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September 23, 2004

Gun Policy Center Recommends Alternatives to Expired Weapons Ban

On September 13, 2004, the nation’s decade-old ban on assault weapons expired. The ban outlawed the manufacture and sale of certain semi-automatic weapons that have features such as detachable ammunition-feeding devices known as magazine clips, folding stocks, pistol grips, and flash suppressors. It also banned magazine clips holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition.

Now that the ban is expired, should the nation expect a spike in gun violence?

“My answer is no,” says Daniel Webster, ScD, MPH, co-director of the Center for Gun Research and Policy at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “It [the ban] was a relatively porous gun law that regulated a particularly dangerous yet rare type of gun used in crime.”

The law did not apply to guns and magazine clips legally possessed before the law was enacted in 1994. After the ban, many manufacturers simply altered the design of their weapons to make a technically legal copycat product with the same function it had before.  “They were quite blatant about it,” Webster says. “Some would just change a flash suppressor and keep the gun’s name and put ‘AB’ (After Ban) after it.”

Research has indicated that before the ban, assault weapons accounted for between 1 and 8 percent of gun-related crime, depending on the study, Webster says. However, data about the characteristics of guns used in crime have important limitations. For one thing, the ban limited ammunition capacity to 10 rounds, but the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms traces only the gun type used in a crime--not how much ammunition it can hold. 

But Webster stresses that assault weapons are still an important issue. “Assault weapons were designed for military purposes, to facilitate firing a lot of rounds as quickly as possible. What good reason is there for civilians to have this kind of firepower? I can’t imagine a reason that would outweigh the risks these weapons pose to public safety.”

Moreover, he points out that the ban did address ammunition capacity. And it addressed folding stocks, which affect a weapon’s concealability. Concealability--whether a person can hide a weapon--is the single most important indicator that a gun will be used in a crime.

“What I think is more important is the broader issue at stake here: the importance of regulating the design of guns to protect public safety. That’s something our Center has worked on for years," Webster says.

Guns can be designed with so that only the owner, or authorized user, can operate them. These guns would work with safety locks, or higher-tech options such as magnets and radio transmissions (users would have to wear a ring). Engineers in New Jersey are even working to design a gun that could recognize the authorized user’s grip. A recent study from the Center found that these kinds of safety devices could have prevented 44 percent of unintentional gun deaths in 2000--saving 400 lives.

California has passed a law, influenced by the Center's research, requiring that all new handguns sold in the state have loaded-chamber indicators, which let users know whether a gun is loaded, and magazine safety disconnects, which prevent unintentional shootings when an ammunition magazine is taken out. New Jersey has passed a law, influenced by the work of the Center's founding director Steven Teret, JD, MPH, that requires all new handguns sold in the state to have personalization (or user recognition) devices as soon as such a gun is available for sale.

Personalized technology could prevent not only homicides, but youth suicides as well. Firearm suicide is the second-leading cause of injury-related death for all ages in the United States, claiming 11 percent of those deaths in 2001. Among people aged 10 to 19, there were 928 suicides with guns that year.

“Gun violence is a complicated problem. You have to confront it on a number of fronts,” says Webster.

Another way is to tighten the criteria for legal gun ownership. Current federal law forbids convicted felons from obtaining a gun legally. But is being a felon sufficient criteria? As Webster points out, writing a bad check is a felony, but convictions for violent crimes are often ratcheted down to misdemeanors--making perpetrators eligible for legal gun ownership under federal law.

“Studies show that people convicted on misdemeanor drug, firearm, and assault charges are at increased risk for violent crime,” notes Webster. California now screens gun purchasers for violent misdemeanors. One study determined that this led to a 25 percent reduction in violent crime among handgun owners. 

Webster points out that keeping guns from criminals requires regulation of gun sales by private owners as well as by licensed dealers, and enforcement efforts to deter illegal sales.

“The cost of this prescription for gun violence prevention is high,” says Webster. “But it pales in comparison to the estimated $100 billion in social costs each year attributable to gun violence.”—Kristi Birch