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What are Assault Weapons and High-Capacity Magazines?

Assault weapons, paired with high-capacity magazines, have long been the weapon of choice for mass shooters.

These weapons of war have no place on American streets.

An “assault weapon” refers to a semi-automatic gun designed for military use and quick, efficient killing. Assault weapons are uniquely lethal because of their rapid rate of fire and high muzzle velocity — coupled with high-capacity magazines, which attach to an assault weapon to allow dozens of gunshots without needing to reload. A high-capacity magazine is typically defined as any magazine or drum that is capable of holding more than either 10 or 15 rounds of ammunition.

Military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines exist only to enact maximum destruction, and there’s simply no reason that everyday Americans need access to them.

From New Zealand to Parkland to Las Vegas, military-style assault rifles have a long history of being used in tragic mass shootings. In shootings where assault weapons or high-capacity magazines are used, 155 percent more people are shot, and 47 percent more people are killed.

The Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994

In 1994, Congress enacted a federal assault weapons ban as part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, commonly known as the “crime bill.” A ban on assault weapons was supported by former Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act named 19 guns (and their copies) as well as other semi-automatic firearms with two or more specified features listed above. It was signed into law by President Bill Clinton.

The federal assault weapon ban expired September 13, 2004. Congress did not renew it. When it expired, assault weapons and high-capacity magazines were suddenly legalized, unless banned by state or local laws.

We know that assault weapon bans work because data proves it. For the decade that the federal assault weapons ban was in effect from 1994 to 2004, 89 people died in 12 massacres. But in the decade after the ban expired from 2004 to 2014, over 300 people were shot and killed in 34 mass shootings. That’s a staggering 183 percent increase in massacres and a 239 percent increase in fatalities.

    State Legislation

    Currently, seven states (California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York) and Washington, D.C, ban assault weapons, and two more regulate elements of their possession or purchase. These laws are all slightly different, but all work to prevent these guns from being readily available to the general public.

    Additionally, 10 states and the District of Columbia have banned high-capacity magazines — though like assault weapon laws, the regulations slightly differ. The National Law Enforcement Partnership considers anything above 10 rounds as high- or large-capacity and advocates for their limitation from civilian access and use. While the Supreme Court case Heller v. District of Columbia has recognized the right of law-abiding citizens to own a gun in the home for self-protection, courts have widely upheld state assault weapon and high-capacity magazine bans as constitutional.

    Kyleanne Hunter, Brady's Vice President of Programs and a Marine Corps combat veteran, talks about AR-15s and weapons of war.

    Why Should We Regulate Assault Weapons and High-Capacity Magazines?

    Assault weapons, paired with high-capacity magazines, have long been the weapon of choice for mass shooters. The shooter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killed 17 people using an assault weapon. But this was just one in a long list of horrific shootings committed with these weapons. Assault weapons were also used in:

    A review of mass shootings between 2009 and 2015 shows that in shootings where assault weapons or high-capacity magazines are used, 155 percent more people are shot and 47 percent more die compared to those without them. These weapons also make our law enforcement officers less safe — in 2014, one in five officers killed in the line of duty were killed by assault weapons. Over a third of law enforcement agencies surveyed after the expiration of the federal assault weapon ban reported that they experienced a noticeable increase in criminals’ use of assault weapons.

    We know that regulating assault weapons can save lives: during the time the assault weapon ban was in effect, there was a 37 percent decline in gun massacres and a 70 percent decline in the percentage of assault weapons traced to gun crimes. Law enforcement organizations have long supported laws prohibiting assault weapons because the agencies charged with protecting the public are effectively being “outgunned” by militarized civilians and criminals with easy access to assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

    Pending Legislation and How to Take Action

    In January 2019, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Rep.David Cicilline (D-RI 1) introduced S. 66 and H.R. 1296, the Assault Weapon Ban of 2019. This lifesaving legislation would ban the sale, manufacture, transfer, and importation of 205 military-style assault weapons by name, as well as outlaw any assault weapon that can accept a detachable magazine and has one or more military characteristics.

    The proposed Assault Weapon Ban of 2019 is similar to the 1994 assault weapon ban, but notably different in that it requires only one additional feature, instead of two. It also bans any high-capacity magazine that can accept any more than 10 rounds of ammunition, along with bump stocks and other devices that allow semi-automatic weapons to fire at a rate that mimics fully automatic weapons. Any gun or high-capacity magazine that is lawfully possessed at the day of enactment will be grandfathered in and exempted from the ban.

    Take action today by calling your senators and representatives and demanding that they co-sponsor this important piece of legislation!

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