We previously discussed how President Biden continues to repeat the same false statements about bans on weapons when the Second Amendment was ratified. However, he also repeated another dubious claim this weekend. The comments have received considerable coverage after the President seemed to target 9mm guns for possible legislative bans, stating that “high-caliber weapons” like the 9mm handgun should not be needed and told the public that “a .22-caliber bullet will lodge in the lung, and we can probably get it out — may be able to get it and save the life. A 9mm bullet blows the lung out of the body.” Critics pushed back on that claim, but such statements can be written off as part of the hyperbolic rhetoric surrounding gun rights and gun control. Yet, he made a separate factual claim about the record of the earlier assault weapons ban that is more questionable.
In addition to repeating (for the second time in two days) a false claim that certain weapons were banned at the ratification of the Second Amendment, Biden made the claim that “the assault weapons ban in the 1990s had “significantly cut down mass murders.” He previously made this statement in favor of gun bans.
Others have raised the earlier ban to show that such legislation has previously passed in Congress and can be passed again. The President is referring to the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act or Federal Assault Weapons Ban (AWB) in the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. The law banned the manufacture for civilian use of certain semi-automatic firearms as well as some large capacity ammunition magazines. That ten-year ban was signed by President Bill Clinton on September 13, 1994 but expired on September 13, 2004.
That was before the Supreme Court recognized that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to gun ownership in District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008. The Act was not challenged under the Second Amendment in any major litigation.
Putting aside the constitutional challenges, the President’s factual claim is far from established. Indeed, there is no evidence that the ban had any appreciable impact on gun violence and most studies questioned the impact even on mass shootings. There does appear to have been a decrease during this period and an increase after the period. However, the cause-and-effect claim has never been well-established.
Support for this claim could be based on a 2019 study in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery that found that “Mass-shooting related homicides in the United States were reduced during the years of the federal assault weapons ban of 1994 to 2004”. However, the authors said that this reduction was merely “observational” and that the Act was not clearly the cause of the reduction in shootings and deaths.
“A number of factors—including the fact that the banned weapons and magazines were rarely used to commit murders in this country, the limited availability of data on the weapons, other components of the Crime Control Act of 1994, and State and local initiatives implemented at the same time—posed challenges in discerning the effects of the ban.”
Even the Washington Post noted that “Part of the problem is that the assault weapons ban existed for only 10 years, and there are relatively few mass shootings per year, making it difficult to fully assess its impact.” The Post would only say that some studies show the law was “effective.”
A 2020 study published in Criminology and Public Policy found that “bans on assault weapons had no clear effects on either the incidence of mass shootings or on the incidence of victim fatalities from mass shootings.” This study noted that “most mass shootings do not involve assault rifles, but many involve the use of [large caliber magazines].”
A 2004 Justice Department study found little support for this cause-and-effect claims.
The obvious problem with this claim is that mass shootings are statistically rare. It is very hard to associate a decrease to the law, particularly with the abundance of existing weapons and the fact that many shootings do not involve the AR-15 or similar models.
While difficult to discuss, it is also arguable that the same number of fatalities would likely have occurred with the use of semi-automatic handguns in Uvalde, Texas.
That does not mean that we should not have this debate. However, we need to work from a factual foundation in establishing the policy and constitutional basis for reforms.