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Assault weapons ban (USA)

In some parts of the United States, possession of unregistered assault weapons (also known as "assault-style weapons") is prohibited at the state level. These are all semi-automatic firearms (that can only fire one shot per trigger-pull) which happen to look like fully-automatic firearms originally designed for the military. At the federal level, there are restrictions on the new manufacture of assault weapons and large capacity magazines.

Since the early 1990s there has been much discussion in the United States of banning assault weapons. The discussion has been clouded by substantial ambiguity concerning the term "assault weapon", because of its similarity to the term "assault rifle" (which refers specifically to fully automatic weapons) and because the news media and gun ban lobby often use footage of machineguns firing in full-auto as the back-drop to the issue. Such weapons (assault rifles) have been illegal in the United States, except by special permit, since 1934, yet discussion of a ban on "assault weapons" in the media often confuses the assault-style weapons actually under discussion with the fully automatic weapons which were already illegal. Most Americans, even most gun owners do not realize that the bans on "assault weapons" have nothing to do with automatic weapons or machine guns.

Classification of assault-style weapons, being based on mostly cosmetic characteristics, has proven extremely difficult since there is no functional difference between the types of firearms targeted for this latest round of bans and many very common hunting and target-shooting firearms. By any measure, caliber, rate of fire, accurate range, ease of use, magazine capacity, etc. these so-called "assault-style weapons" are identical in function to countless other firearms. Thus, the only way to specify a ban that only bans the intended firearms is to do so by cosmetics or model name/number, those being the only real differences. In response, when a weapon is banned as an assault weapon, the manufacturer simply makes the required cosmetic changes to its physical appearance which render it legal again. In response to that, some laws banning assault weapons have been subjected to several revisions since they were first passed.

Table of contents
1 Federal restrictions
2 State Restrictions
3 See also

Federal restrictions

In 1994, it became unlawful to manufacture an assault weapon or normal capacity magazine (over 10 rounds) except for export or for sale to a government or law enforcement agency. The federal definition of assault weapon includes the following points of physical similarity to military weapons:

This law is ineffective because the particular features that are prohibited do not enhance the capabilities of a given weapon, they remain in fact identical to their non-prohibited counterparts. Thus, making these features illegal does nothing to prevent crime or make the guns any less dangerous, especially since they were used in less than 1% of crimes to begin with. The federal "assault weapons" ban will expire in September of 2004, unless Congress re-authorises it or enacts and even more restrictive set of bans by then. Both efforts are curently underway in both houses of Congress.

State Restrictions

California is one state that has enacted particularly strict rules regarding assault weapons. In California, several different categories of weapons are classified as assault weapons. The first category includes weapons listed by manufacturer and model on a list that went into effect in 1989. The law was passed in response to a Stockton schoolyard shooting by a mentally ill individual who killed or wounded over 30 people with an AK series rifle. The list includes most modern military rifles, such as the Colt AR-15 series and clones, AK series and clones, Uzi series, Heckler und Koch HK91, HK53, HK94, and others. This first category could not be purchased after July 1989, and had to be registered with the state no later than January 1, 1990. In response, some manufacturers simply changed the names of their products to circumvent the ban, such as the Colt Sporter (AR-15) and imported SAR-1 (AK series).

The legislature responded by passing a far tougher law that defined assault weapons based on their characteristics, which are very similar to the federal characteristics listed above. An additional restriction is on semiautomatic rifles shorter than 762 mm (30 inches), and any shotgun with a revolving cylinder. These weapons could not be purchased after January 1, 2000, and had to be registered before January 2001. In addition, any weapon that is part of the AR-15 series or AK series is also an assault weapon, regardless of manufacturer. There are few exceptions to the law. Assault weapons may only be possessed if properly registered with the state. No new assault weapons may be manufactured, purchased, or imported into California except by licensed dealers or manufacturers for sale to law enforcement agencies or the federal government, or by production companies for use in movies. Certain pistols sanctioned for use by the International Olympic Committee are excepted from the Assault Weapons Control Act. A permit process does exist at the Department of Justice, but the DOJ's internal policy is to issue permits to no one except movie prop companies. The California law is fairly typical for a state-level regulation of assault weapons.

Despite purporting to make California a safer place, there is no evidence to show that the AWCA has accomplished anything more than making state legislators feel good about themselves and depriving law-abiding gun owners their free choice of firearms. Both sides agree that there are many firearms that are legal in California that are functionally identical to prohibited weapons. Still, both sides agree that the law needs to be revised to make it more clear so ordinary people can understand what is and is not an assault weapon.

When the act was being debated in the legislature, the Association of California Cities, a prominent supporter, claimed that California law enforcement agencies feared that some groups in large cities might undertake successful rebellions against civil order if armed with modern weapons. In spite of hundreds of thousands of such "assault weapons" in the public hands for some decades, no such events have ever occurred anywhere in the USA. Prominent members of black churches in L.A., as well as Senators Boxer (D-CA) and Feinstein (D-CA), have claimed that the only real purpose of such weapons is to kill large numbers of people, and therefore there is no reason to permit them. This in spite of the fact that the primary uses of these firearms in civilian hands has been, and continues to be the very safe sport of target-shooting.

Others have advocated possession of rifles for self-defense as well as a last-resort defense against government tyranny, invasion, or insurrection. Members of the California Rifle and Pistol Association, a prominent outdoorsman's organization, see civilian style "assault weapons" as collectors' items, or realistic training aids for civilian enthusiasts.

Based on engineering differences, ease of modification, and their high level of expertise, CRPA members see nothing special about assault weapons except their appearance, which is exactly what the collectors and civil defense enthusiasts want, and what the legislature wants to prohibit. The legislature has thus been accused of being paternalistic and somewhat frivolous for creating the Assault Weapons Control Act.

Gun rights advocates have argued that the only real purpose of these "assault weapons" bans is to make the public used to the idea that firearms can be banned by government action and the public simply must accept any bans the government will choose to impose in the future. These bans have purely symbolic and propaganda purposes with no chance of reducing violent crime.

See also