By Michael J. Klein
A spate of high-profile mass shootings in the U.S. has sparked calls for Congress to look at imposing a ban on so-called assault weapons – covering the types of guns used in both the recent Buffalo grocery attack and that on an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.
Such a prohibition has been in place before. As President Joe Biden noted in his June 2, 2022, speech addressing gun violence, almost three decades ago bipartisan support in Congress helped push through a federal assault weapons ban in 1994, as part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act.
That ban was limited – it covered only certain categories of semi-automatic weapons such as AR-15s and applied to a ban on sales only after the act was signed into law, allowing people to keep hold of weapons purchased before that date. And it also had in it a so-called “sunset provision” that allowed the ban to expire in 2004.
Nonetheless, the 10-year life span of that ban – with a clear beginning and end date – gives researchers the opportunity to compare what happened with mass shooting deaths before, during and after the prohibition was in place. Our group of injury epidemiologists and trauma surgeons did just that. In 2019, we published a population-based study analyzing the data in a bid to evaluate the effect that the federal ban on assault weapons had on mass shootings, defined by the FBI as a shooting with four or more fatalities, not including the shooter. Here’s what the data shows:
Before the 1994 ban:
From 1981 – the earliest year in our analysis – to the rollout of the assault weapons ban in 1994, the proportion of deaths in mass shootings in which an assault rifle was used was lower than it is today.
Yet in this earlier period, mass shooting deaths were steadily rising. Indeed, high-profile mass shootings involving assault rifles – such as the killing of five children in Stockton, California, in 1989 and a 1993 San Francisco office attack that left eight victims dead – provided the impetus behind a push for a prohibition on some types of gun.
During the 1994-2004 ban:
In the years after the assault weapons ban went into effect, the number of deaths from mass shootings fell, and the increase in the annual number of incidents slowed down. Even including 1999’s Columbine High School massacre – the deadliest mass shooting during the period of the ban – the 1994 to 2004 period saw lower average annual rates of both mass shootings and deaths resulting from such incidents than before the ban’s inception.
From 2004 onward:
The data shows an almost immediate – and steep – rise in mass shooting deaths in the years after the assault weapons ban expired in 2004.
Breaking the data into absolute numbers, between 2004 and 2017 – the last year of our analysis – the average number of yearly deaths attributed to mass shootings was 25, compared with 5.3 during the 10-year tenure of the ban and 7.2 in the years leading up to the prohibition on assault weapons.
Saving hundreds of lives
We calculated that the risk of a person in the U.S. dying in a mass shooting was 70% lower during the period in which the assault weapons ban was active. The proportion of overall gun homicides resulting from mass shootings was also down, with nine fewer mass-shooting-related fatalities per 10,000 shooting deaths.
Taking population trends into account, a model we created based on this data suggests that had the federal assault weapons ban been in place throughout the whole period of our study – that is, from 1981 through 2017 – it may have prevented 314 of the 448 mass shooting deaths that occurred during the years in which there was no ban.
And this almost certainly underestimates the total number of lives that could be saved. For our study, we chose only to include mass shooting incidents that were reported and agreed upon by all three of our selected data sources: the Los Angeles Times, Stanford University, and Mother Jones magazine.
Furthermore, for uniformity, we also chose to use the strict federal definition of an assault weapon – which may not include the entire spectrum of what many people may now consider to be assault weapons.
Cause or correlation?
It is also important to note that our analysis cannot definitively say that the assault weapons ban of 1994 caused a decrease in mass shootings, nor that its expiration in 2004 resulted in the growth of deadly incidents in the years since.
Many additional factors may contribute to the shifting frequency of these shootings, such as changes in domestic violence rates, political extremism, psychiatric illness, firearm availability and a surge in sales, and the recent rise in hate groups.
Nonetheless, according to our study, President Biden’s claim that the rate of mass shootings during the period of the assault weapons ban “went down” only for it to rise again after the law was allowed to expire in 2004 holds true.
