marksmanship competitions, training, and home defense.

  • Total violent crime has fallen to a 44-year low and murder to an all-time low, while ownership of the firearms and magazines that gun control supporters want banned has risen to all-time highs. (FBI,[5] ATF[6])

  • AR-15s and other semi-automatic rifles are not the fully-automatic, military-grade firearms they are often claimed to be by gun control supporters and the media.

  • Ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 rounds are standard equipment for many handguns and rifles that Americans keep for self-defense.

  • The terrorist attacks in France and Belgium show that gun bans—including those on semi-automatic firearms and standard-capacity magazines—don’t prevent crime. In both countries, the ownership of firearms, including semi-automatics, is severely restricted.

  • Gun control supporters are wrong to claim that “assault weapons” are used in most mass shootings. While the media focus on this false narrative, mass shootings have been committed with firearms of all types, and without firearms of any type.

Second Amendment – Firearms that gun control supporters call “assault weapons” and ammunition magazines that they call “large” are among the arms protected by the Second Amendment. Because they’re among the arms that are most useful for the entire range of defensive purposes, they’re “in common use” for defensive purposes, a standard articulated by the Supreme Court in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008).[7] This is true, regardless of which of gun control supporters’ ever-expanding definitions of “assault weapons” one uses.[8] 

More “assault weapons” and “large” magazines, less crime – From 1991, when violent crime hit an all-time high, to 2014, the nation’s total violent crime rate decreased 52 percent, to a 44-year low, including a 54 percent decrease in the murder rate, to an all-time low.[9] Meanwhile, Americans bought 160 million new firearms,[10] including millions of so-called “assault weapons,” including more than eight million AR-15s, and so many tens of millions of “large” handgun and rifle magazines that it seems pointless to attempt a count.[11] 

Different guns, same old tune – In the 1970s, gun control supporters predicted that crime would rise unless Congress banned all handguns.[12] In the 1980s, they said the same thing about compact, small-caliber handguns.[13]  For a quarter-century, they’ve said the same thing about “assault weapons” and “large” magazines[14] and Right-to-Carry laws under which people carry semi-automatic handguns and “large” magazines for self-defense.[15]Every one of these predictions has been proven false.[16] Nevertheless, they have expanded their definition of “assault weapon” to include virtually all semi-automatic shotguns and detachable-magazine semi-automatic rifles, comparable handguns, and various fixed-magazine rifles, and continue to press for a ban on magazines.[17]

Study for Congress and follow-up studies – The congressionally-mandated study of the federal “assault weapon” and “large” magazine “ban” concluded that “the banned guns were never used in more than a modest fraction of all gun murders” before the ban, and the ban’s 10-round limit on new magazines wasn’t a factor in multiple-victim or multiple-wound crimes.[18] A follow-up study concluded that “AWs [assault weapons] and LCMs [large capacity magazines] were used in only a minority of gun crimes prior to the 1994 federal ban,” “relatively few attacks involve more than 10 shots fired,” and “the ban’s effects on gun violence are likely to be small at best and perhaps too small for reliable measurement.”[19] Another follow-up study found “gunshot injury incidents involving pistols [many of which use magazines that hold more than 10 rounds] were less likely to produce a death than those involving revolvers [which typically hold five or six rounds]” and “the average number of wounds for pistol victims was actually lower than that for revolver victims.”[20]

History of semi-automatic firearms – Semi-automatic firearms were introduced in the 19th century. The first semi-automatic rifle was introduced in 1885, the first semi-automatic pistol in 1892, and the first semi-automatic shotgun in 1902.[21] Semi-automatics account for 20-25 percent of the approximately 350 million privately-owned firearms in the United States today and the percentage is rising, because semi-automatics account for over half of the 10-15 million new firearms bought annually.[22] Semi-automatics fire only one shot when the trigger is pulled—like revolvers, bolt-actions, lever-actions, pump-actions, double-barrels and all other types of firearms except fully-automatics (machine guns).[23] Thus, semi-automatics cannot “spray fire” and they’re not designed to be fired “from the hip.”[24] They aren’t “high-powered,”[25] there are no devices that convert them into machine guns legally,[26] they aren’t equipped with “grenade launchers” and “rocket launchers,”[27] and they certainly aren’t “weapons of mass destruction.”[28]

Origin of the issue – The most popular semi-automatic firearm that gun control supporters call an “assault weapon,” the AR-15, was introduced in 1963, but gun control supporters didn’t decide to call it and other semi-automatic firearms “assault weapons” until 1984.[29] Gun control activists began campaigning against “assault weapons” only after they realized that their previous campaign to get handguns banned had failed.[30] In 1988, an anti-handgun activist group recommended to other such groups:

