Assault Weapons Ban History

The assault weapons issue really launched into the scene when Patrick Purdy decided to take a semi-automatic Norinco Type-56 patterned rifle, and shoot up a Kindergarten playground in Stockton, California.  California would soon pass the Roberti-Roos Act, banning various scary features like bayonet lugs, pistol groups, and flash hiders.  They also banned a number of firearms by name, reportedly going through a gun magazine and picking out firearms that looked scary (the law replicated a typo that appeared in a gun magazine).  I was 14 years old when this happened, so my memory of the entire “assault weapons” debate has been from subsequent reading.  The federal assault weapons ban didn’t pass until I was 20, and I was too busy in college to pay strict attention to the debate going on in Congress.  I suspect there are a few readers out there who are around my age, or maybe even a bit younger who would like some of the information I’ve collected about the federal ban.

Congress was under a lot of pressure in the early 90s to pass a crime bill, and Bill Clinton was eagar to show Americans that a Democratic President wasn’t going to be soft on crime.  This was an opportunity for those who wanted to deal with the “assault weapons” issue and institute a federal ban.  The original crime bill started out in the House as H.R. 3355, and did not contain any provision about assault weapons, but was an omnibus bill.  Omnibus bills are relatively hazardous, in that the subject matter is so diverse, relatively few politicians will want to take the risk of voting against one, lest some provision of the bill they voted against be used against them next election.  The Crime Bill was a bipartisan omnibus bill, because the Republicans too, wanted to pass a crime bill.  If partisan omnibus bills, like the stimulus, are dangerous, bipartisan ones are like nitroglycerin in a paint shaker.  You know something bad is likely to happen.  Politicians are reluctant to vote no, because the next election it would have been “Senator X voted against the enhanced sentences for puppy killers.” or something like that.

The original crime bill in The House, with no assault weapons ban, was non-controversial, and passed by voice vote.  In the Senate is where the shenanigans started.  The competing bill in the Senate was Joe Biden’s crime bill, which was S. 1607.  On November 17, 1993, Diane Feinstein’s amendment to S.1607, S.Amdt. 1152, attached the assault weapons ban language.  Take a look at the yeas and nays on the link above, because those are the people in the Senate who voted for the ban.  You will notice a lot of the yeas are no longer with us.  Many of those were victims of the 1994 Republican takeover.

The Senate replaced The House crime bill with Joe Biden’s crime bill, which contained Feinstein’s assault weapons ban language, and passed it overwhelmingly.  I suspect many senators may not have even realized the assault weapons language was in the bill.  Much like the stimulus bill, the crime bill was substantial, and got voted on without most of the politicians having any idea what they are voting for, other than what other people are telling them.

By the time the bill made it back down to the House and Senate conference committee, to work out the details between the House and Senate version, the Assault Weapons language had time to build momentum and become an issue.  Clinton and the House Leadership promised legislators the moon if they would only vote for the amended Crime Bill.  With enough arm twisting and promises, the final crime bill and assault weapons ban passed The House August 21, 1994 235-195.  Many of the yea votes there too, lost their seats in the 1994 elections.  On August 25, 1994, the Senate passed the final version of the Crime Bill 61-38, and it became public law No: 103-322 on September 13, 1994, when it was signed by President Clinton.

I present this information because we, once again, are in danger of this issue coming back, and I think it’s instructive to see how it was done in 1994.  Keep in mind that this was a new issue in the early 90s, and in some ways the ground has shifted more in our favor.  The Republicans seem to be more united than they were in 1994, and we have more conservative Democrats on our side than we did then.  They know the gun issue is a hot iron, and they might not want to touch it.  We’ve already dodged one dangerous omnibus bill with the stimulus.  We must watch carefully others.

30 thoughts on “Assault Weapons Ban History”

  1. I remember hearing about the AWB when it passed and my first thought was “didn’t the 86 ban do that already?”

    Then I realized it covered semi-auto. Thank god it had a sunset provision. You can be sure the next one won’t.

  2. Although I wasn’t seriously involved in the pro-gun movement I was very aware of the assault weapons ban being voted on in 1994, and I believe so were a majority of our members of congress. Which is why I am told they had to put in a sunset clause — to get enough Republican support.

    It was a different time, though, for better and worse. Back then I think the general consensus of people was “well, duh — of course they’re banning assault weapons. Who needs ’em?”

