Posted on May 21, 2012
Click here to see current summaries of all fifty states’ laws in this area.
The following material has been updated from the Law Center’s February 2008 edition of Regulating Guns in America – An Evaluation and Comparative Analysis of Federal, State and Selected Local Gun Laws.
Assault weapons are a class of semi-automatic firearms designed with military features to allow rapid and accurate spray firing. They are not designed for “sport;” they are designed to kill humans quickly and efficiently. Features such as pistol grips and the ability to accept a detachable magazine clearly distinguish assault weapons from standard sporting firearms by enabling assault weapons to spray large amounts of fire quickly and accurately.
Assault weapons have been used in many high-profile shooting incidents, including the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Colorado, the 1993 office shooting at the 101 California Street building in San Francisco, and the December 2007 shopping mall killings in Omaha, Nebraska. Some assault rifles are also accurate enough for use as sniper rifles, as illustrated by the Washington, D.C.-area sniper shootings in October 2002.
A recent study analyzing FBI data shows that 20% of the law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty from 1998 to 2001 were killed with an assault weapon.1 Anecdotal evidence from law enforcement leaders suggests that military-style assault weapons are increasingly being used against law enforcement by drug dealers and gang members.2 In response, law enforcement agencies are upgrading their arsenals to include more assault weapons.3
There is widespread public support for banning assault weapons. For example, 77% of likely 2004 presidential election voters supported renewal of the federal assault weapon ban, while only 21% opposed renewal.4 Sixty-five percent of Americans favored strengthening the federal assault weapon ban, including 51% of gun owners.5 Sixty-seven percent of Field & Stream readers did not consider assault weapons to be legitimate sporting guns.6
Summary of Federal Law
On September 13, 1994, Congress adopted the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. That Act amended the Gun Control Act of 1968, making it “unlawful for a person to manufacture, transfer, or possess a semiautomatic assault weapon.”7
The term “semiautomatic assault weapon” was defined to include 19 named firearms and copies of those firearms, as well as certain semi-automatic rifles, pistols and shotguns with at least two specified characteristics from a list of features.8 The two-feature test and 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 1994 Act also banned the transfer and possession of any “large capacity ammunition feeding device,” defined to include magazines manufactured after the enactment of the Act that are capable of holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition.9
The 1994 Act did not, however, prohibit the continued transfer or possession of assault weapons or large capacity ammunition magazines manufactured before the law’s effective date. Manufacturers took advantage of this loophole by boosting production of assault weapons and large capacity magazines in the months leading up to the ban, creating a legal stockpile of these items. As a result, assault weapons and large capacity magazines continued to be readily available – and legal – nationwide, except where specifically banned by state or local law.
In addition, the assault weapon ban was enacted with a sunset clause, providing for its expiration after ten years. Despite overwhelming public support for its renewal, Congress and the President allowed the assault weapon ban to expire on September 13, 2004. Thus, semi-automatic, military style weapons that were formerly banned under the federal law are now legal unless banned by state or local law.10
SUMMARY OF STATE ASSAULT WEAPON LAWS
(This summary was last updated August 13, 2012.)
Seven states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws banning assault weapons: California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York. In addition, Maryland, Minnesota and Virginia regulate assault weapons.
Assault weapon bans can be categorized according to: (1) the definition(s) of “assault weapon”; (2) the activities that are prohibited; (3) whether pre-ban weapons are grandfathered; (4) whether grandfathered weapons must be registered; and (5) how transfer and possession of grandfathered weapons are treated.
District of Columbia22
States that include a list of assault weapons banned by name
District of Columbia
Maryland (assault pistols)
States that provide a generic feature definition of assault weapon (asterisks indicate states that use a one-feature test)
District of Columbia*
Hawaii (assault pistols only)
States that require registration of grandfathered weapons
States that generally prohibit the transfer of grandfathered weapons
States that limit the places a grandfathered weapon may be possessed or require a license for possession
New Jersey (license)
Description of State Laws Banning Assault Weapons
1. Definition: Most state assault weapon bans prohibit specific weapons by listing them by name. Some bans also list features that, when present, make a gun an assault weapon. These are known as generic feature tests. Generic feature tests, emphasizing high capacity and enhanced control during firing, are intended to identify assault weapons based on the military features that enhance a weapon’s lethality. Generic feature tests that require a weapon to have only one of a list of features are more comprehensive than those that require two. A one-feature test captures more assault weapons and makes it harder for the gun industry to evade the law by modifying a banned weapon.
