Last Friday, the House of Representatives passed the first federal “assault weapons” sales ban in nearly 30 years.
The vote comes after a spate of recent mass shootings that included the massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. It is the culmination of a string of gun-control measures that have moved through the Democratically controlled body of Congress. It is also the most aggressive one.
The bill makes it illegal to make or sell “assault weapons,” which it defines as semi-automatic centerfire rifles capable of accepting a detachable magazine and featuring one or more banned accessories, such as a pistol grip, adjustable stock or flash suppressor. It also bans certain semi-automatic shotguns and handguns. It is modeled after the 1994 federal ban that expired in 2004, though it is significantly broader than that ban, which allowed one banned accessory.
While the bill affects many guns, the real target is the ubiquitous AR-15. In other words, it seeks to end the sale of the most popular rifle in the country.
Advocates for the ban argue it will help prevent future mass shootings since attackers used them during some of the highest-profile attacks, including the recent Uvalde shooting—although most mass shooters use handguns.
Of course, the House vote will likely be little more than a symbolic effort. Proponents of the ban do not have the necessary 60 votes in the Senate to move it forward. The bill’s companion legislation has only 37 co-sponsors.
So, the vote is intended to send a message rather than to implement policy. Democrats, who voted nearly unanimously for the bill, want to appeal to gun-control activists by delivering on what has been a top party priority for decades. But it’s not clear that what amounts to a symbolic vote is going to drive many votes toward supporters; it may even drive more votes in the opposite direction from what was intended.
But what it’s more likely to drive than votes are sales.
Just before the vote came down, the National Shooting Sports Foundation reported Americans own more than 24.4 million AR-15s and AK-47s. It also released a detailed breakdown from year to year that shows when sales of those rifles tend to spike. The vote, symbolic as it might be, is sure to have a nontrivial impact on how many AR-15s there are in the United States. It’s just that the number is going to go up instead of down.
Looking back to just before the ’94 ban was implemented, ARs and similar rifles were not nearly as popular as they are today. Only about 100,000 were sold in 1992. But that number had more than doubled by 1994, when the ban went into effect.
The ban did decrease sales for a while, cutting the total to about 70,000 in 1996. However, the focus on mostly cosmetic features meant the ban didn’t affect all ARs, and by the time it expired in 2004, sales had more than tripled from the years before the ban was implemented.
After the expiration of the ’94 ban, sales increased substantially over time. But clear spikes can be seen in the yearly data around elections and after major mass shootings, likely because those were the years when the possibility of a new ban was most acute.
The first big jump came in 2008 and 2009, when Barack Obama, who famously derided rural voters for “clinging to their guns,” was elected and took office. Another surge occurred after he was reelected in 2012. Those spikes paled in comparison to the one seen in 2013, when 2.2 million were sold in the wake of an “assault weapons” ban vote in Congress on the heels of the horrific Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
2013’s record sales levels were eclipsed when Hillary Clinton ran for president on a platform that included reinstating the ban in 2016. And the 2016 record stood until Joe Biden won with that same platform in 2020, capping off an unprecedented gun run initiated by a global pandemic and nationwide rioting.
It’s impossible to know how many AR-15s will be sold as a result of House Democrats taking a vote to ban them. After all, there’s little chance the bill will get any farther in Congress. But Americans have traditionally been motivated by even the suggestion of such bans to run out to their local gun store and get one while they still can. There’s no reason to think this time around will be any different.