 [A]ssault weapons . . . will . . . strengthen the handgun restriction lobby . . . . [H]andgun restriction consistently remains a non-issue with the vast majority of legislators, the press, and public. . . . Assault weapons . . . are a new topic. The weapons’ menacing looks, coupled with the public’s confusion over fully automatic machine guns versus semi-automatic assault weapons—anything that looks like a machine gun is assumed to be a machine gun—can only increase the chance of public support for restrictions on these weapons. . . . Efforts to restrict assault weapons are more likely to succeed than those to restrict handguns.[31]

 ATF 1989 importation ban – The anti-handgun group also recommended that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) adopt guidelines to prohibit the importation of “assault weapons.”[32] The following year, ATF banned the importation of 43 models of semi-automatic rifles that it had previously approved for importation.[33]

Because federal law requires ATF to approve the importation of any firearm that is “particularly suitable for or readily adaptable to sporting purposes,”[34] the agency took the curious position that “target shooting” meant only “organized marksmanship competition.” Furthermore, ATF ignored the portion of the law requiring approval of the importation of firearms that are “readily adaptable to sporting purposes.”

In 1998, ATF expanded its ban to include any semi-automatic rifle capable of using a detachable magazine that could hold more than 10 rounds.[35] Gun control supporters periodically insist that the importation restrictions be tightened.[36]

California’s and New Jersey’s bans – California banned “assault weapons” in 1989, and New Jersey banned “assault firearms” in 1990. New Jersey’s ban included the Marlin Model 60 .22 caliber squirrel rifle, which an anti-gun New Jersey politician called a “people-killing machine.” Both states allowed owners to register and keep banned guns already owned, but only about 10 percent of owners complied with the registration requirements.[37] Several other states subsequently banned “assault weapons,” “assault pistols,” and/or “large” magazines.[38]

Clinton “assault weapon ban” – President Bill Clinton campaigned for a federal “assault weapon” and “large” magazine “ban” proposed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.,), saying people “can’t be so fixated on our desire to preserve the rights of ordinary Americans.”[39] Crime reports and felon surveys showed that “assault weapons” were used in only 1-2 percent of violent crimes, and in the 10 preceding years murders committed without guns outnumbered those with “assault weapons” by about 37-to-1.[40] Nevertheless, the Clinton/Feinstein “ban” on new manufacture of “assault weapons” and magazines that hold more than 10 rounds was imposed from 1994 to 2004. 

Pushing for an expanded ban – As the scheduled 2004 expiration of the ban approached, gun control supporters campaigned to have the ban not only extended, but also expanded, the Brady Campaign calling California’s ban the “model for the nation.”[41] But because “assault weapons” are used in only a tiny percentage of murders, California’s murder rate increased every year for five years after its 1989 ban, 26 percent overall, while in the rest of the country murder increased 10 percent. During the first five years after California expanded its ban in 2000, the state’s murder rate increased 10 percent, compared to a five percent decrease in the rest of country.[42]

Nevertheless, in 2013 Feinstein introduced a ban much more restrictive than the one in effect between 1994 and 2004.[43] Whereas her 1994 “ban” merely prohibited manufacturing or assembling one of the targeted firearms with its full complement of standard external attachments, her 2013 bill would have banned the manufacture of the same firearms altogether, as well as banned the manufacture of other firearms not addressed in the 1994 legislation. Her 2013 bill would have banned the manufacture of any semi-automatic shotgun or detachable-magazine semi-automatic rifle that had any “characteristic that can function as a grip,” as well as various fixed magazine rifles and self-defense handguns, and prohibit anyone from selling or otherwise transferring a magazine that holds more than 10 rounds. The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence and Million Mom March have proposed that pump-action firearms be banned as “assault weapons” too.[44]

Semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15 are the most popular rifles in the United States for home protection and defensive skills-based firearm training and marksmanship competitions,[45] and they’re increasingly popular among hunters.[46] Ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 rounds are standard equipment for many handguns and rifles designed for defensive purposes, they’re commonly used in handguns kept for protection at home and carried for protection away from home, and they’re commonly used in defensive skills-based firearm training and sports.[47]




[1] Roth, Koper, et al., Impact Evaluation of the Public Safety and recreational Firearms Use Protection Act of 1994, Urban Institute, March 13, 1997.

[2] FBI, Crime in the United States 2014Expanded Homicide Table 8.

[3] Mark Gius, An examination of the effects of concealed weapons laws and assault weapons bans on state-level murder rates, Applied Economic Letters, Vol. 21, No. 4.