California and the District of Columbia have the most comprehensive approaches to defining assault weapons. California law also bans roughly 75 assault weapon types, models and series by name and provides a one-feature generic test for rifles and pistols.23 The District of Columbia includes a list of assault weapon types, models and series by name that closely follows the California list, and provides a one-feature generic test for rifles, pistols and shotguns. The District also allows its Chief of Police to designate a firearm as an assault weapon based on a determination that the firearm would pose the same or similar danger to the residents of the District as other assault weapons.
New Jersey bans roughly 65 assault weapon types, models and series and uses a one-feature generic test for shotguns.24 New Jersey also bans parts that may be readily assembled into an assault weapon.
The generic feature tests in most other bans, including the expired federal ban, are two-feature tests.25 Connecticut, Hawaii (assault pistols only), Massachusetts and New York use the definition of “assault weapon” from the expired federal law. Connecticut and Hawaii use the generic feature definition from the federal law, but do not include a list of named weapons. Massachusetts and New York use both the federal law’s generic feature definition and its list of named weapons.
2. Prohibited Activities: Assault weapon bans vary as to which activities are prohibited. California and Connecticut prohibit the broadest range of activities. Both prohibit possession, distribution, importation, transportation, and keeping or offering for sale of assault weapons.26 In addition, California prohibits the manufacture and transfer of assault weapons, while Connecticut also prohibits giving an assault weapon to another person. New Jersey’s law is also comprehensive, prohibiting the manufacture, transportation, sale, shipping, transfer, disposing and possession of assault weapons. The District of Columbia prohibits the possession, sale or other transfer of assault weapons.
3. Grandfathering: Assault weapon bans differ in their treatment of pre-ban weapons. Each state grandfathers pre-ban weapons. However, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland and New Jersey also require registration of such weapons.27 New Jersey’s law is particularly strong because only assault weapons with a legitimate target-shooting purpose may be registered (effectively requiring over 60 models, types and series of assault weapons to be transferred out of state, rendered inoperable, or surrendered to law enforcement). California, Connecticut, Hawaii, and Maryland prohibit transfer of all or most grandfathered weapons. Only California and Connecticut limit the places where a grandfathered weapon may be possessed.28 In Massachusetts and New Jersey, grandfathered weapons may only be sold and possessed if the owner has a license. The District of Columbia does not grandfather pre-ban weapons.
Description of State Regulations Governing Assault Weapons
1. Maryland: In addition to its ban on assault pistols, Maryland also regulates the sale of other assault weapons, defined to include a list of specified firearms or their copies. Assault weapons are defined as “regulated firearms” under state law, and transfers are subject to various regulations, including: requiring enhanced background checks on purchasers; requiring dealers to obtain a state license; and requiring private transfers to be processed through licensed dealers or a law enforcement agency. Additionally, purchasers: (1) must be age 21 or older; (2) are subject to a seven-day waiting period; and (3) are limited to one assault weapon in any 30-day period.29
2. Minnesota: Minnesota prohibits the possession of “semiautomatic military-style assault weapons” by persons under 18 years of age, as well as other prohibited persons, and imposes additional restrictions on transfers through firearms dealers.
3. Virginia: Virginia limits the knowing and intentional possession and transportation of certain semi-automatic “assault firearms” to citizens and permanent residents age 18 and older. These weapons may not be carried, loaded, in public places in certain cities and counties. Virginia also imposes a general ban on the importation, sale, possession and transfer of the “Striker 12” and semi-automatic folding stock shotguns of like kind, but does not refer to them as “assault firearms.”
