Yes, the 1994 federal assault weapons ban saved lives

The risk of a person in the U.S. dying in a mass shooting was 70% lower during the period of the assault weapons ban, which lasted from 1994 to 2004. Deaths from mass shootings fell and the increase in the annual number of incidents slowed down.

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Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart holds up photos of seized weapons as he testifies to the Illinois House Judiciary Committee in support of the state’s proposed assault weapon ban.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart holds up photos of seized weapons as he testifies to the Illinois House Judiciary Committee in support of the state’s proposed assault weapon ban.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

A spate of high-profile mass shootings in the U.S. in 2022 sparked calls for Congress to look at imposing a ban on so-called assault weapons. And in Illinois, lawmakers are now considering a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. Eight states and Washington, D.C. already ban assault weapons.

A federal prohibition has been in place before, when bipartisan support helped push through a federal assault weapons ban in 1994, as part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. But the ban had a “sunset provision” that allowed it to expire in 2004.

Nonetheless, the 10-year life span of that ban — with a clear beginning and end date — gives researchers the opportunity to compare what happened with mass shooting deaths before, during and after the prohibition was in place. Our group of injury epidemiologists and trauma surgeons did just that. In 2019, we published a population-based study analyzing the data to evaluate the effect that the federal ban had on mass shootings, defined by the FBI as a shooting with four or more fatalities, not including the shooter.

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Here’s what the data shows:

Before the 1994 ban: From 1981, the earliest year in our analysis, to the rollout of the assault weapons ban in 1994, the proportion of deaths in mass shootings in which an assault rifle was used was lower than it is today.

Yet in this earlier period, mass shooting deaths were steadily rising. Indeed, high-profile mass shootings involving assault rifles — such as the killing of five children in Stockton, California, in 1989 and a 1993 San Francisco office attack with eight victims — provided the impetus for a push to prohibit some types of gun.

During the 1994-2004 ban: In the years after the ban, deaths from mass shootings fell and the increase in the annual number of incidents slowed down. Even including 1999’s Columbine High School massacre — the deadliest mass shooting during the period — the years from 1994 to 2004 saw lower average annual rates of both mass shootings and deaths resulting from such incidents than before the ban.

From 2004 onward: The data shows an almost immediate, and steep, rise in mass shooting deaths in the years after the assault weapons ban expired. Between 2004 and 2017, the last year of our analysis, the average number of yearly deaths attributed to mass shootings was 25, compared with 5.3 during the 10-year ban and 7.2 in the years leading up to it.

Saving hundreds of lives

We calculated that the risk of a person in the U.S. dying in a mass shooting was 70% lower during the period of the assault weapons ban. The proportion of overall gun homicides resulting from mass shootings was also down, with nine fewer mass-shooting-related fatalities per 10,000 shooting deaths.

Taking population trends into account, a model we created based on this data suggests that had the federal assault weapons ban been in place during the whole period of our study — that is, from 1981 through 2017 — it may have prevented 314 of the 448 mass shooting deaths that occurred during the years in which there was no ban.

This almost certainly underestimates the total number of lives that could be saved. For our study, we chose only to include mass shooting incidents that were reported and agreed upon by all three of our selected data sources: the Los Angeles Times, Stanford University, and Mother Jones magazine.

Furthermore, for uniformity, we also chose to use the strict federal definition of an assault weapon, which may not include the entire spectrum of what many people may now consider to be assault weapons.

Searching for solutions

It is also important to note that our analysis cannot definitively say that the assault weapons ban of 1994 caused a decrease in mass shootings, nor that its expiration in 2004 resulted in the growth of deadly incidents in the years since.

Many additional factors may contribute to the shifting frequency of these shootings, such as changes in domestic violence rates, political extremism, psychiatric illness, firearm availability and a surge in sales, and the recent rise in hate groups.

Nonetheless, according to our study, President Joe Biden’s claim that the rate of mass shootings during the period of the assault weapons ban “went down” only to rise again after the law expired in 2004 holds true.

As the U.S. looks toward a solution to the mass shooting epidemic, it is difficult to say conclusively that reinstating a federal assault weapons ban would have a profound impact, especially given the growth in sales in the 18 years in which Americans have been allowed to purchase and stockpile such weapons. But given that many of the high-profile mass shooters in recent years purchased their weapons less than one year before committing their acts, the evidence suggests that it might.

Michael J. Klein is a trauma surgeon and a clinical assistant professor of surgery at New York University.

This article was originally published on theconversation.com

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The views and opinions expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chicago Sun-Times or any of its affiliates.

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