[4] Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Annual Firearm Manufacturers and Export Reports.

[5] 2014 is the most recent year of data available. See the FBI UCR Data Tool for crime data for years prior to 2014 and FBI Uniform Crime Reports Section, Crime in the United States 2014, Violent Crime Table 4 for 2014. Annual FBI national crime reports prior to those posted on the FBI’s website are on file with NRA-ILA. See also Claude Fischer, A crime puzzle, The Public Intellectual, May 2, 2011.

[6] Note 4.

[7] See the Court’s decision. The Court said that “the inherent right of self-defense has been central to the Second Amendment right,” which is “the individual right to possess and carry weapons in case of confrontation,” including “all instruments that constitute bearable arms.” It struck down D.C.’s handgun ban, saying the “handgun ban amounts to a prohibition of an entire class of ‘arms’ that is overwhelmingly chosen by American society for the lawful purpose” of self-defense. Explaining its deference to the firearm preferences of the American people, the Court cited its decision in U.S. v. Miller (1939), that the Second Amendment protects the right to arms that have a “reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia” and, citing the decision of the Tennessee Supreme Court in Aymette v. State (1840), arms that are “part of the ordinary military equipment” and/or that could be used to “contribute to the common defense.” The Miller Court said that citizens called into militia service were traditionally expected to appear “bearing arms supplied by themselves and of the kind in common use at the time.”

[8] Gun control supporters have tried to add more types of firearms to their lists of guns they want banned as “assault weapons.” For example, the federal “assault weapon” and “large” magazine “ban” of 1994-2004, authored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), defined “assault weapons” to include detachable-magazine, semi-automatic rifles having two or more external attachments named in the law, and comparable shotguns and handguns. But, in 2013, Feinstein proposed S. 150, which, because of the bill’s definition of “pistol grip,” would have banned firearms regardless of their number of external attachments, as well as certain fixed-magazine, semi-automatic rifles. Other gun control supporters have proposed that pump-action shotguns and pump-action rifles be banned as “assault weapons” too. (Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, LCAV Model Law to Ban Assault Weapons (2004 version, no longer online, but on file with NRA-ILA) and Donna Dees-Thomases and Carolynne Jarvis, “Why wait to tackle gun violence: Germany’s timely action should serve as example for America,” Detroit Free Press, Aug. 8, 2002.)

[9] Note 5.

[10] Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Firearm Commerce in the United States 2014 and Annual Firearms Manufacturers and Export Reports. For a projection of the number of new firearms purchased in 2013 and 2014, compare the ATF to FBI, NICS Firearm Background Checks: Year, by State/Type (second through fifth data columns).

[11] According to Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who sponsored the federal “assault weapons” and “large” magazine “ban” when he was in the House of Representatives, 50 million “large” magazines were imported during the 10 years the “ban” was in effect. (Schumer press release, Schumer Moves to Renew Federal Ban on Assault Weapons, May 8, 2003.) Magazines that hold more than 10 rounds are standard-equipment, supplied with millions of semi-automatic pistols and rifles manufactured and sold each year.

[12] In the 1970s, the Brady Campaign (then called the National Council to Control Handguns) predicted: “There are now 40 million handguns owned by private individuals in the United States—about one gun for every American family. At the present rate of proliferation, the number could build to 100 million by the year 2000 (which isn’t as far off as you think). The consequences can be terrible to imagine—unless something is done.” (NCCH pamphlet, “There is now a nationwide, full-time, professional organization to battle the gun lobby!,” no date, circa 1975.) A few years later, the group, renamed Handgun Control, Inc., updated its prediction, saying, “Right now over 50 million HANDGUNS flood the houses and streets of our nation. . . . HANDGUN production and sales are out of control. . . . If we continue at this pace, we will have equipped ourselves with more than 100 million HANDGUNS by the turn of the century. One hundred million HANDGUNS. Will we be safer then?” (HCI pamphlet, “By this time tomorrow, 24 Americans will be murdered,” circa 1979 or 1980.)

[13] In the early 1980s, the National Coalition to Ban Handguns said “rifles and shotguns serve a sporting purpose. . . . It is the concealable handgun that threatens and intimidates the citizens of this country—not the rifle and not the shotgun.” (NCBH pamphlet, “20 Questions and Answers,” circa 1981.)

