Efforts to create restrictions on "assault weapons" at the federal government level intensified in 1989 after 34 children and a teacher were shot and five children killed in Stockton, Calif. with a semi-automatic AK-47 rifle. The Luby's shooting in October 1991, which left 23 people dead and 27 wounded, was another factor. The July 1993 101 California Street shooting also contributed to passage of the ban. The shooter killed eight people and wounded six. Two of the three firearms he used were TEC-9 semi-automatic handguns with Hellfire triggers. The ban tried to address public concerns about mass shootings by restricting firearms that met the criteria for what it defined as a "semiautomatic assault weapon," as well as magazines that met the criteria for what it defined as a "large capacity ammunition feeding device."
In November 1993, the proposed legislation passed the U.S. Senate. The bill's author, Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and other advocates said that it was a weakened version of the original proposal. In May 1994, former presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan, wrote to the U.S. House of Representatives in support of banning "semi-automatic assault guns." They cited a 1993 CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll that found 77 percent of Americans supported a ban on the manufacture, sale, and possession of such weapons.
Rep. Jack Brooks (D-TX), then chair of the House Judiciary Committee, tried unsuccessfully to remove the assault weapons ban section from the crime bill. The National Rifle Association (NRA) opposed the ban. In November 1993, NRA spokesman Bill McIntyre said that assault weapons "are used in only 1 percent of all crimes". The low usage statistic was supported in a 1999 Department of Justice brief.
The legislation passed in September 1994 with the assault weapon ban section expiring in 2004 due to its sunset provision.
The Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Act (the Federal Assault Weapons Ban) was enacted as part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. The prohibitions expired on September 13, 2004.
The Act prohibited the manufacture, transfer, or possession of "semiautomatic assault weapons" as defined by the Act. "Weapons banned were identified either by specific make or model (including copies or duplicates thereof, in any caliber), or by specific characteristics that slightly varied according to whether the weapon was a pistol, rifle, or shotgun" (see below). The Act also prohibited the transfer and possession of "large capacity ammunition feeding devices" (LCAFDs). An LCAFD was defined as "any magazine, belt, drum, feed strip, or similar device manufactured after the date [of the act] that has the capacity of, or that can be readily restored or converted to accept, more than 10 rounds of ammunition."
The Act included a number of exemptions and exclusions from its prohibitions:The Act included a "grandfather clause" that allowed for the possession and transfer of weapons and ammunition that "were otherwise lawfully possessed on the date of enactment."
The Act exempted some 650 firearm types or models, including various types of Browning, Remington, and Beretta guns, as these were viewed as primarily "suitable for target practice, match competition, hunting, and similar sporting purposes. This list was not exhaustive and the act provided that the absence of a firearm from the exempted list did not mean it was banned unless it met the definition of 'semiautomatic assault weapon.'"
The Act "also exempted any firearm that (1) is manually operated by bolt, pump, lever, or slide action; (2) has been rendered permanently inoperable; or (3) is an antique firearm."
The Act "also did not apply to any semiautomatic rifle that cannot accept a detachable magazine that holds more than five rounds of ammunition nor any semiautomatic shotgun that cannot hold more than five rounds of ammunition in a fixed or detachable magazine."
The Act provided an exemption for the use of "semiautomatic assault weapons and LCAFDs to be manufactured for, transferred to, and possessed by law enforcement and for authorized testing or experimentation purposes," as well as transfers for federal-security purposes under the Atomic Energy Act, "as well as possession by retired law enforcement officers who are not otherwise a prohibited possessor under law."
In 1989, prior to the enactment of the 1994 legislation, the George H. W. Bush administration had banned the importation of foreign-made, semiautomatic rifles deemed not to have "a legitimate sporting use." It did not affect similar but domestically manufactured rifles. (The Gun Control Act of 1968 gives discretion to the Attorney General of the United States to choose whether to "authorize a firearm or ammunition to be imported or brought into the United States" under what is known as "the sporting purposes test.") Following the enactment of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, the ATF determined that "certain semiautomatic assault rifles could no longer be imported even though they were permitted to be imported under the 1989 'sporting purposes test' because they had been modified to remove all of their military features other than the ability to accept a detachable magazine," and so in April 1998 "prohibited the importation of 56 such rifles, determining that they did not meet the 'sporting purposes test.'"
