During a Facebook Live appearance with WMUR’s Adam Sexton, Rep. Chris Pappas repeated his support for an assault weapons ban, saying, “I think our country was safer when we had an assault weapons ban on the books, in the 1990s.”
Supporting a ban on assault weapons is a commonly held position among liberal Democrats like Pappas. Still, his claims about crime rates and the previous assault weapons ban are off the mark.
One technical point gun rights supporters point out immediately is that there is no such thing as an “assault weapon.”
As Lois Beckett with left-leaning Pro Publica wrote, the term “assault weapon” is a “politically defined category of guns — a selection of rifles, shotguns and handguns with ‘military-style’ features.” The phrase “assault weapon” has no more concrete meaning than “assault knife” or “assault hand grenade.”
But that’s irrelevant to the argument Rep. Pappas made, which is that the nation was safer when the sale of weapons in the style of the AR-15 — the most popular rifle in America — was banned. Is he right?
President Clinton signed an assault weapons ban into law in 1994, one with a sunset provision under which the law expired after 10 years. Democrats assumed that support for gun control would only grow, and therefore the ban would be renewed. Instead, support for gun rights grew and the law expired in 2004.
Did America get safer under the assault weapons ban?
“Pappas may think we were safer in the 1990s, but he should check the FBI Uniform crime states,” Cam Edwards of BearingArms.com told NHJournal. “Both our violent crime rate and our homicide rates are lower now than they were at any time during the Biden Gun Ban.” (Joe Biden was an active supporter of the ban in 1994 and supports one today, too.)
According to FBI statistics, the violent crime rate fell by 35 percent between 1994 and 2004. But it fell another 21 percent in the 10 years after the ban. Guns sales soared during that same decade, even as crime fell.
In 2016, the gun homicide rate was about half of what it was in the early 1990s, according to a Wall Street Journal report.
A 1997 National Institute of Justice report found “the evidence is not strong enough for us to conclude that there was any meaningful effect (i.e., that the effect was different from zero).” And a Department of Justice report in 2004 drew a similar conclusion: “We cannot clearly credit the ban with any of the nation’s recent drop in gun violence. And, indeed, there has been no discernible reduction in the lethality and injuriousness of gun violence.”
The real story of guns and crime of the past 20 years is that the number of guns legally purchased in the U.S. has soared, while the crime rate has fallen. According to the Congressional Research Service, there are 300 million guns in the U.S., roughly twice as many guns per capita as there were in 1968. And that includes a huge surge in the number of “assault weapons.”
At the same time, violent crime and gun homicides have steadily fallen since their peak in the early 1990s.
As a result, says David Harsanyi, author of a book about America’s gun laws called First Freedom, there isn’t any evidence to back up Pappas’ contention that we were safer in the 1990s. “The drop in gun violence began before the ‘assault weapon’ ban. Once the ban sunset, the AR-15 quickly became the most popular rifle in the country, but gun violence continued to fall to historic lows.
“Today, the AR-15 is rarely used in criminality. More people are killed with knives than AR-15s every year,” Harsanyi said.