Did the assault weapons ban reduce mass shootings? Just look at the data | Opinion

August 16, 2019 6:30 am

By John A. Tures

Former Vice President Joe Biden recently penned a New York Times column calling for the assault weapons ban to be reinstated. Critics argue that the ban did nothing to stop crime, gun violence, or mass shootings.

In this column, I don’t just examine the evidence — I let you do so, too.

With Senator Dianne Feinstein I led the effort to enact the 1994 law that banned assault weapons and high-capacity magazines for 10 years,” Biden wrote. “Those gun safety reforms made our nation demonstrably more secure. They were also, sadly, the last meaningful gun legislation we were able to sign into law before the N.R.A. and the gun manufacturers put the Republican Party in a headlock.”

Biden adds, “I fought hard to extend the assault weapons and high-capacity magazines bans in 2004. The Republicans who allowed these laws to expire asserted that they were ineffective. But, almost 15 years after the bans expired, with the unfortunate benefit of hindsight, we now know that they did make a difference.”

It’s not just Republicans who argue the ban didn’t work. A March 2018 editorial by Investor’s Business Daily states: 

A 2005 report from the National Research Council, for example, noted that ‘A recent evaluation of the short-term effects of the 1994 federal assault weapons ban did not reveal any clear impacts on gun violence outcomes.’ A 2004 study sponsored by the National Institute of Justice found that while the ban appeared to have reduced the number of crimes committed with ‘assault weapons,’ any benefits were ‘likely to have been outweighed by steady or rising use of non-banned semiautomatics.’ As a result, the Justice study found ‘there has been no discernible reduction in the lethality and injuriousness of gun violence, based on indicators like the percentage of gun crimes resulting in death or the share of gunfire incidents resulting in injury.’

To test this argument, I used information from Mother Jones database on mass shootings, which the magazine defines as “indiscriminate rampages in public places resulting in four or more victims killed by the attacker.” These numbers have been cited by supporters and critics of the assault weapons ban.

I looked at the number of shootings in three time periods — before the ban, during the ban, and after the ban — as well as the total deaths and wounded. 

As you can see, the rate of mass shootings was slightly higher over the 12 years before the ban. But these numbers were dwarfed by the greater number of shootings from when the assault weapons ban (AWB) expired (on Sept. 13, 2004) through this year.

Death rates and wounded rates when there was no assault weapons ban were higher than the years with an assault weapons ban, as well as separately before Sept. 13, 1994 and after Sept. 13, 2004.

Year Shootings Shooting Rate Deaths Death Rate Wounded Wounded Rate
Before AWB 19 1.46 149 11.46 187 14.38
AWB Years 15 1.5 92 9.2 108 10.8
After The AWB 81 5.4 655 43.67 981 65.4
Total Non-AWB Years 100 3.57 804 28.71 1168 41.71

Part of the reason folks prematurely concluded that the assault weapons ban didn’t work is because they were only looking at data before and during the ban, where the differences were not too different, though the ban years had fewer death and wounded rates. 

But after the ban lapsed, it’s clear to see how much worse it became since September 13, 2004, when assault weapons became legal again.

John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia. Readers may email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter. His work appears frequently on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.

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