Under the Assault Weapons Ban of 1994 the definition of "semiautomatic assault weapon" included specific semi-automatic firearm models by name, and other semi-automatic firearms= that possessed two or more from a set certain features:
Semi-automatic rifles able to accept detachable magazines and two or more
of the following:
Folding or telescoping stock
Flash suppressor, or threaded barrel designed to accommodate one
Grenade launcher mount
Semi-automatic pistols with detachable magazines and two or more
of the following:
Magazine that attaches outside the pistol grip
Threaded barrel to attach barrel extender, flash suppressor, handgrip, or suppressor
Barrel shroud safety feature that prevents burns to the operator
Unloaded weight of 50 oz (1.4 kg) or more
A semi-automatic version of a fully automatic firearm.
Semi-automatic shotguns with two or more
of the following:
Folding or telescoping stock
The ban defined the following semi-automatic firearms, as well as any copies or duplicates of them in any caliber, as assault weapons:
Gun control advocates and gun rights advocates have referred to at least some of the features outlined in the federal Assault Weapon Ban of 1994 as cosmetic. The NRA Institute for Legislative Action and the Violence Policy Center both used the term in publications they released in September 2004 when the ban expired. In May 2012, the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence said, "the inclusion in the list of features that were purely cosmetic in nature created a loophole that allowed manufacturers to successfully circumvent the law by making minor modifications to the weapons they already produced." The term was repeated in several stories after the 2012 Aurora shooting and Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
A February 2013 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report to Congress said that the "Assault Weapons Ban of 1994 was unsuccessfully challenged as violating several constitutional provisions." The report said that challenges to three constitutional provisions were easily dismissed. The ban did not make up an impermissible Bill of Attainder. It was not unconstitutionally vague. And it was ruled not incompatible with the Ninth Amendment by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Challenges to two other provisions took more time to decide.
In evaluating challenges to the ban under the Commerce Clause, the court first evaluated Congress' authority to regulate under the clause, and second analyzed the ban's prohibitions on manufacture, transfer, and possession. The court held that "it is not even arguable that the manufacture and transfer of 'semiautomatic assault weapons' for a national market cannot be regulated as activity substantially affecting interstate commerce." It also held that the "purpose of the ban on possession has an 'evident commercial nexus.'"
The law was also challenged under the Equal Protection Clause. It was argued that it banned some semi-automatic weapons that were functional equivalents of exempted semi-automatic weapons and that to do so based upon a mix of other characteristics served no legitimate governmental interest. The reviewing court held that it was "entirely rational for Congress ... to choose to ban those weapons commonly used for criminal purposes and to exempt those weapons commonly used for recreational purposes." It also found that each characteristic served to make the weapon "potentially more dangerous," and were not "commonly used on weapons designed solely for hunting."
The federal assault weapons ban was never directly challenged under the Second Amendment. Since its expiration in 2004 there has been debate on how it would fare in light of cases decided in following years, especially District of Columbia v. Heller (2008).
The Task Force on Community Preventive Services, an independent, non-federal task force, examined an assortment of firearms laws, including the AWB, and found "insufficient evidence to determine the effectiveness of any of the firearms laws reviewed for preventing violence". A 2004 critical review of firearms research by a National Research Council committee said that an academic study of the assault weapon ban "did not reveal any clear impacts on gun violence outcomes". The committee noted that the study's authors said the guns were used criminally with relative rarity before the ban and that its maximum potential effect on gun violence outcomes would be very small.