District of Columbia Regulations Governing Assault Weapons
The District of Columbia imposes strict tort liability on manufacturers, importers and dealers of assault weapons for all direct and consequential damages that arise from injury or death due to the discharge of an assault weapon in the District (with limited exceptions).30
EXEMPLARY LOCAL LAW
Cook County, Illinois31
Adopted by Cook County, Illinois, in 1993, the Blair Holt Assault Weapons Ban prohibits the manufacture, sale, transfer, or possession of an assault weapon or large capacity magazine in Cook County, Illinois. The Ban was adopted in 1993, but was amended and renamed in memory of Blair Holt, a 16-year-old boy who was shot and killed as a bystander when gang violence erupted on a bus in 2007. The law includes an extensive list of prohibited assault weapon types, models and series, and provides a one-feature test identifying other rifles, shotguns, and pistols as assault weapons. The 1993 ordinance enacting this law provided that any person who was legally in possession of an assault weapon or large capacity magazine at that time had 90 days to: (1) remove it from the County; (2) modify it so it was rendered either inoperable or so changed that it would fall outside the definition of “assault weapon” or “large capacity magazine;” or (3) surrender it to law enforcement. Only law enforcement officers and members of the military are now allowed to possess assault weapons or large capacity magazines in the County.
FEATURES OF COMPREHENSIVE LAW BANNING ASSAULT WEAPONS
The features listed below are intended to provide a framework from which policy options may be considered and debated. The Law Center has not attempted to include every provision or every creative approach identified in the analysis above, nor have we addressed appropriate exceptions so that the regulation does not produce unintended consequences. A jurisdiction considering modifying existing, or developing new legislation in this area should consult with counsel to ensure its legal sufficiency and compatibility with existing codes and statutes, as appropriate.
- Definition of assault weapon is based on the generic features that characterize assault weapons (California, New Jersey and the District of Columbia have the most comprehensive definitions)
- Definition of assault weapon is based on a one-feature test (The District of Columbia and Cook County each use a one-feature test for shotguns, rifles, and pistols; New Jersey uses a one-feature test for shotguns; California uses a one-feature test for rifles and pistols)
- Although a generic feature test is the most comprehensive approach, if the law also includes a list of banned weapons by name, it provides a mechanism authorizing an appropriate governmental official or agency to add new and/or modified models to the list (District of Columbia)
- Prohibited activities include possession, sale, purchase, transfer, loan, pledge, transportation, distribution, importation, and manufacture of assault weapons (California, Connecticut and New Jersey have the broadest prohibitions)
- Pre-ban weapons are not grandfathered and instead are to be rendered inoperable or removed from the jurisdiction (District of Columbia, Cook County)
- Alternatively, if pre-ban weapons are grandfathered, there is a registration mechanism for grandfathered weapons, with strict limits on their transferability, use and storage32 (California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, New Jersey)
View the Law Center’s 2004 Model Law to Ban Assault Weapons.
- Violence Policy Center, “Officer Down” — Assault Weapons and the War on Law Enforcement, Section One: Assault Weapons, the Gun Industry, and Law Enforcement (May 2003), available at http://www.vpc.org/studies/officeone.htm. [↩]
- International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), Taking a Stand: Reducing Gun Violence in Our Communities 26-7 (Sept. 2007). [↩]
- See, e.g., Susan Candiotti, Cops Find Themselves in Arms Race with Criminals, Cable News Network, Nov. 6, 2007, available at http://www.cnn.com/2007/US/11/05/cops.guns/index.html (last visited Nov. 26, 2007); Kevin Johnson, Police Needing Heavier Weapons, USA Today, Feb. 20, 2007, at 1A. [↩]
- Third Way, Taking Back the Second Amendment: Seven Steps Progressives Must Take to Close the Gun Gap 5 (Jan. 2006), available at http://third-way.com/data/product/file/21/taking_back_2nd_amendment.pdf. [↩]
- Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Strongly Support Renewing and Strengthening the Federal Assault Weapons Ban 3 (Feb. 2004). [↩]
- Field & Stream, The 2003 National Hunting Survey (July 2003). [↩]
- 18 U.S.C. § 922(v)(1). All references to sections of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, codified at 18 U.S.C. § 921 et seq., are to the sections as they appeared on September 12, 2004. [↩]
- 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(30). [↩]
- 18 U.S.C. §§ 921(a)(31), 922(w)(1). Additional information about large capacity ammunition magazines is contained in our Large Capacity Ammunition Magazines policy summary. [↩]
- The 2007 report by the International Association of Chiefs of Police recommended that Congress enact an effective ban on military-style assault weapons. See, Taking a Stand: Reducing Gun Violence in Our Communities, supra note 2, at 26-7. [↩]
- Cal. Penal Code §§ 16350, 16790, 16890, 30500-31115. [↩]
- Conn. Gen. Stat. §§ 53-202a – 53-202o. [↩]
- D.C. Code Ann. §§ 7-2501.01(3A), 7-2502.02(a)(6), 7-2505.01, 7-2505.02(a), (c). [↩]
- Haw. Rev. Stat. Ann. §§ 134-1, 134-4, 134-8. [↩]
- Md. Code Ann., Crim. Law §§ 4-301 – 4-306. [↩]
- Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 140, §§ 121, 122, 123, 131, 131M. [↩]
- N.J. Stat. Ann. §§ 2C:39-1w, 2C:39-5, 2C:58-5, 2C:58-12, 2C:58-13. [↩]
- N.Y. Penal Law §§ 265.00(22), 265.02(7), 265.10. [↩]
- Md. Code Ann., Pub. Safety § 5-101(p). [↩]
- Minn. Stat. §§ 624.712 – 624.7141. [↩]
- Va. Code Ann. §§ 18.2-287.4, 18.2-308.2:01, 18.2-308.2:2, 18.2-308.7, 18.2-308.8. [↩]
- D.C. Code Ann. §§ 7-2551.01 – 7-2551.03. [↩]
- California’s definition of assault weapon also includes a semi-automatic, centerfire rifle or pistol with a fixed magazine capacity exceeding 10 rounds; a semi-automatic, centerfire rifle less than 30 inches in length; and a semi-automatic shotgun with two listed features, or the ability to accept a detachable magazine, or a revolving cylinder. [↩]
- New Jersey also bans semi-automatic rifles with a fixed magazine capacity exceeding 15 rounds. [↩]
- Like the expired federal assault weapon ban, many of the state bans also include in their generic feature definitions some features that are purely cosmetic, such as bayonet mounts and grenade launchers. Defining a firearm as an assault weapon based on such cosmetic features creates a loophole, making it possible for manufacturers to evade the ban by making cosmetic modifications to their weapons. [↩]
- In 2006 California amended its law to make possession of an assault weapon a public nuisance. Cal. Penal Code § 30800. [↩]
- Registration is critical to any law that exempts pre-ban weapons. Without such a provision, it would be nearly impossible to enforce a possession ban because there would be no way to determine the date an individual acquired possession of a banned weapon. [↩]
- California and Connecticut allow possession of a grandfathered assault weapon only at, or when being transported among: the possessor’s property or workplace; the property of an expressly-consenting owner; a licensed gun dealer (for service or repair); certain target ranges; licensed shooting clubs; or an exhibition, display or education project about firearms approved by law enforcement or a recognized firearm-education entity. Cal. Penal Code § 30945; Conn. Gen. Stat. § 53-202d(d). California also allows possession of a grandfathered assault weapon on publicly owned land, provided it is specifically permitted by the managing authority. Cal. Penal Code § 30945. [↩]
- See Md. Code Ann., Pub. Safety §§ 5-101 – 5-143. [↩]
- D.C. Code Ann. §§ 7-2551.01 – 7-2551.03. In 2005, Congress passed and the President signed into law the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA). The PLCAA grants firearms dealers and others immunity from some civil lawsuits, with certain exceptions. 15 U.S.C. §§ 7901 – 7903. [↩]
- Cook County Code of Ordinances §§ 54-211 – 54-213. [↩]
- See our Registration of Firearms policy summary for features of comprehensive registration laws. The most comprehensive system of regulating the purchase, possession and ownership of firearms combines registration of firearms with licensing of gun owners. Additional information on licensing of firearm owners is contained in our Licensing of Gun Owners or Purchasers policy summary. [↩]