As the U.S. looks toward a solution to the country’s epidemic of mass shootings, it is difficult to say conclusively that reinstating the assault weapons ban would have a profound impact, especially given the growth in sales in the 18 years in which Americans have been allowed to purchase and stockpile such weapons. But given that many of the high-profile mass shooters in recent years purchased their weapons less than one year before committing their acts, the evidence suggests that it might.
Michael J. Klein is Clinical Assistant Professor of Surgery at New York University.
The Conversation arose out of deep-seated concerns for the fading quality of our public discourse and recognition of the vital role that academic experts could play in the public arena. Information has always been essential to democracy. It’s a societal good, like clean water. But many now find it difficult to put their trust in the media and experts who have spent years researching a topic. Instead, they listen to those who have the loudest voices. Those uninformed views are amplified by social media networks that reward those who spark outrage instead of insight or thoughtful discussion. The Conversation seeks to be part of the solution to this problem, to raise up the voices of true experts and to make their knowledge available to everyone. The Conversation publishes nightly at 9 p.m. on FlaglerLive.
War on Terror & Iraq War, people were too busy flipping properties & setting the stage for the economic meltdown of Bush => Obama. At one point Clinton banned the 9x18mm Makarov, a pistol that had an 8 round magazine that was between a .380 & 9mm parabellum. Go figure. a Glock with higher capacity magazine was legal, yet a 1950’s era Eastern European police pistol was banned, different eras really.
Ben Hogarth says
The economy “melted” as you state – in the last year of Bush’s all-too-long presidency. I do laugh when Republicans blame Obama for inheriting two decades of economic deregulation, which led to the market cannibalizing itself and thereby, all of the average American standard of living. Good on you for recognizing that people were too busy flipping properties and fearing “terror” than to support meaningful legislation that would actually improve their lives.
Clinton did go on a gun banning campaign at one point and the nation was far better for it. The 90s were a brief last golden era for the U.S. although we started to see the beginning of a resurgence of racism and conservatism take hold in the People’s House. It’s not left since, albeit has become quite the extreme minority faction there.
Background checks, psychological evaluations, waiting periods, and the banning of assault rifles – all needs to happen. We are long overdue.
Ray W. says
Thank you, Ben Hogarth. I will address Jimbo99’s economic angle, but not the gun issue. Many good commenters already contribute to this second issue, including you.
Late in George W. Bush’s second term, I attended a family wedding in North Carolina. The next day, as I was preparing to leave, a number of my cousins asked to spend a little time talking in a coffee shop. One of the four or five relatives was, and still is, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. During the talk, I discovered that she was reading Ron Chernow’s award-winning biography of Alexander Hamilton. I was nearly done with my read of the fascinating work. Chernow, as a historian, applies an economic angle to his research; he really did a good job with our nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury.
My cousin began discussing three new and unique different mortgage products that were beginning to fail and the possible economic effects of the failures. The small group spent about an hour focusing on that subject. I then began following the issues more closely as they unfolded.
Here is my take on the issue (I have posted a comment on this issue before):
During the latter part of the Clinton administration, and after the Republicans, using their Contract with America ploy, took control of the House of Representatives, legislation was passed that partially and narrowly redefined the methods by which mortgage lending products could be approved. Yes, Clinton signed the legislation into law. How certain subsections of the legislation were to be interpreted in the future was unknown to the legislative authors of the bill and to the Clinton administration.
During the following Bush administration, mortgage lending companies, using one possible interpretation of certain legislative language, filed documents with the appropriate regulatory agencies seeking approval for three different mortgage lending products. Two were residential. One was commercial. After gaining approval from the appropriate Bush administration regulatory agencies, mortgage companies all over the country began to offer the three differing products as a mortgage option. At this point, I wish to stress that nothing illegal occurred. These were applications for regulatory approval based on one possible interpretation of existing statutory language.
