We’re unlikely to see an AR-style gun ban in the next 30 years, expert says

After the release of the DOJ report on the Uvalde mass shooting, calls for bans of the weapons continue from the victims’ families.

By Kristen CabreraJanuary 23, 2024 3:35 pm,

Last week’s Department of Justice report on the Uvalde mass shooting once again brought the conversation about gun regulation to the forefront.

State Sen. Roland Gutierrez, who represents Uvalde, spoke at a press conference when the report was released.

“The largest refrain from the audio I’ve seen,” he said, “the 400 hours of audio and body cam footage that I’ve seen was from cops. ‘There’s an AR-15 in there. There’s an AR-15. We gotta be careful – there’s an assault rifle.'”

Gutierrez underscored how scared the officers were of this weapon:

“And the biggest and most profound of those utterances was one cop saying ‘I don’t wanna be killed today. I don’t wanna be clapped out today.’”

Victims’ families are calling for a ban on assault-style weapons – but how doable is this?

Alain Stephens is a reporter for The Trace and host of the podcast The Gun Machine. He spoke with Texas Standard on why the assault rifle ban during the Clinton administration made future bans unlikely, how a ban on assault-style weapons might affect gun deaths in this country, as well as what might come next in this debate

Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: These Uvalde families have called for and are continuing to call for the banning of AR-style weapons. This isn’t anything new, but what is the likelihood, do you think, of that actually happening?

Alain Stephens: So one of the things that we hear, and we constantly hear this of AR-15 bans, particularly kind of, you know, in the national zeitgeist after events like this – these mass shootings. It’s a common thing. And there’s a couple of reasons for that, right?

I think the first thing is, is that it’s something that’s been done before. It was a benchmark of the Clinton administration, and they had rolled out a ten year assault weapons ban that, for many Democrats in the pro-gun control world, was seen as a win. However, I also like to remind people on the flip side that the strengthening of what we know as the modern NRA was also fomented in those same calls because it is such a contentious issue.

The NRA was actually a somewhat scattered, maybe, type of political organization in the mid-90s. It was actually the AR-15 ban that created a very unified, solidified mission for them to kind of attack. And it’s actually then where they became kind of the powerful entity that they became today. They obviously were very successful because later on they were attributed with rolling in a Republican Congress, helping Bush get elected and, of course, getting that AR-15 ban rolled back.

So hearing these types of things, I think has a little bit of historical tradition because it’s something that we’ve seen recently. But I also think that a lot of Americans perhaps aren’t paying attention. You know, it is a political issue where the executive branch, the Biden administration, created a White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention last fall – it was again on the top of his list. Congressmembers who are very pro-gun control, it’s at the top of their list.

But while everyone’s kind of paying attention to these fears of the government, no one’s really paying attention to the judicial sphere of government, which looks absolutely different recently, especially after Trump’s election.

So if I hear you right, what you’re saying is not only has the landscape changed since the Clinton administration put an assault weapons ban in place, because the NRA really solidified and became the powerhouse that it really is now, but also just even recently with appointments on the Supreme Court that even if, like you say, the other branches were able to get something done, that it really just looks stacked against them, when it comes to the judiciary.

Yeah. I mean, so one of the things that I like to point to is actually a recent case here, you may have heard: New York State Pistol & Rifle Association v. Bruen in New York. So, for those who aren’t familiar, essentially that case struck down most of New York’s century-old firearms licensing scheme. And so essentially it called into question a lot of state gun control notions across the country.

One notable example is like requiring prospective handgun licenses to show some sort of cause for self-defense. Like that idea, they essentially threw that requirement out. But more importantly, there’s also a lot of other language in there, too.

So it halted federal enforcement measures, particularly for gun possession bans for people charged with, say, misdemeanor domestic violence or drug users. But also, it had some language in the opinion that essentially said that when states start thinking about gun control measures, that they shouldn’t or necessarily primarily look at just public safety, but they also need to consider America’s, “historical tradition” of, you know, firearm ownership.

This doesn’t seem like a super important thing, but just this language alone has caused nearly like 500 decisions across the nation in courts analyzing federal, state and local gun control measures. And so while we have this national outcry about AR-15 bans and stuff like that, we have a judicial branch that has certain cases like Miller v. Bonta.

So Miller v. Bonta is a case right now that’s going through the court systems in California that’s looking at California’s AR-15 ban. And as it currently stands, the lower federal courts in California have decided twice that its AR-15 ban is unconstitutional. And again, this is all because of this Supreme Court, kind of, doing two things.

One, showing a little bit of its hand saying, “if we get a gun case, this is how we’re going to look at it.” But also showing another thing: that it has an appetite to take gun cases in the first place. Before Trump’s Supreme Court, we kind of had a Supreme Court that it wasn’t necessarily given that a gun case is going to even get up there in the first place.

But where we go back to Trump’s appointees for Supreme Court, one of the things that we have to note is that these appointees also had some incredibly loud opinions about firearms cases ,and Trump being a huge, supportee by the NRA, exalted some of these nominees to his list. And these are the guys who were appointed.

