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Assault weapons ban (USA)

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In some parts of the United States, possession of unregistered assault weapons (also known as "assault-style weapons") is prohibited at the state level. At the federal level, there are restrictions on the new manufacture of assault weapons and large capacity magazines.

Since the early 1990s there has been much discussion in the United States of banning assault weapons. The discussion has been clouded by some ambiguity concerning the term "assault weapon", because of its similarity to the term "assault rifle" which refers specifically to fully automatic weapons. Such weapons (assault rifles) have been illegal in the United States, except by special permit, since 1933, yet discussion of a ban on "assault weapons" in the media often confused the assault-style weapons actually under discussion with the fully automatic weapons which were already illegal. Many Americans do not realize that the ban had nothing to do with automatic weapons or machine guns.

Classification of assault-style weapons, being based on general physical characteristics, has proven extremely difficult. When a weapon is banned as an assault weapon, the manufacturer is often successful in making minor changes to its physical appearance which render it legal again. As a result, laws banning assault weapons have been subjected to several revisions since they were first passed.

Federal restrictions

In 1994, it became unlawful to manufacture an assault weapon or large capacity magazine except for export or for sale to a government or law enforcement agency. The federal definition of assault weapon includes the following points of physical similarity to military weapons:
  • A semiautomatic rifle that can accept a detachable magazine and has more than one of the following features: pistol grip, folding or telescoping stock, flash suppressor, threaded barrel, grenade launcher, or bayonet lug.
  • A semiautomatic shotgun that has more than one of the following features: pistol grip, folding or telescoping stock, detachable magazine, fixed magazine capacity of more than 5 rounds.
  • A semiautomatic pistol that can accept a detachable magazine that has more than one of the following features: magazine attaches to the pistol outside the grip, threaded barrel, weight of 1.42 kg or more unloaded, barrel shroud, or a semiautomatic version of a fully automatic firearm.

This law has been criticized as being ineffective because the particular features that are prohibited do not greatly enhance the capabilities of a given weapon.

State Restrictions

California is one state that has enacted particularly strict rules regarding assault weapons. In California, several different categories of weapons are classified as assault weapons. The first category includes weapons listed by manufacturer and model on a list that went into effect in 1989. The law was passed in response to a Stockton schoolyard shooting by a mentally ill individual who killed or wounded over 30 people with an AK series rifle. The list includes most modern military rifles, such as the Colt[?] AR-15 series and clones, AK series and clones, Uzi series, Heckler und Koch HK91, HK53, HK94, and others. This first category could not be purchased after July 1989, and had to be registered with the state no later than January 1, 1990. In response, some manufacturers simply changed the names of their products to circumvent the ban, such as the Colt Sporter (AR-15) and imported SAR-1 (AK series).

The legislature responded by passing a far tougher law that defined assault weapons based on their characteristics, which are very similar to the federal characteristics listed above. An additional restriction is on semiautomatic rifles shorter than 762 mm (30 inches), and any shotgun with a revolving cylinder. These weapons could not be purchased after January 1, 2000, and had to be registered before January 2001. In addition, any weapon that is part of the AR-15 series or AK series is also an assault weapon, regardless of manufacturer. There are few exceptions to the law. Assault weapons may only be possessed if properly registered with the state. No new assault weapons may be manufactured, purchased, or imported into California except by licensed dealers or manufacturers for sale to law enforcement agencies or the federal government, or by production companies for use in movies. Certain pistols sanctioned for use by the International Olympic Committee are excepted from the Assault Weapons Control Act. A permit process does exist at the Department of Justice, but the DOJ's internal policy is to issue permits to no one except movie prop companies. The California law is fairly typical for a state-level regulation of assault weapons.

Despite purporting to make California a safer place, it is questionable whether the AWCA has accomplished anything more than making state legislators feel good about themselves. Both sides agree that there are many firearms that are legal in California that are functionally identical to prohibited weapons. Ironically, the 1999 ban on the new purchase of high capacity magazines probably accomplished more than the entire AWCA by making is illegal to import any magazine over 10 rounds into California. Still, both sides agree that the law needs to be revised to make it more clear so ordinary people can understand what is and is not an assault weapon.

When the act was being debated in the legislature, the Association of California Cities, a prominent supporter, said that California law enforcement agencies feared that some groups in large cities might undertake successful rebellions against civil order if armed with modern weapons. Prominent members of black churches in L.A., as well as Senators Boxer (D-CA) and Feinstein (D-CA), have said that the only real purpose of such weapons is to kill large numbers of people, and therefore there is no reason to permit them.

Others have advocated possession of rifles for self-defense as well as a last-resort defense against government tyranny, invasion, or insurrection. Members of the California Rifle and Pistol Association, a prominent outdoorsman's organization, see civilian style "assault weapons" as collectors' items, or realistic training aids for civilian enthusiasts.

Based on engineering differences, ease of modification, and their high level of expertise, CRPA members see nothing special about assault weapons except their appearance, which is exactly what the collectors and civil defense enthusiasts want, and what the legislature wants to prohibit. The legislature has thus been accused of being paternalistic and somewhat frivolous for creating the Assault Weapons Control Act.

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