Clinton-Era Assault Weapons Ban Did Work, According to New Research

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Assault rifles hang on the wall for sale in Virginia, on October 6, 2017. New research is bolstering arguments from gun control supporters for enacting an assault-weapons ban. AFP Contributor/Getty

Stanford University researchers have published a new analysis supporting a pillar of the modern gun control movement: a prospective ban on military-style rifles commonly known as "assault" weapons.

The research from Stanford Law professor John Donohue and student Theodora Boulouta found that from 1994 to 2004, the Clinton-era federal assault weapons ban was associated with a marked decrease in mass shootings and victims of those shootings.

According to a preliminary draft of the study, set to be published in the journal Law and Contemporary Problems, in the decade preceding the assault weapons ban, there were 33 percent additional mass shootings and 65 percent more associated fatalities. (Because the raw number of mass shooting was so low, this only correlates to an additional two incidents.)

In the decades following the ban, the results were exceedingly stark. Ten years after the ban expired in 2004, the number of mass shootings more than tripled and the number of fatalities spiked more than fourfold.

If the current pace of mass shootings and resultant lethality holds, the current decennial period (2014 to 2024) will see the number of mass shootings grow by an additional eight incidents and the number of victims rise by 326 compared with the previous decade.

This steep increase in mass shooting events is occurring at the same time as violent crime rates generally have decreased across the United States. In fact, since 1984, violent crime incidents have sloped consistently downward, even though mass shooting events appear to be surging in the opposite direction.

Not only was the ban associated with fewer victims and incidents, but the deadliness of each incident during the lifetime of the ban was also lesser.

The study also notes a key statistic that undermines a long-held talking point from gun-rights supporters about the efficacy of "good guy" first responders to mass shooting incidents.

"Cases of public mass shootings in which six or more individuals die have been growing sharply over the last 15 years – a period when the legal ability to carry guns outside the home has increased dramatically," the paper said.

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A placard about gun rights in the United States hangs on the wall next to assault rifles for sale at a gun store in Virginia, on October 6, 2017. JIM WATSON/Getty

Gun-rights supporters have long argued that the antidote to lethal violence is more armed citizens, but the expansion of legal frameworks for carrying firearms has not managed to abate the rampant mass violence America has witnessed since 2004.

In one recent massacre in early August, in which a gunman killed nine people in Dayton, Ohio, an armed police officer arrived on scene and shot the perpetrator dead within 32 seconds. Still, despite that unusually swift response time, the gunman still was able to commit a mass slaughter.

To be sure, the ban had significant and potentially systemic defects that have led many to view it with skepticism given the sheer amount of assault weapons currently in circulation. (Estimates vary, but there are anywhere from around five to 15 million assault-style rifles currently in circulation in the United States.)

The greatest drawback was Congress' inability to set forth an adequate, rational definition of assault weapon that could be applied consistently across different manufacturers. Lawmakers, many of whom are not knowledgeable about firearms, appear to have cherry picked among different models and brands to exclude specific weapons from legal circulation, also providing exemptions to the ban in other cases. The law also singled out less significant, seemingly superficial hallmarks of assault weapons that make the rifles appear more intimidating but don't increase lethality.

As Donohue noted in a recent op-ed, not all studies have confirmed his findings. An early study from the National Institute of Justice, published upon the ban's expiration, provided mixed results. That analysis ultimately concluded that one "cannot clearly credit the ban with any of the nation's recent drop in gun violence," because the number of high-capacity magazines used in crime had not decreased. The sheer number of assault weapons that had been in circulation at the time would ensure that "the effects of the law would occur only gradually."

Donohue's study 25 years later attempts to construct a more definitive narrative than researchers had been able to achieve in the early aughts.

Despite the haphazard way the law appears to have been devised, Americans would back a similar proposal if enacted today, according to recent polling. A majority of Americans currently supports a fully-realized ban on future sales of assault weapons, Monmouth University found in a September survey.

Furthermore, a recent poll from The Hill established more fervent support for controls on assault weapons. Fifty-nine percent of registered voters reported endorsing a mandatory buyback program, such as that proposed by 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke. Such a program has long been derided by the gun-rights community as 'confiscation,' and the Monmouth poll didn't measure majority support for this initiative.

But the politics of gun control are changing quickly, and even traditionally regulation-skeptic groups are willing to back modest measures to curb gun violence. In The Hill's survey, 51 percent of Republicans indicated they could support a ban on the future sale of assault weapons.

Clinton-Era Assault Weapons Ban Did Work, According to New Research | U.S.