And so we have a court system now here that while everyone’s thinking “hey, we may need to add some sort of new gun control measures,” we may have more of a country where states like California and New York are actually coming into line with, like, Texas and Montana. And so I think a lot of people aren’t paying attention to that dynamic going on right now.

A sign is held up reading

Patricia Lim / KUT

You know, I want to circle back to the focus on assault-style weapons. You said that there’s a reason for that because there was success before, under the Clinton administration. But is there truth to the fact that these weapons are so much more powerful or deadly in the hands of the wrong person?

So, you know, it’s kind of a hard question to answer.

So when I look at what happened in Uvalde, the user was using a 16-inch Daniel Defense M4 V7, .223 Magpul magazines and EOTECH holographic sight. What that comes down to is he’s essentially using the same thing the damn cops are using, right? And so that’s a very difficult situation to be in.

» RELATED: ‘He has a battle rifle’: Police feared Uvalde gunman’s AR-15

But one of the things that I also point to is that, you know, when I look at firearms violence, I look at it more from like a public health perspective. And so every time we talk about “gun crime,” I remind a lot of Americans that what we’re mostly talking about is a very specific gun crime. We’re talking about mass shootings.

When we look at the legislation, the national conversation, we are talking about a crime that, while devastating, only accounts for about 1 to 2% of all gun violence victims in America. Right? Everyone who’s listening to this is more likely to get shot in what we would consider is a day-to-day street crime. And when we look at the types of weapons that most Americans are killed with, rifles – and this is of all types: bolt action to AR-15 to AK-47 – only account for about 10% of weapons recovered. That’s according to ATF recovery statistics.

So most guns recovered at crime scenes are not rifles. Most of them are handguns. And there’s a lot of reasons for that. Most criminals want to get away with their crimes. Handguns are disposable. You can steal multiples. And there’s just a variety for that. And so that is something that kind of gets lost in translation.

And so I try to remind Americans that, while this is a devastating crime, it is also the crime that when we’re having these kind of visceral arguments, even if we were to ban AR -15s overnight, I don’t think Americans would feel much safer than they do now. And that just bears out with the statistics of what I see from crime gun recoveries.

Well, this is a big question, and maybe you can find a way to make it synthesize. But what do you see is the future of our debates on guns in this country?

Well, I mean, we’re going to continue having this debate.

For the most part, I will say these two things are true: If it seems like there are more AR-15s out in circulation in the American public now than there were in the past, there are. Like I said, there was a ban. There was a huge surge in popularity after that ban rolled over. And so there are definitely more AR-15 rifles out there.

The other thing that I also like to point out, too, is that while we look at our policing system here, it is true that for most crimes, we live in safer times – except when it comes to shootings. When we looked at 2021, shootings peaked at a number higher than they were in the late 80s and early 90s, where we consider peak crime wave in American history. And so, you know, shootings have been getting worse. And because of that, the demographics of American gun violence victims are going to start demanding the government do something.

I do think, however, there could be a couple of measures to start with. One of the things, as a gun violence reporter, I tell people is that we just don’t know, right? This Uvalde report that we have is a rarity, mostly because it was a lot of good investigative reporting mixed with combined national outrage that got the Department of Justice to release this publicly in the first place.

What we need to see is perhaps a world where we can look at all these types of shootings this way, or perhaps get rid of things like the Tiahrt Amendment, which blocks the ATF from showing the public the origins of crime guns across the nation. That information could really help cities and public policy makers determine which gun stores disproportionately contribute crime guns, as opposed to the legal, law-abiding gun stores who are not.

And so I think we have to look at some of these things a little bit smarter, a little bit more analytical. But I also tell people when it comes to you looking for solutions, this beat is the Wild West. We just don’t know what we don’t know.

And my beat in particular is emerging violence. So it’s new guns, new gun crime. And so while we are also hashing out these things like the AR-15 ban – which is kind of this old argument, like I said, that had been done in the 90s and stuff – there are new things like ghost guns, solvent trap suppressor kits, 3D-printed automatic conversion devices that could turn your glocks into machine guns.

And so while we’re having this kind of old conversation, the criminal world is having very new conversations that our legislative debate is just, like, eons behind. And that’s, I think, kind of a more terrifying thing.

So if I had to make you answer in “yes or no” fashion, is an assault style weapons ban possible in this country going forward?

I would say probably “no,” in the next, at least, 30 years or so we’re probably not going to see something like that.

However, you know, I’m somewhat of a firearms futurist, and in my own belief, I think that technology is emerging and I don’t think regulation is necessarily a ban. And so I do think that perhaps future generations… It’s always hard to predict what a future generation of Congress can concoct. But I could see a world where such firearms are much more regulated there.

You know, a lot of the stuff that we view on our firearms is also very American-centric, right? And so it’s kind of boxed us in to some of these notions of what I would kind of call “absolutist arguments.” It’s got to be all AR-15s, unregulated, unmitigated, open on the market, or these things have to be completely unaccessible whatsoever.

There are plenty of other nations on planet Earth that have figured out ways to have some sort of rails on the people and weapon platforms that people have access to, and I believe that one day Americans are smart enough to implement that, if they stop acting stupid.

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