Millions of people and business entities took advantage of these three different products and sought mortgages under the new rules. As an example, the owner of the 10-story bank building in which my office at that time was located, borrowed a significant amount of money against the property and invested most if not all of that money into upgrading the entire structure. The building really looked good when the owners were done with the renovations. However, the money was loaned under a five-year commercial mortgage, with only interest payments during the term of the mortgage, and a balloon principal payment at the end of the term. At the time of the borrowing the money, the owner must have thought the building would be worth much more than the balloon principal payment after the five-year term ended; it wasn’t.
Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of commercial mortgages of the same type were brokered all over the country over about a four-year span during the Bush years. When the time came to pay the balloon principal payment, one after another, the building owners could neither refinance the loan nor pay cash, prompting foreclosure actions. The mortgage foreclosure actions slowly began during the latter stages of the Bush administration and really accelerated during the Obama years. However, these were state court foreclosure actions, so no federal government oversight occurred.
Likewise for the two different residential mortgage products. All offered during the Bush years and the foreclosures primarily occurred during the Obama years.
The amounts at risk under the commercial mortgages was estimated at approximately two trillion dollars at the time of the coffee shop conversation. It might have actually turned out to be much more.
Looking back, all three defective mortgage products were approved by the appropriate Bush regulatory agency, based on one possible reading of the statutory language, and all three defective mortgage products were issued during the Bush years. None of the defective mortgage products were still being offered during the Obama years, but the vast majority of the state-level foreclosure actions took place during the Obama years. The building blocks of the residential and commercial mortgage meltdowns were laid solely during the Bush years. The aftereffects are still felt today.
Many economics argue that the $700 billion TARP plan, passed during the Bush years in response to the pending meltdown, as Jimbo99 puts it, and implemented during the Obama years, was too small a stimulus package. These economists argue that a larger stimulus package would have brought our nation’s economy to full recovery two or three years sooner than actually happened. Today, very few economists argue that the TARP stimulus package was too large or not needed. Likewise, when the pandemic hit early in 2020, a $1 trillion stimulus package was quickly passed and signed into law by then-President Trump. The Senate passed the bill 96-0, so it is hard to argue that the first stimulus package was not believed to be needed by bipartisan members of two branches of our government. The argument soon began over whether the stimulus package was too small. Inflation began to tick upwards. By the end of the Trump administration, inflation was well over 4%, something our country had not seen for many years. The second stimulus package of $1.9 trillion dollars was not a bi-partisan bill. Inflation has soared to levels not seen since the Reagan administration. I have posted before that my first residential mortgage for $32,000 was issued in 1984, maybe 1983, at 13%. The mortgage loan officer who prepared the loan for me commented that he didn’t think we would ever see single digit mortgages again. About three years later, I sold the house for $52,000. In 1986, I started my first prosecutorial job at $19,000 per year. We all received COLA raises twice per year, by legislative actions, and regular raises were common. In September 1988, my salary was raised to $37,500 conditioned on my agreement that I would stay for another year. At that time, I was already assigned first degree murder cases. Issues related to inflation were far more pronounced during the Reagan years than they are today, so far. No one knows what the future will bring. We, of course, survived the crisis and the second Reagan term is glowingly remembered by Republicans, though they seem to have forgotten that David Stockman, the author of what is now called trickle-down economics, openly stated that his algorithms were flawed and that his economic plan did not work as planned. Did Reagan’s flawed economic stimulus package based on Stockman’s theory contribute to the inflation during his first term or was it all due to Carter? For that matter, Nixon actually froze prices via executive order as inflation was soaring and it was still out of control during the short-lived Ford administration. Or was it all Carter’s fault? I guess it depends on whether one is wearing a zealous advocate for the truth hat or a partisan hat.
Jimbo99, while an accomplished commenter on occasion when he wears his zealous advocate for the truth hat, just cannot be relied on for accurate information when he dons his partisan hat. He possesses the capacity to post valid comments, but apparently lacks the intellectual rigor that is necessary for him to do so with regularity.
