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Why a military-style weapons ban may do little to stop crime

President Joe Biden this week pushed for a ban on military-style weapons as an answer to the nation’s rise in gun violence.

But critics say little evidence supports the notion that such a ban, in force for a decade from 1994 to 2004, would reduce the crime rates gripping most cities in America.

And some jurisdictions are struggling to enforce gun laws already on the books, raising questions about how they would find the resources to enforce even stricter ones.

“The vast majority of gun murder in the United States involves handguns and has for a very long time,” Stephen Gutowski, founder of the gun policy website The Reload, told the Washington Examiner. “An ‘assault weapons’ ban is very unlikely to have a significant impact on overall crime, everyday crime.”

Guns that fall into the “assault weapons” category are indeed used in just a fraction of crimes , data show.

According to an analysis from the National Institutes of Health, “most estimates suggest less than 7%” of the firearms used for “crime in general” were “assault weapons.”

Most of the violent crimes that occurred in 2020 were committed with handguns, FBI data show.

Rifles, on the other hand, were responsible for fewer homicides in 2020 than knives or a perpetrator’s fists and feet. Rifles, which typically fall into the loosely defined “assault weapons” category, were specified as the weapon in less than 3% of homicides in 2020. Handguns were specified as the weapon in 45% of homicides.

Biden floated a renewal of the “assault weapons” ban during a speech Tuesday that the White House billed as his answer to the problem of rising crime rates nationwide. However, when he brought up the need for such a ban, he did so both in the context of street crime and mass shootings.

“We have to act for all those kids gunned down on our streets every single day that never make the news. There’s a mass shooting every single day in this country in the streets of America — every single day,” Biden said during the speech in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

The FBI’s definition of mass shooting involves “any incident in which at least four people are murdered with a gun,” and although the term typically evokes the image of a headline-grabbing school massacre, mass shootings can include street violence if the victim count reaches that threshold.

Biden appeared to be citing data from the Gun Violence Archive , a shooting tracker used by many news outlets and advocacy groups that defines mass shootings as any incident in which multiple people are shot, even if there is no loss of life. That figure supports Biden’s claim; however, when mass shootings are defined by the criteria historically used by law enforcement, the number of mass shootings this year drops far below an average of one per day.

“You know, we’re living in a country awash with weapons of war, weapons that weren’t designed to hunt, were designed to take on an enemy,” Biden said during the speech. “That’s what they’re designed to do. For God’s sake, what’s the rationale for these weapons outside of a war zone?”

Biden’s efforts to tie street violence to “assault weapons” ignore the reality of how criminals operate, said Amy Swearer, a legal fellow in the Meese Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

“Most of the time when criminals are committing crimes in public, they want a type of firearm that is concealable, which is why they want handguns,” Swearer told the Washington Examiner.

She pointed to a 2004 study sponsored by the Justice Department that found no meaningful evidence the “assault weapons” ban had lowered gun violence.

“They should have taken it a step further and said, you’re also dealing with a ban, a prospective ban, with aspects of a firearm that aren’t inherently related to solving the problem of crime,” Swearer said. 

That’s because pistol grips, barrel shrouds, and the other components of a rifle that typically classify it as an “assault weapon” don’t make the firearm inherently more useful to a committed mass shooter, she said. 

The 2004 study noted that military-style weapons “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%.”

“Although the ban has been successful in reducing crimes with” such weapons in the decade it stood, the study noted that “any benefits from this reduction are likely to have been outweighed by steady or rising use of nonbanned semiautomatics with” large-capacity magazines, “which are used in crime much more frequently than” military-style weapons.

“Therefore, we cannot clearly credit the ban with any of the nation’s recent drop in gun violence,” according to the study.

Even in the context of mass shootings, rather than everyday street violence, military-style weapons do not play the dominant role claimed by Democrats.

Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control advocacy group, notes that “assault weapons” account for 25% of mass shooting deaths.

“The most common weapon used to commit mass shootings is a handgun,” according to the Violence Project , a nonpartisan research group. “Eighty percent of all mass shooters used at least one handgun during their crime.”

Nevertheless, groups such as Everytown point to the deadlier nature of “assault weapons” and their ammunition to argue those types of firearms do not belong in the hands of civilians.

Enforcing a ban as sweeping as one on “assault weapons” could also prove challenging to cities and states that already can’t keep up with the pace of illegal gun trafficking.

Democrats in many cities are declining to prosecute some gun-related offenses that violate laws already on the books — either because their police departments don’t have the manpower to collect evidence for cases or because liberal district attorneys are resisting bringing gun charges.

In Philadelphia, for example, shootings this year have climbed to the highest levels ever recorded in the city.

But its district attorney, Larry Krasner, has argued against targeting illegal gun possession.

“You can make massive numbers of gun arrests, and you do not see significant reductions in shooting,” Krasner said in an interview with the New York Times this month.

The progressive position has pitted Krasner against the Philadelphia Police Department and Democratic Mayor Jim Kenney.

For more than two years, Kenney has pushed Krasner to prosecute more gun offenses.

Gun-related prosecutions have dropped in Philadelphia, even as shootings have exploded.

A Philadelphia Inquirer review of data last year found that on Krasner’s watch, suspects arrested on a charge of illegal gun possession had a slightly better-than-not chance of escaping conviction.

That marked a sharp decline in gun possession prosecutions from 2017, when suspects arrested on charges related to gun offenses had a 63% chance of getting convicted.

In 2021, the city made no arrests in roughly 75% of deadly shootings.

That pattern is not confined to Philadelphia, and additional restrictions on firearms could further burden struggling law enforcement agencies.


The popularity of “assault weapons,” a category that includes the ubiquitous AR-15, would prove a significant obstacle to a ban, Gutowski said.

More than 24 million AR-15s and other similar rifles have circulated in U.S. households since 1990, the National Shooting Sports Foundation said.

“It’s just not a very realistic prospect to say that it’s going to have any appreciable effect anytime in the near future, given how many of these guns exist,” Gutowski said of a military-style weapons ban.

“Even if you come to the conclusion that these guns are a problem and shouldn’t be allowed for civilians to own, there’s no realistic path to that point,” he said. “Certainly not through a regular sales ban, and then gun confiscation, as suggested by Beto O’Rourke, and even mandatory buyback … it comes with a whole lot of other problems. Taking people’s guns by force is never going to be an easy solution.”

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