The “Assault-Weapon” Lie

posted on June 20, 2023
Randy Kozuch

It seems that every time President Biden finds himself in front of a microphone these days, he tries to blame some aspect of his administration’s failure to address violent crime on law-abiding American gun owners. Most often, this then leads him to call for a ban on “assault weapons” and claims that “[he’s] the guy” responsible for the 1994 federal ban on “assault weapons.”

As this magazine was headed to print, the president had most recently made this claim while giving a commencement speech at Howard University. While many commencement speakers attempt to give the recent graduates motivation as they advance in their professional lives, Biden instead used the opportunity to stump for more gun control, specifically for a ban on “assault weapons.”

Biden keeps returning to this talking point because it worked once for him in the past. During the crime wave of the 1980s to early 1990s, gun-control advocates successfully used American’s fears about crime and confusion about so-called “assault weapons” to get the federal ban passed in 1994. With violent crime surging once again and an unwillingness to hold criminals accountable for the crimes they commit, Biden is focused anew on convincing the public that if we just banned so-called “assault weapons,” America’s crime problems would cease.

But, that’s a blatant lie.

The overwhelming majority of firearm-related homicides are committed using handguns. According to 2021 FBI crime statistics, throughout the U.S., almost 13 times as many murders were listed as having been committed with a handgun than with a rifle of any kind. In fact, more murders were listed as having been committed with “Personal weapons (hands/fists/feet/etc.)” than rifles of any kind. And, more than twice as many murders were committed with knives than rifles of any kind.

Long before the U.S. Supreme Court made clear that Americans have a constitutional right to own and use handguns in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), gun controllers were forced to face the truth—Americans appreciate having the right to own handguns. And, support for a handgun ban has only decreased over time. For more than 60 years, Gallup has polled Americans about a handgun prohibition. In 1975, 41% of respondents stated that they supported a ban. In 2021, Gallup recorded an all-time low of 19% support for a handgun ban.

As their handgun-ban agenda stalled, gun-control advocates sought to shift focus to anywhere they might be able to advance their civilian disarmament agenda. In 1988, Violence Policy Center Communications Director Josh Sugarmann explained:

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.

Despite its disconnection to the reality of violence perpetrated with firearms, this cynical tactic proved more effective than gun controllers’ attempts to prohibit handguns. In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed the federal ban on commonly owned semi-automatics into law.

Faced with the reality that so-called “assault weapons” are rarely used to commit violent crime, a 1997 Department of Justice-funded study from the Urban Institute acknowledged, “At best, the assault weapons ban can have only a limited effect on total gun murders, because the banned weapons and magazines were never involved in more than a modest fraction of all gun murders.”

A 2004 follow-up Department of Justice-funded study came to a similar conclusion. The study determined 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.”

Presented with the overwhelming evidence of the ban’s inefficacy, Congress allowed the ban to sunset after 10 years. In 2014, a decade after the ban sunset, the U.S. homicide rate reached a multi-decade low. Sadly, the homicide rate has risen in recent years amidst many city prosecutors’ ongoing refusal to punish violent criminals.

Aside from being bad policy, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Heller, McDonald v. Chicago (2010) and New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen (2022) decisions, bans on commonly owned semi-automatic firearms are legally impermissible.

As Justice Clarence Thomas made clear almost a decade ago, semi-automatic rifles are protected by the Second Amendment: Roughly five million Americans own AR-style semi-automatic rifles. The overwhelming majority of citizens who own and use such rifles do so for lawful purposes, including self-defense and target shooting. Under our precedents, that is all that is needed for citizens to have a right under the Second Amendment to keep such weapons.

But, violating the Second Amendment has never stopped Joe Biden. He’ll continue to push the “assault-weapon” lie while doing nothing to punish the violent criminals responsible for America’s crime spike. It’s our job to make sure he doesn’t succeed.


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