[14] For example, in 1989, the Brady Campaign (then known as Handgun Control, Inc.) said that “assault weapon” legislation introduced in the Senate “will stop the importation, sale, and domestic manufacture of these killing machines.” (HCI fund-raising mailer, no date.) In 1994, after the federal “assault weapon” and “large” magazine “ban” passed the Senate, the Brady Campaign said, “We Want a Nationwide Ban on These Weapons of Destruction!,” calling it “an Important Tool in the Fight Against Crime.” (HCI ad urging passage of H.R. 3527, introduced by then-Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Roll Call, April 18, 1994.) Just before the “ban” expired in 2004, the Brady Campaign said, “The threat is so immediate and deadly that state and local governments should rapidly enact local laws to restrict assault weapons in case Congress and President Bush fail to renew and strengthen the federal law. . . . With the Federal Assault Weapon Ban set to expire on September 13, 2004, the safety and security of our communities is in jeopardy. . . . The imminent expiration of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban poses a serious public safety threat to local communities across America as deadly weapons like the AK47 (sic) could again flood our streets.” (Brady Campaign, “Assault Weapons Threaten Our Safety and Security,” 2004 version.)

[15] In 1987, in reaction to legislation proposing a Right-to-Carry law in Florida, gun control supporters began predicting that such legislation would cause crime to rise. The number of RTC states has risen from 10 to 42, accounting for three-fourths the U.S. population, and through 2014, the nation’s murder rate has fallen to an all-time low.

[16] Note 6.

[17] Note 2 and NRA-ILA S. 150 Fact Sheet.

[18] Jeffrey A. Roth, Christopher S. Koper, Impact Evaluation of the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act of 1994, Urban Institute, March 13, 1997.

[19] Christopher S. Koper, An Updated Assessment of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban: Impacts on Gun Markets and Gun Violence, 1994-2003, Report to the National Institute of Justice, June 2004.

[20] Reedy and Koper, “Impact of handgun types on gun assault outcomes,” Injury Prevention, Sept. 2003.

[21] Rifle, a Mannlicher; pistol, a Schoenberger; shotgun, the Browning Auto-5.

[22] Note 7, ATF.

[23] See, for example, the definition of “semiautomatic rifle” under federal law, 18 USC 921(a)(28).

[24] Violence Policy Center, Bullet Hoses: Semiautomatic Assault Weapons—What Are They? What’s So Bad About Them, Ten Key Points about What Assault Weapons Are and Why They Are So Deadly, point 8.

[25] Semi-automatic rifles and shotguns use the same ammunition as many other rifles and shotguns, and semi-automatic handguns use ammunition that is shaped differently, as compared to revolver ammunition, but comparable in power. For example, the standard .223 Remington cartridge, for which the AR-15 is designed, has a muzzle energy of approximately 1,280 ft.-lbs., as compared to the most popular deer hunting cartridge, .30-’06 Springfield, at approximately 2,800 ft.-lbs.

[26] In 2013, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), promoting her gun ban bill, S. 150 (see note 2), said that she looked at publications in 1993 and 2012, that guns today are “more sophisticated and technologically advanced,” and that “there are even devices which can be put in them legally, which make them fully-automatic.” (C-Span, Senators Feinstein and Blumenthal React to NRA, Dec. 21, 2012, beginning at 8:53.) The claim is false. Federal law prohibits converting a firearm to fire fully-automatically.

[27] Feinstein’s S. 150 (see note 2) defined a semi-automatic rifle as an “assault weapon” if it had a “grenade launcher” or a “rocket launcher,” but this was entirely for propaganda purposes, as such devices are restricted under the National Firearms Act, thus not standard to semi-automatic firearms.

[28] Promoting her federal “assault weapon” and “large” magazine “ban” of 1994-2004, Feinstein said “[W]eapons of war have no place on the streets of our communities. . . . [W]e need to classify semiautomatic weapons as those of mass destruction.” (Congressional Record, July 29, 1993.)

[29] The Brady Campaign has implied that the “gun industry” invented the term “assault weapon” in 1986. (Brady Campaign, “The Assault Weapons Ban: Frequently Asked Questions,” (eighth question), version no longer on the group’s website.) However, in 1984, when the group was known as Handgun Control, Inc., it referred to a rifle as an “‘assault’ weapon” in a newspaper ad. (Handgun Control, Inc., “Within the Next 50 Minutes Another One of Us Will Be Murdered by a Handgun,” copy on file with NRA-ILA.)

[30] In 1974, two anti-handgun groups were formed, the National Coalition to Ban Handguns, the name of which states the group’s purpose, and the National Council to Control Handguns, the purpose of which was explained by its leader, Nelson Shields, in 1976. Shields said, “The first problem is to slow down the increasing number of handguns being produced and sold in this country. The second problem is to get handguns registered. And the final problem is to make the possession of all handguns and all handgun ammunition—except for the military, policemen, licensed security guards, licensed sporting clubs, and licensed gun collectors—totally illegal.” (Richard Harris, “A Reporter At Large: Handguns,” The New Yorker, July 26, 1976.) See also Molly Ball, How the Gun Control Movement Got Smart, Atlantic, February 7, 2013: Gun control supporters’ “major policy goals were to make handguns illegal and enroll all U.S. gun owners in a federal database.”

