The House of Representatives is expected to vote this week on H.R. 1808, which would ban the production and sale of "assault weapons." That category includes semi-automatic rifles with features such as pistol grips, folding or adjustable stocks, barrel shrouds, and threaded barrels. The bill also would ban a long list of models by name. Setting the stage for the vote on H.R. 1808, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform today grilled manufacturers of the targeted rifles, emphasizing that they make money by selling the guns that Democrats want to ban, a fact the bill's supporters view as self-evidently scandalous.
The Democrats on the committee offered little evidence to support that perspective. In particular, they failed to show that "assault weapons" are especially likely to be used for criminal purposes, as opposed to lawful purposes such as self-defense or sport, or that prohibiting the features listed in the proposed ban can reasonably be expected to have a meaningful impact on gun violence.
In a press release she issued today, committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D–N.Y.) repeatedly asserts that "AR-15-style assault rifles" are "the weapons of choice for murderers responsible for America's deadly mass shootings." She reiterated that claim at the hearing, calling such rifles "the weapon of choice in most mass murders."
That is clearly not true. According to a recent National Institute of Justice report on public mass shootings from 1966 through 2019, 77 percent of the perpetrators used handguns. About a quarter of the perpetrators used weapons that would be covered by legislation like H.R. 1808.
Mass shootings represent a tiny share of all gun homicides—somewhere between 0.2 percent and 2.6 percent of the total in 2020, depending on how mass shootings are defined. Contrary to Maloney's claim, handguns account for the vast majority of firearms used in mass shootings, and they account for an even larger share of weapons used in all gun homicides: more than 90 percent in cases where the type of firearm was specified, according to the FBI's 2019 data. Rifles of any sort, only a subset of which would qualify as "assault weapons," were used in less than 3 percent of those cases.
Prior to the federal "assault weapon" ban that expired in 2004, according to a widely cited study published that year, guns covered by such laws "were used in only a small fraction of gun crimes"—"about 2% according to most studies and no more than 8%." Most of those were pistols rather than rifles.
It is clear from these data that the rifles Maloney wants to ban, contrary to the impression she is trying to create, are rarely used to commit crimes. Given the popularity of such firearms, it follows that they are overwhelmingly used for lawful purposes.
"AR-15 rifles are among the most popular firearms in the nation, and they are owned by millions of Americans," the Firearms Policy Coalition notes in a lawsuit challenging New York's "assault weapon" ban. "A recent survey of gun owners indicates that about 24.6 million Americans have owned up to 44 million AR-15 or similar rifles….And according to industry sources, more than one out of every five firearms sold in recent years were rifles of the type banned by New York."
Maloney unwittingly underlines this point by complaining about rising sales of such rifles. "Gun manufacturers collected more than $1 billion from the sale of AR-15-style semiautomatic weapons in the last decade," she says, "and sales are increasing as gun deaths and mass shootings rise."
The New York Times likewise implies a causal connection between sales of these firearms and recent increases in gun homicides. "The leading manufacturers of assault rifles used to perpetrate the deadliest mass shootings in the United States have collected more than $1 billion in revenue over the past decade as gun violence across the country has surged," it says.
But for much of that decade, the homicide rate in the United States was flat or falling. It rose slightly in 2019, then jumped by 29 percent in 2020. Even on its face, that trend does not support the theory that Maloney and the Times are pushing.
Furthermore, that theory cannot possibly be true unless "assault weapons" played a major role in 2020 homicides. But according to a Pew Research Center analysis of FBI data, the share of homicides involving any sort of rifle in 2020 was similar to the percentage in 2019.
The Times seems unfazed by those numbers. Its reference to "gun violence across the country" includes a link to a March 23 story about the "surge in U.S. shootings." Although the story is illustrated by a photo of a man buying a rifle at a gun store, the article says nothing about "assault weapons." It opens with descriptions of three shootings but does not specify the firearms that were used.
Maloney today demanded that rifle manufacturers "apologize to the victims" of crimes committed with their products. "When someone pulls the trigger, you refuse to accept responsibility," she complained. The continued sale of "assault weapons," she said, is "the very definition of putting profits over people." Given the data on firearms used in homicides, including mass shootings, the same dubious logic would apply with much greater force to handgun manufacturers.
Yet the Supreme Court has said that the right to own handguns, which it described as "the quintessential self-defense weapon," is guaranteed by the Second Amendment, notwithstanding the prominent role that such firearms play in homicides. More generally, it said the Second Amendment covers bearable arms "in common use" for "lawful purposes," a description that plainly applies to the rifles that Maloney wants to ban, which play a much smaller role in violent crime.
Antonia Okafor, national director of women's outreach at Gun Owners of America (GOA), illustrated those lawful purposes by explaining why AR-15-style rifles are useful for self-defense. "The AR-15 allows women to have a larger firearm without having to absorb the recoil as much as one does with a smaller handheld firearm," she told the committee. "The AR-15 makes it easier for those who have a physical disadvantage [relative] to the attacker to have the upper hand. Having a rifle allows me the advantage of being able to shoot the attacker from much farther away than a standard handgun."
Okafor added that she is "the proud owner" of a Daniel Defense rifle, which is "by far lighter than any other rifle I own." She said it is "easier for me to hold" and does "an incredible job of absorbing the impact after each trigger pull." Those characteristics are appealing to elderly gun owners as well as women, she said, citing a GOA member who "use[d] an AR-15 to effectively stop a mass shooter" at his church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, five years ago.
Okafor also mentioned a 2019 incident in which "a woman in her ninth month of pregnancy" used "her family's AR-15" to "stop two armed attackers in her home." And she cited "a black Army veteran" who used an AR-15 to protect his family by "fend[ing] off two intruders from his home."
Such examples may not prove that AR-15-style rifles are superior to the alternatives for self-defense. But Maloney and likeminded politicians suggest they are good for nothing but mass murder, which is obviously not true. Maloney et al. want to limit gun buyers' choices based on that false premise.
As Rep. Andrew Clyde (R–Ga.) noted during the hearing, the distinctions drawn by H.R. 1808 make little sense if the aim is to reduce mass-shooting deaths. Under that bill, for example, a semi-automatic rifle that accepts detachable magazines would be illegal if it had a threaded barrel, a barrel shroud, or a folding stock. Yet removing those features would not make the rifle less deadly: It would still fire the same ammunition at the same rate with the same muzzle velocity.
President Joe Biden, who brags about supporting the expired 1994 "assault weapon" ban, nevertheless concedes that it left lots of equally lethal firearms on the market. He wants to "stop gun manufacturers from circumventing the law by making minor modifications to their products—modifications that leave them just as deadly." But those gun manufacturers were not "circumventing the law"; they were complying with the law, which required changes that, by Biden's own admission, left firearms "just as deadly." H.R. 1881 does not solve that problem, which is inherent in the arbitrary definition of "assault weapons."