This week the campaign website for presidential hopeful Joe Biden published what it called an “Education … Plan for Educators, Students, and Our Future.” Among its agenda items was to “[d]efeat the National Rifle Association” by “championing legislation to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines – bans [Biden] authored in 1994.” In other words, Biden would reprise a law that was widely recognized (including among gun control advocates) as a failure and the cause of his party losing control of Congress in 1994.
Halfway through his first term, President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 into law. That 356-page bill included a ban on certain semi-automatic firearms and limits on the capacity of firearm magazines. It’s ghoulish and Orwellian short title was the “Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act.”
Firearms misleadingly dubbed “assault weapons” were banned by the law in three ways: by name, as “copies or duplicates” of the named firearms, and by a test that limited what features could be incorporated into a semi-automatic rifle with the ability to accept a detachable magazine. Firearms that were lawfully possessed before the ban’s effective date were exempt.
The ban included a provision that required the U.S. attorney general to “investigate and study the effect of this subtitle and the amendments made by this subtitle,” and in particular, “their impact, if any, on violent and drug trafficking crime.” The study was to be reported to Congress not later than 30 months after the law’s enactment.
The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) contracted with the Urban Institute to complete that assessment, and it was published on March 13, 1997. The study, while bemoaning the necessarily limited amount of data for review, failed to substantiate any significant reduction in violent crime attributable to the ban. In particular, the authors “were unable to detect any reduction to date in two types of murders that are thought to be closely associated with assault weapons, those with multiple victims in a single incident and those producing multiple bullet wounds per victim.”
The authors did posit a “6.7% reduction in total gun murders between 1994 and 1995, beyond what would have been expected in view of ongoing crime, demographic, and economic trends,” but they admitted this could simply have been a year-to-year variation, “rather than a true effect of the ban.” They also acknowledged that other provisions of the 1994 crime bill, “or a host of state and local initiatives that took place simultaneously,” could have accounted for the drop.
More fundamentally, the authors pointed out that the ban from the outset missed the point when it came to reducing violent crime. “At best,” they wrote, “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.”
The ban, in other words, actually went after guns and magazines that were underrepresented in firearm related homicides.
What debate over the law did seem to accomplish, according to the study, was to raise interest into the firearms targeted for banning. Production of the targeted guns surged during 1994, “so that more than an extra year’s normal supply of assault weapons and legal substitutes was manufactured during 1994.” The upshot was that prices for grandfathered and substitute guns remained near pre-ban levels for the early years of the law, and consumers could go on as before purchasing them for legal uses.
But that’s not all.
The lead authors of the study later received another NIJ grant to update their findings, which they did in July 2004 under the auspices of the Jerry Lee Center of Criminology at the University of Pennsylvania.
Again, the authors indicated that the ban missed the point. “The AW provision targets a relatively small number of weapons based on features that have little to do with the weapons’ operation,” they wrote. They also reiterated that “AWs were used in only a small fraction of gun crimes prior to the ban: about 2% according to most studies and no more than 8%,” with most of those “assault weapon” crime guns being pistols, rather than rifles.
The authors also conceded that the ban had no effect on the criminal use of what today’s gun control advocates consider the paradigmatic “assault rifle,” the AR-15. “There has not been a clear decline in the use of ARs,” they wrote, an assessment that was “complicated by the rarity of crimes with these weapons … .” Likewise, the authors saw no drop in the use of banned magazines in crime and could not “clearly credit the ban with any of the nation’s recent drop in gun violence.”
Overall, the authors concluded that “the ban’s effects on gun violence are likely to be small at best and perhaps too small for reliable measurement.”
The only good thing about the ban’s language was that it contained a 10-year sunset clause, the expiration date of which just happened to coincide with the waning days of President George W. Bush’s first term. Congress allowed the law to expire, giving it the ignominious death it so richly deserved.
Since then, even staunch gun control advocates have often admitted that trying to ban certain types of semi-automatic firearms under the guise of “assault weapons” is a fool’s errand.
The Atlantic, in a June 25, 2016 article, referred to the law as “Bill Clinton’s Costly Assault Weapons Ban.” The article quotes a lengthy oral history by Clinton’s chief congressional affairs lobbyist, who indicated he was caught off guard when he learned that Clinton was committed to pursuing the law. “It was,” the lobbyist said, “a disaster from day one.” Democratic party leadership pleaded with Clinton not to pursue the ban. When he insisted, they tried to distance themselves from the effort as much as they could.
While deals were made, the lobbyist recounts, they “were not necessarily made on the substance of the issue. The candy store was open. . . It was a very transactional kind of setup.”
In the 1994 midterm elections soon after the ban’s enactment, Clinton’s party lost a net of 54 seats in the House, as well as 8 Senate seats. The lobbyist attributed at least 40 of those losses to the “assault weapons” ban. Clinton himself later concurred that he had pushed too hard on the ban, effectively handing control of Capitol Hill to the opposition party.
Bill Clinton had no stronger critic in 1994 than the NRA.
Yet that episode is what Joe Biden now calls a “defeat” of the NRA.
Of course, Biden and his fellow Democrats are counting on the idea that the politics around “assault weapons” have changed since then.
And while it’s certainly true that the Democratic base remains committed to the idea of resurrecting an “assault weapons” ban, it’s not true that the American public at large agrees with them or is showing any sustained fervor around the issue. As we reported last October, Americans oppose a ban on AR-15s and similar semi-automatic firearms by robust double-digit margins, with support for such a ban 7% lower than the historical trend dating back to 1996, when Gallup first began polling on the issue.
Defeating the NRA may be a nice rallying cry for people who maintain committed to disarming law-abiding Americans, but taking their semi-automatic rifles won’t improve public safety. Some of the more honest members of the gun control movement admit this, including in articles published in such staunchly anti-gun publications as the New York Times, the Washington Post, Mother Jones, the Los Angeles Times, and Vice.com.
And let’s not forget, Joe Biden himself was the figurehead for Barack Obama’s post-Newtown federal gun control blitz in late 2012 and early 2013.
But, as Politico recounted, “Biden did not deliver.” In that same article, a Senate aide recounted how even as Biden was publicly calling for restoring the federal “assault weapons” ban, “[b]ehind the scenes, [he] was ‘instrumental’ in convincing more liberal Democrats that there was no point in fighting for anything beyond a background check bill … .”
You might even say ol’ Joe himself recognized he was already defeated by the NRA.
It of course remains to be seen if Joe Biden will even prevail in his party’s presidential primary, much less have the opportunity to pursue his legislative agenda from the Oval Office.
But it only takes a little homework to show that when it comes to gun control, all he is offering with his “education” plan are empty promises and failed policies.