Civil Rights

Assault Weapons and Mass Shootings

The year 2012 was a terrible year for mass shootings involving assault weapons. The Sandy Hook elementary school shooting killed 20 young children and six teachers. The Portland Mall shooting left three dead, including the gunman. In the mass shooting at the Aurora movie theater, 12 people were killed and 58 injured. At a Sikh temple in suburban Milwaukee, six were killed.

Statistics like this refocus attention on a federal ban on assault weapons.

Assault Weapons Are Military Weapons

Assault weapons are civilian versions of military weapons. They are a class of semi-automatic firearms that requires a single pull of the trigger for each shot fired, with the next round loaded automatically. Rounds are typically stored in an ammunition clip. Because someone using an assault weapon can fire many more shots before needing to reload, the shooter can kill a lot of people in a short time.

The vast majority of mass shootings in the last three decades involved assault weapons and semiautomatic handguns, three-fourths of which were legally obtained.

Arguments For and Against

Supporter of gun control want to see restrictions on assault weapons as well as ammunition magazines, saying that these restrictions would cut the number of mass shootings.

Gun-rights advocates believe that additional restrictions could be a first step toward disarmament of the American people and argue, instead, for expansion of the number of places where individuals with valid permits may carry their guns. They claim that “gun free zones” - like schools, government buildings, shopping malls and bars - prevent law-abiding people in these settings from using their own guns to protect themselves and others against a mass shooter.

Current Rules on Assault Weapons

A 10-year ban on the manufacture and sale of assault weapons and ammunition magazines that held more than 10 rounds went into effect in 1994 and expired in 2004.

If a person wants to buy an assault weapon or any other firearm in the United States, the gun store must first get permission for the sale from the FBI or its state counterpart. Permission is denied for nine categories of “prohibited persons,” including felons, those convicted of domestic violence, and persons who have been judged to be mentally ill or alcoholic by the courts.

However, the law does not cover private sales of guns, including transactions by “occasional sellers” at gun shows and flea markets.

Although many local governments and a handful of states ban assault weapons, state legislatures have been steadily loosening gun laws over the past decade. States are issuing permits for carrying guns on college campuses (five states) and other public places, for carrying guns openly (15 states, with a license), for bringing guns into bars (four states) and for leaving guns in locked cars in parking lots. State “stand your ground” laws like those in Florida permit people to shoot to kill when they feel threatened.

Proposed Rules on Assault Weapons

Following the rash of mass shootings in 2012, especially the shooting of 6- and 7-year-olds at Sandy Hook Elementary School, there is an increased call to reinstate and strengthen federal and state assault weapons bans. In anticipation of such actions, sales of assault weapons are at an all-time high.

The governor of Colorado, where both the Columbine and Aurora shootings took place, will introduce legislation in 2013 to ban assault-style weapons, limit magazine sizes, further restrict sales to those with mental-health issues and restrict guns on college campuses (which is currently legal in Colorado).

A Lawyer Can Help

The law surrounding sale, purchase and ownership of assault weapons is complicated. Plus, the facts of each case are unique. This article provides a brief, general introduction to the topic. For more detailed, specific information about the rights and responsibilities of gun ownership in this volatile legislative environment, please contact a lawyer.

Have a civil rights question?
Get answers from local attorneys.
It's free and easy.
Ask a Lawyer

Get Professional Help

Find a Civil Liberties lawyer
Practice Area:
Zip Code:
How It Works
  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Connect with local attorneys

Talk to a Civil Rights attorney.

How It Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you