Bill C says
I agree, gun laws are wildly inconsistent. All guns should be regulated under one law, regardless of their caliber and capacity. No exceptions, no loopholes. Let’s accept for the moment the proposition that an assault weapon like an AK is necessary for home defense. But multiple AK’s for home defense? That’s a false narrative, unless one imagines oneself as Tony Montana in “Scarface” being besieged by an army of assassins. “Say hello to my little friend”.
eddie walsh says
more people are killed by knives and handguns, than ar-15’s
Pierre Tristam says
Far more people are killed by car crashes. So let’s eliminate air bags, seat belts, traffic lights, speed limits and driver’s license requirements.
The correct “Idiotic” FOX “talking point” is this: ” I guess we should ban all cars, since they kill more people than guns”. . . . I’m sure ole Eddie, and many other cult members, could fill you in. LOL! LOL! LOL!
I had to do a double-take. I understand now.
For a moment there I thought someone drugged you!
I want a ban on Coca-Cola because I’m too weak to give it up.
That’s true you know…
There was a commentator some time back from the old News-Journal…
He stated that because he averaged 80 miles per hour from Flagler to Jacksonville
that he was able to realize better fuel economy. He figured that because he
arrived sooner, the car ran for less time, saving gas.
He was serious.
@ew. . . OK then. . . not only should we ban ALL automatic and semi-automatic guns of EVERY kind. We should also require universal background checks, waiting periods, and training for ALL other guns! Having “gun safety regulations” does NOT violate the constitution in any way. In fact, the second amendment calls for regulations.
During the “Assault Weapons Ban” period is when I bought my first AK-47. It had no bayonet lug and had a 10 round magazine. Same seller sold me a stack of 30 round magazines for it. Never really understood how the ban could have had any real effect, seeing as everything was still available. Just had to buy it separately. Most people didn’t care about bayonet lugs, anyway. Must have been psychological for the criminals. They must not have tried to buy anything because they thought it was illegal?
I think our lack of a stern court system on criminals is also to blame. The police lock them up, they are given a small bail, an excused sentence, slap on the wrist and its a repeat all over again. Criminals stop fearing jail time a long time ago. Gun laws, well criminals don’t care about laws. Until that changes criminals will continue to do what they do. Evil is evil and no law is going to change that. Being locked up for a long time could.
almost all if not all of the mass shootings were done by shooters who should have been RED FLAGGED but weren’t! Either the parents ,school system, social media, on line games sites, social services, police, FBI, Air Force failed to block them from getting guns. If you know something speak up.
The commenter is wrong of course, repeating more NRA myths. As the Times had it the other day:
Timothy Patrick Welch says
The graph shows an escalation in murders, but since the rates before the ban was comparatively low this graph shows in fact the escalation was not caused by the ban ending.
A correlation does follow with the adoption of the internet (ie pornography, violent online games, cyberbullying, and hate speech) and the failure of the FCC to enforce decency laws.
Ed Ranger says
Looks like you’re comparing mass shootings after the ban, but not before the ban. You could easily conclude that the ban failed (which many do) because there were about the same amount before as during the ban. Of course even that is a gross over simplification, but that’s the liberal way. The ban did not even prevent Columbine, which has become the template for all mass shootings since. Mass shootings are due to complicated social issues that most democrats/liberals refuse to look at because it often implicates their own social policies as the contributors to the problem. But it’s okay. Just present one dimension data, add salt and scream a lot, as they do with ‘the gap in woman’s pay’. A fallacy that a 4th grader could debunk. It really is sad.
Banning guns will do nothing in 2022 and beyond. Handguns kill many many more, usually the people that liberals claim are ‘marginalized’, but again, what liberals say and what they really believe and do have nothing to do with each other, or reality for that matter. Oh, and then there’s that ‘pesky’ 2nd amendment. “Shall not infringe”. You all know what that means, right?