    But now we have the internet to get our side of the story out and a huge surge in people buying AR-15’s, which I think were relatively rare back then. And of course AR’s minus a few features were sold throughout the ban.

    I wouldn’t put anything past this congress/administration on any subject the liberals feel they were set back on in the last 8 years, but with all the AR owners out there and the fact that every AR factory is currently selling everything they can produce … I have a hard time believing they’ll really push for this.

    But since Obama basically referred to an AWB in his acceptance speech at the democractic convention and there is mention of it on his transition website … yeah. I’m not taking any bets.

    As to how that will affect the electiosn in 2010 — I have hopes, but I’m not taking any bets there either.

  3. I remember well the fight in California and was a part of trying to stop the ban but we were out numbered by anti’s and liberals and it was a sad time for the Second Amendment.

    During the Federal Ban, too many RINO’s supported the ban and thanks to Bob Dole making back room deals it was a done deal. The fight was a lost cause from the get go and we were just lucky to get a sunset, no thanks to Dole.

    Everyone better be on their toes today with who is in power now, I put nothing past these liberal fools and I’m only thankful to have moved and now live a Free State and I still fight for the Second Amendment at every chance.


  4. Perhaps the “best” part (the only good part) of the 1994 ban is that it provided for an experimental period … to “test” the efficacy of such an approach. We learned that the ban did not accomplish what it was purposed to do.

    And today … this ain’t 1994. Look at the incredible prevalence and success of the carry movement. The right to bear arms is being realized by millions. Look at how many arms are being sold. Look at what now happens after horrendous school murders … in 1994 the cry would have been to ban guns and expand gun free zones. Today, the cry is to liberalize carry laws. The difference between today and 1994 is profound.

    Regarding bans on semiauto firearms, we have:

    1) The fact that the 1994 ban did not substantially, or even marginally, reduce the use of such firearms in crime, much less reduce crime as a whole. We have studies by the CDC, the DoJ, and the National Academies of Science to point to.

    2) The fact that millions and millions more of this type of semiauto firearm are now owned by Americans for all manner of lawful activity, not the least of which is for the fundamentally important purpose of defense of self, family, home, etc. In other words, they are common, and in common use.

    3) The fact that gun owners today I think as a whole are MUCH more informed about issues, legislation, the opposition, etc. I built my first AR during the ban … in 1994, I barely knew what an AR was! One friend owned one at the time … now, MOST of the gun owners I know own an AR or an AK, or at the very least, a handgun with a mag capacity of over ten. Anyway, the tremendous upsurge in grass-roots activism and knowledge simply cannot be dismissed. Sites like “Snowflakes in Hell” are playing a big part in this awareness and activism.

    4) We have Heller, which certainly raises the bar on what sorts of gun control legislation is constitutional. While it could still be argued that bans on assault rifles and such may be constitutional (and it could be strongly argued that they are not), it is PERFECTLY clear that bans on semi-auto firearms are forbidden. They pass all the tests with flying colors … they are common, in common use, by Americans for legitimate purposes. Simply put – ownership of semi-auto military style weapons is constitutionally protected. Heller not only gives us precedent to challenge onerous laws, but it also gives our friendly legislators some very serious argumentative leverage.

    5) We are on the verge of second amendment incorporation. Following that … believe you me … there are going to be all manner of lawsuits attacking and overturning all manner of second amendment infringements. It will be a veritable righteous shitstorm of pro-2A lawsuits (with many of them victorious, I predict).

    6) Finally, there are still many folks in the congress that remember the influence of the second amendment, and it’s effect on the Dems loss of control. Do the Dem power brokers want to ban guns or generally infringe our right to arms? Of course … no question about it, and certainly among the “old guard.” But are they willing to sacrifice the baby of control, just to throw out the bathwater? I think not … or at least think they will think about it very hard.

  5. “We’ve already dodged one dangerous omnibus bill with the stimulus. We must watch carefully others.”

    Even knowing you were talking about gun bans specifically, it still took me a moment to parse this. I do take your point. But the stimulus bill seems designed to achieve a permanent electoral shift by altering public spending and welfare dependency. To date, it appears Obama and congressional democrats are getting most if not all of what they’re after.

    I think Obama, Pelosi and Reid probably did learn from the AWB and ’94 elections not to mess with gun control; but they have shifted the battlefield to other issues they can win on. And their victories are going to have serious consequences for the country gun owners live in.