[31] New Right Watch, since renamed Violence Policy Center, Assault Weapons and Accessories in America, Conclusion. The group was formed and is led by a former communications director of the National Coalition to Ban Handguns, renamed Coalition to Stop Gun Violence in 1989.

[32] Ibid.

[33] ATF, Report and Recommendation of the ATF Working Group on the Importability of Certain Semiautomatic Rifles, July 6, 1989.

[34] 18 USC 925(d)(3). The standard is questionable, in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in District of Columbia v. Heller (see note 1) that the Second Amendment protects the right to keep and bear arms for defensive purposes.

[35] Department of the Treasury Study on the Sporting Suitability of Modified Semiautomatic Assault Rifles, April 1998.

[36] NRA-ILA, House Democrats Ask Obama to Expand Rifle Ban, January 29, 2016.

[37] California’s ban prohibited new sales, but allowed people to keep “assault weapons” already owned, if they registered them within a year-long amnesty. When the amnesty expired, only about two percent of the 300,000 “assault weapons” estimated to be in California had been registered. (Seth Mydans, “California Gun Control Law Runs Into Rebellion,” New York Times, Dec. 24, 1990; Sandy Harrison, “Few guns registered under new law: deadline nears on assault rifles,” Los Angeles Daily News, Dec. 26, 1990; Carl Ingram, “Senate Favors More Time for Assault Guns Firearms,” Los Angeles Times, Feb. 26, 1991.) The amnesty was extended, but few additional registrations ensued. New Jersey’s registration amnesty period was largely ignored as well. (Wayne King, “New Jersey Law to Limit Guns Is Being Ignored,” New York Times, Oct. 26, 1991.)

[38] Hawaii, 1992; Connecticut, 1993, expanded in 2013; Maryland, “assault pistols in 1994, expanded to “assault weapons” in 2013; Massachusetts, 1998; New York, 2000, expanded in 2013. Several of these states and Colorado limit magazine capacity.

[39] Ann Devroy, “President Rebukes Rifle Association; Group’s Opposition to Virginia, New Jersey Gun Controls Criticized,” Washington Post, March 2, 1993, p. A9.

[40] FBI Supplementary Homicide Reports.

[41] Brady Campaign, “Assault Weapons in America: Military Guns in Civilian Hands” (no date) and Assault Weapons: Mass Produced Mayhem, Oct. 2008, p. 20.

[42] Note 5, FBI UCR Data Tool.

[43] Note 2 and NRA-ILA S. 150 Fact Sheet.

[44] Law Center Against Violence (now Legal Community Against Gun Violence), Banning Assault Weapons: A Legal Primer for State and Local Action, April 2004, p. 49. “Million Mom March” founder Donna Dees-Thomases and Carolynne Jarvis propose a pump-action ban in “Why wait to tackle gun violence: Germany’s timely action should serve as example for America,” Detroit Free Press, Aug. 8, 2002.

[45] AR-15s are by far the most commonly used rifle for defensive firearm training conducted by Alias Training and SecurityCosta LudusCSATDefense Training Int’lEAG TacticalGunsiteInsightsVickers TacticalViking TacticsThunder Ranch, and many other schools. AR-15s are the dominant rifles in Three-Gun, U.S. Carbine Association, DMR, NRA Service Rifle, NRA America’s Rifle Challenge, Civilian Marksmanship Program Service Rifle, and similar competitions centered on defensive firearm skills.

[46] While originally designed to use .223 Remington, a small caliber similar to the .222 Remington varmint-hunting cartridge, new AR-15 models have been designed to use other calibers, such as .308 Winchester, 6.5mm Grendel, 6.8 SPC and .300 Blackout. With modern projectiles, all such calibers are suitable for hunting deer and similar game.

[47] As examples, standard magazines designed for the ubiquitous Glock 17 9mm pistol hold 17 rounds, and standard magazines for comparable Beretta and SIG pistols hold between 15-20 rounds, while standard magazines for the AR-15 and comparable rifles hold 20 or 30 rounds.


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Established in 1975, the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA) is the "lobbying" arm of the National Rifle Association of America. ILA is responsible for preserving the right of all law-abiding individuals in the legislative, political, and legal arenas, to purchase, possess and use firearms for legitimate purposes as guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.