Federal Law on Assault Weapons

Posted on May 17, 2012

On September 13, 1994, Congress adopted the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.1 That Act amended the Gun Control Act of 1968, making it “unlawful for a person to manufacture, transfer, or possess a semiautomatic assault weapon.”2

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.3 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.4 (Additional information about large capacity ammunition magazines is contained in Federal Law on Large Capacity Ammunition Magazines.)

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. The 2007 report by the International Association of Chiefs of Police recommended that Congress enact an effective ban on military-style assault weapons.5

Click here to view additional information about assault weapons, including background information and state and local laws on the topic.

  1. Pub. L. No. 103-322, 108 Stat. 1796 (1994). []
  2. 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.) []
  3. 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(30). []
  4. 18 U.S.C. §§ 921(a)(31), 922(w)(1). []
  5. See International Association of Chiefs of Police, Taking a Stand: Reducing Gun Violence in Our Communities 26-7 (Sept. 2007). []