    I’ve long been a registered Libertarian and GOA member, so I’m the last person who should be arguing against single-issue advocacy and for lining up behind the GOP, but the Democrats are pushing me in that direction.

  6. A friggin baseball bat could be considered an assault weapon if you hit some one the right way with it.

  7. I was heavily involved in the effort to stop the California bill, and the federal ban. Among other things that I did during this time:

    1. Met with legislative staff, and showed them that proposals to limit magazines to ten rounds were a waste of time, because you could change magazines so quickly that someone like Patrick Purdy would not be inconvenienced by such a ban. I also used as my example of the futility of trying to limit “high capacity magazines” a 30 round M16 magazine that a friend found lying in the streets of Oceanside, doubtless the result of some carelessness at Camp Pendleton.

    2. Rep. Doug Bosco (D-CA) sent a representative to the meeting of the Cotati Rod & Gun Club. This poor guy gave a speech that was essentially, “Look, Bosco doesn’t agree with you about gun control, but he has the interests of poorly educated blue collar sorts like you at heart.” But then he discovered that the crowd he was talking to included software engineers, a history professor, business owners, doctors–and by the end of the evening, he was holding an Eagle Arms AR-15 with a carbon fiber composite scope (very, very light)–and he realized that much of he had been told about this subject was wrong.

    The biggest problem that we had in California is that the news media lied up a storm, and covered up Purdy’s LONG history of felony charges, all pleaded down to misdemeanors by then Los Angeles County District Attorney John Van De Kamp–who in the meantime, had become California Attorney-General John Van De Kamp, who was pushing this bill to avoid admitting his office had screwed up.

    Adding to the problem is that Purdy was mentally ill. Because of deinstitutionalization, Purdy, who in 1960 would have likely been hospitalized, instead was given a disability check every month which he used to buy guns and ammo. This turned out to be a common situation for many of the other mass murderers fo the period.

  8. I suppose that I should mention that when Purdy did what he did, I was taking History of the Bill of Rights class as a grad student. Let’s just say that it solidified what amendment to do a paper on, which eventually turned into my second book, For the Defense of Themselves and the State: The Original Intent and Judicial Interpretation of the Right to Keep and Bear Arms (Praeger Press, 1994).

  9. Color me fooled on this one. I also thought “of course they should ban them.” And i had even just started shotgunning. I believed the hype and that of course it must be good because the evil NRA was against it.

    Now I know better.

  10. I was 2 when this happened so I’ve never heard of it. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  11. YoYo Said (February 23rd, 2009 at 7:11 pm):

    “Now I know better.”

    Good for you Sir. There is no time like the present to discover the truth, and to identify those who intend to deceive. Tell your friends … even friends you haven’t made yet.

  12. One more difference between the early nineties and today is that there is I believe a lot more unity within the pro-gun crowd. Many of the arguments I had in the late eighties and early nineties were with gun owners who were also loyal Democrats who still supported what they felt were reasonable gun laws. They had been brought up as hunters and target shooters who saw no need for semi-autos like the ARs. Since then the NRA has done an effective job of convincing those gun owners that “assault weapon” bans are targeted at a number of guns that no one ever thought of as “assault weapons. Many gun owners I know who had been soft in the past on assault weapon bans have since then become among the most die hard 2nd amendment supporters.

  13. I remember the AWB vividly, it was the reason I went out and purchased a 9mm semi-auto with spare clips. I also got a Mini-14 to replace the AK that I had to sell to finance my move to Atlanta.
    It also made me very politically aware, in which I had only had a passing interest previously. I started watching C-span and calling the local talk radio stations when the subject came up. I learned a lot from Neal Knox in the Shotgun Trader and other publications of the day. It was very interesting time to become aware of how my constitutional rights were being stripped bit by bit.
    Right now it reminds me of what the buying frenzy was like back then, only this time people are stripping the shelves bare no matter what the price.

  14. Mike G. said:
    “One more difference between the early nineties and today is that there is I believe a lot more unity within the pro-gun crowd”

    Not in North Dakota. Most of my close friends who own guns, own AR’s or Ak’s for hunting and target shooting. But most people I talk to here are fudd gunners. They bring up the same old lame shit. “I believe in the 2A, I have a deer rifle and a shotgun”. And everybody’s favorite, “Nobody NEEDS a AR15, those are the only guns THEY want to ban”.

    Same shit different year up here. I have near zero confidence we will be able to stop another AWB but I have been wrong before in my 37 years. I pray this is one of those times.