In 2004, a research report submitted to the United States Department of Justice and the National Institute of Justice found that should the ban be renewed, its effects on gun violence would likely be small, and perhaps too small for reliable measurement, because rifles in general, including rifles referred to as "assault rifles" or "assault weapons", are rarely used in gun crimes. That study by Christopher S. Koper, Daniel J. Woods, and Jeffrey A. Roth of the Jerry Lee Center of Criminology, University of Pennsylvania found no statistically significant evidence that either the assault weapons ban or the ban on magazines holding more than 10 rounds had reduced gun murders. However, they concluded that it was "premature to make definitive assessments of the ban's impact on gun crime," and argue that if the ban had been in effect for more than nine years, benefits might have begun to appear. Furthermore the authors also report that "there has been no discernible reduction in the lethality and injuriousness of gun violence, based on indicators like the percentage of gun crimes resulting in death or the share of gunfire incidents resulting in injury." A 2002 study by Koper and Roth found that around the time when the ban became law, assault weapon prices increased significantly, but this increase was reversed in the several months afterward due to a surge in assault weapons production that occurred just before the ban took effect. A study conducted by Dube in 2013, showed that the passing of the FAWB in 1994 had an insignificant impact on violent crime in Mexico, while the expiration of the FAWB in 2004 combined with political instability was correlated with an increase in gun-related homicides among Mexican municipalities near the border.
Research by John Lott found no impact of these bans on violent crime rates, but provided evidence that the bans may have reduced the number of gun shows by over 20 percent. Koper, Woods, and Roth studies focus on gun murders, while Lott's look at murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assaults. Unlike their work, Lott's research accounted for state assault weapon bans and 12 other different types of gun control laws.
The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence examined the impact of the Assault Weapons Ban in its 2004 report, On Target: The Impact of the 1994 Federal Assault Weapon Act. Examining 1.4 million guns involved in crime, "in the five-year period before enactment of the Federal Assault Weapons Act (1990-1994), assault weapons named in the Act constituted 4.82% of the crime gun traces ATF conducted nationwide. Since the law’s enactment, however, these assault weapons have made up only 1.61% of the guns ATF has traced to crime. Page 10 of the Brady report, however, adds that "an evaluation of copycat weapons is necessary". Including "copycat weapons", the report concluded that "in the post-ban period, the same group of guns has constituted 3.1% of ATF traces, a decline of 45%." A spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) stated that he "can in no way vouch for the validity" of the report.
A 2016 study also found no significant effects of pertaining to the federal assault weapons ban.
The assault weapons ban expired on September 13, 2004. Legislation to renew or replace the ban was proposed numerous times unsuccessfully.
Between May 2003 and June 2008, U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-CA, and Representatives Michael Castle, R-DE, Alcee Hastings, D-FL, and Mark Kirk, R-IL, introduced bills to reauthorize the ban. During the same time, Senator Frank Lautenberg, D-NJ, and Representative Carolyn McCarthy, D-NY, introduced similar bills to create a new ban with a revised definition for assault weapons. None of the bills left committee.
After the November 2008 election, the website of President-elect Barack Obama, listed a detailed agenda for the forthcoming administration. The stated positions included "making the expired federal Assault Weapons Ban permanent." Three months later, newly sworn-in Attorney General Eric Holder reiterated the Obama administration's desire to reinstate the ban. The mention came in response to a question during a joint press conference with DEA Acting Administrator Michele Leonhart, discussing efforts to crack down on Mexican drug cartels. Attorney General Holder said: "... there are just a few gun-related changes that we would like to make, and among them would be to reinstitute the ban on the sale of assault weapons."
Efforts to pass a new federal assault weapons ban were made in December 2012 after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. On January 24, 2013, Senator Feinstein introduced S. 150, the Assault Weapons Ban of 2013 (AWB 2013). The bill was similar to the 1994 ban, but differed in that it would not expire after 10 years, and it used a one-feature test for a firearm to qualify as an assault weapon rather than the two-feature test of the defunct ban. The GOP Congressional delegation from the State of Texas condemned Feinstein's bill, along with the NRA. On March 14, 2013, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a version of the bill along party lines. On April 17, 2013, AWB 2013 failed on a Senate vote of 40 to 60.