Criminal Use of Assault Weapons and High-Capacity Semiautomatic Firearms

An Updated Examination of Local and National Sources

First published online October 2, 2017.
Authors: Christopher Koper, Ph.D., Principal Author, William D. Johnson, Jordan L. Nichols, Ambrozine Ayers, Natalie Mullins
Center for Evidenced-Based Crime Policy, Department of Criminology, Law and Society, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA.

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Trend analyses also indicate that high-capacity semiautomatics have grown from 33 to 112% as a share of crime guns since the expiration of the federal ban – a trend that has coincided with recent growth in shootings nationwide.

Abstract
Policies restricting semiautomatic assault weapons and large-capacity ammunition magazines are intended to reduce gunshot victimizations by limiting the stock of semiautomatic firearms with large ammunition capacities and other military-style features conducive
to criminal use. The federal government banned such weaponry from 1994 to 2004, and a few states currently impose similar restrictions.

Recent debates concerning these weapons have highlighted their use in mass shootings, but there has been little examination of their use in gun crime more generally since the expiration of the federal ban. This study investigates current levels of criminal activity with assault weapons and other high-capacity semiautomatics in the USA using several local and national data sources including
the following:

(1) guns recovered by police in ten large cities,
(2) guns reported by police to federal authorities for investigative tracing,
(3) guns used in murders of police, and
4) guns used in mass murders.

Results suggest assault weapons (primarily assault-type rifles) account for 2–12% of guns used in crime in general (most estimates suggest less than 7%) and 13–16% of guns used in murders of police. Assault weapons and other high-capacity semiautomatics together generally account for 22 to 36% of crime guns, with some estimates upwards of 40% for cases involving serious violence including murders of police. Assault weapons and other high-capacity semiautomatics appear to be used in a higher share of firearm mass murders (up to 57% in total), though data on this issue are very limited.

Trend analyses also indicate that high-capacity semiautomatics have grown from 33 to 112% as a share of crime guns since the expiration of the federal ban – a trend that has coincided with recent growth in shootings nationwide. Further research seems warranted on how these weapons affect injuries and deaths from gun violence and how their regulation may impact public health.