  15. I have been keen to the issue of gun control and the Second Amendment since the late 1970’s, back when I was in the 7th grade and just 13 years old. This was when my social studies teacher had our whole class work on a semester-long project which involved a debate on the gun control issue at the end of the semester.

    Some of the kids were assigned by the teacher to argue on the pro side of gun control, and others were assigned to argue on the con side of the issue. Being that I come from a longtime gun-owning family, I made it very clear to my teacher that I wanted to argue on the con side of the issue for this reason. When my teacher heard from me on this, he gladly agreed to let me lead the debate team for the con side.

    Before the day of this debate, our class was furnished with plenty of access to books and filmstrips on the Second Amendment and gun control issues at the school’s library, but none of it was from the NRA as best I can recall, and none of it seemed to be all that impressive to me, even as an adolescent. Fortunately, I was able to refer to my family’s own NRA publications, along with old issues of Guns and Ammo magazine from home as much as I needed to to prepare for this debate.

    Anyway, long story short, the entire focus of the pro-gun-control debate team’s argument was against the availability of handguns, ones like my dad’s milsurp Luger P-08 and Colt 1911 pistols, and “Saturday Night Specials”, but not any sort of long gun whatsoever. In fact, the leader of the opposing team said several times in his rebuttals to my arguments that their side had no opposition to long guns at all. Their argument was not much more than this, other than that the Second Amendment was really about the National Guard units of the states, and not an individual’s right to keep and bear arms. (The Heller decision has certainly blown away that part of their argument all these years later, right?) From what I can recall, the teacher declared the debate a tie to avert a possible shouting match between myself and the leader of the pro side team.

    My, how times have changed and then some!

    Mind you, this was the 1970’s. The debate that we kids had that day was likely quite similar to the ones the adults were having on this same issue – it was focused largely just on an American’s right to own handguns. Nobody was talking about rifles or shotguns. Back then, as I was arguing my points on the Second Amendment meaning just what it says about the right of the people to keep and bear arms, it would have never occurred to me in a million years that my dad’s milsurp M1 Garand and carbine rifles, along with the Colt AR15 rifles which I can recall seeing as early as 1979 or 1980 at the gun club on Saturday afternoons, would have ever start to become such a major issue some 10 years later, being that they now are demonized as being “assault guns” by the gun grabbers like they are today.

  16. Clayton, i have a sneaking suspicion that you are going to be heavily involved in many pro-gun efforts in the next 4-8 years… please make sure that if you need help, you ask for it

  17. AWB history – it didn’t start with Purdy

    I remember this Newsweek magazine from 1985…

    “Still, ignorance alone cannot explain big journalism’s treatment of the “assault weapon” issue during the past decade. Newsweek helped launch the “assault weapon” scare three years before Sugarmann’s report with a 1985 cover story titled, “Machine Gun USA.” While the article acknowl edged the difference between semi-automatics and machine guns, it implied that the former could be converted into the latter so easily that the difference was of little significance. The story was accom panied by illustrations of several semi-automatic versions of automatic weapons, with captions that cited the much higher firing rates of the automatics.”

    I believe the California legislature tried to pass a ban on so-called “assault-weapons” in 1988, but it went nowhere. I remember reading a cutesy newspaper story that described it as ‘Now that California has banned toys that look like guns, it will try to ban guns that look like toys’.

    The same legislation was re-introduced in 1989 and probably would have suffered the same fate as the earlier effort. But then Purdy committed his mad act of mass murder and suicide at a California school. The press poured gasoline on the political fire and powered the vote to a very slim margin of victory in the California Assembly where opposition was strongest (1 or 2 vote margin, I think). Newspaper editorials ran 90% in favor of the ban and letters to the editor ran 90% against.

    Passage of the law in May 1989 created the first gun buying panic of recent times, with prices skyrocketing and inventories vanishing within days. Because even though the law passed in 1989, it would not go into effect until January 1st 1990 as is customary with California laws. This provided a window for people to buy (or sell) until time ran out.

    Once such legislation passed in California, the supposed ‘bellwether State’, banning so-called “assault-weapons” became a main focus of HCI to push in other States and at the Federal level too.

  18. Brad:

    I can still vividly recall that Newsweek “Machine Gun USA” cover story back in 1985. It featured rifles such as the Ruger Mini-14 and the Colt AR15 from what I can recall, and right away I knew this reporting was factually-challenged when it made the claims of the “relative ease” that it would be to convert the Ruger Mini-14 and Colt AR15 rifles to select fire.

    I was in the military back when I first saw this Newsweek cover story, and even then I could tell that my service-issue M16A1 rifle had some different internal parts from those of the Colt AR15 sporter model, and that no amount of “filing” would easily change an AR15 into the M16. As for the Ruger Mini-14, the reality is that converting it into a select-fire AC556 is even a bigger chore, even for an experienced gunsmith, let alone some street corner crack dealer from that era.

    What I don’t recall from back in 1985 is the NRA doing much of anything to counter the disinformation campaign that Newsweek had foisted upon the American public about these semi-automatic rifles on the market for civilians, except maybe reporting on it in the pages of its own “American Rifleman” magazine. I also don’t recall from back in 1985 any these gun grabber types using the pejorative term “assault weapon” yet.

  19. I believe the California legislature tried to pass a ban on so-called “assault-weapons” in 1988, but it went nowhere. I remember reading a cutesy newspaper story that described it as ‘Now that California has banned toys that look like guns, it will try to ban guns that look like toys’.

    The same legislation was re-introduced in 1989 and probably would have suffered the same fate as the earlier effort. But then Purdy committed his mad act of mass murder and suicide at a California school. The press poured gasoline on the political fire and powered the vote to a very slim margin of victory in the California Assembly where opposition was strongest (1 or 2 vote margin, I think). Newspaper editorials ran 90% in favor of the ban and letters to the editor ran 90% against.

    Right you are. The bill was aimed at disarming gang members in Oakland and Los Angeles, and included at least one gun that did not exist. They passed it through the Assembly (California’s lower house) by one vote–and the price of getting that one Republican to vote for it was to remove the Ruger Mini-14 from the list. (The legislator they were trying to turn owned one of those.)

  20. At least in 1985 they were honest enough to differentiate the difference between automatic or select-fire guns and mere semi-autos.

    Today … those that wish to infringe our right to arms (like Chicago mayor Daley) have no such honor.

    Daley With New Gun Proposal
    Outraged by last week’s murders of three teens on the Southeast side, Mayor Daley today will unveil new gun measures aimed at curbing the flow of automatic weapons into the hands of children.

    We are led to believe that there exists a flow of automatic rifles into the hands of children, and no measures to curb such a flow? With all these auto guns flowing around … why do those Title III dealers want to charge over $15,000 for a lousy $500 AK?

  21. Clayton, i have a sneaking suspicion that you are going to be heavily involved in many pro-gun efforts in the next 4-8 years… please make sure that if you need help, you ask for it.

    The only help that I need at the moment is people interested in funding a film that will lure in a lot of people that don’t necessarily agree with us–and when they leave, many of them will have an entirely new view of the importance of an armed population, and resistance to arbitrary ggovernment. It involves a poorly known incident in which hundreds of professors and college students armed with rifles and handguns surrounded a hotel, and demanded that federal marshals release a runaway slave.

  22. Nice.

    But we’d make more headway if we’d quit refering to semiauto firearms as “assault weapons.”

    What is the sense in that?

    You can call a turd a bon bon, but it’s still a turd and you’d still be incorrect.

  23. Carl in Chicago

    You make a good point about the danger of falling into the propaganda traps laid by our enemies. Which is why I try to be careful when referring to this issue as [the ban on so-called “assault-weapons”].

    I see too many people tying themselves into knots when trying to explain to the public what the real issue is. A simple lie has to be fought with a complicated truth. That is the real genius of the anti-gun conspiracy when it comes to this issue.

    How can one boil down something so complicated that it can fit into a simple ‘sound-bite’? Something like…

    “The ban on so-called “assault-weapons” is a bait and switch con-job. The anti-gunners con the public they are going after machine guns when they are really going after everybody’s target rifles.”

    … This is obviously an oversimplification of the issue, but we have got to get better shooting down the propaganda of our enemies.

    As for what to call semi-auto firearms, I prefer to stay away from the word ‘auto’ in any variation. i think we should adapt the Winchester model 1907 self-loading rifle as our symbol and term of art. What the anti-gunners are really after is everyone’s self-loading rifle, and not the “assault-weapon” bogeyman.

  24. I agree with everyone here. I sort of wish there were some oppisition here so I could give them a verbal beat down. I’ve been a FFL for over 13 years and a SOT for 8 years. We all need to stick together now more than ever! I fear my son will have to groe up in a socialist country.

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