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"Officer Down"

Assault Weapons and the War on Law Enforcement

Section One: Assault Weapons, the Gun Industry, and Law Enforcement

Assault Weapons: A Clear Threat to Law Enforcement

A primary stimulus for the 1994 law was the severe threat that assault weapons pose to law enforcement officers. Police and other law enforcement personnel were some of the first victims of the assault weapon trend that emerged in the 1980s. For example, in October 1984, a San Jose, California, police officer was gunned down with an UZI carbine. In a high-profile shootout in April 1986, two agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) were killed by robbery suspects wielding a Ruger Mini-14 assault rifle. Five other agents were wounded in the gun battle. As high-capacity assault weapons became more commonplace, police routinely complained that they were being outgunned by suspects. As a result, major law enforcement organizations supported passage of the 1994 federal assault weapons ban.

In 1995, the first full year in which the ban was implemented, police continued to be victims of assault weapons. Approximately one in 10 of the 74 law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty in 1995 was slain with a banned assault weapon.4

The Gun Industry Evades the Law

Immediately after the 1994 law was enacted, the gun industry moved quickly to make slight, cosmetic design changes in their "post-ban" guns to evade the law, a tactic the industry dubbed "sporterization." Of the nine assault weapon brand/types listed by manufacturer in the law,5 six of the brand/types have been re-marketed in new, "sporterized" configurations.6 In fact, gunmakers openly boast of their ability to circumvent the assault weapons ban. Their success is described in an August 2001 Gun World magazine article about the new Vepr II assault rifle, a "sporterized" version of the AK-47:

In spite of assault rifle bans, bans on high capacity magazines, the rantings of the anti-gun media and the rifle's innate political incorrectness, the Kalashnikov [AK-47], in various forms and guises, has flourished. Today there are probably more models, accessories and parts to choose from than ever before.

Equally blunt was an article in the May 2003 issue of Gun World reviewing the LE Tactical Carbine, a post-ban, "sporterized" AR-15 clone:

Strange as it seems, despite the hit U.S. citizens took with the passage of the onerous crime bill of 1994 [which contained the federal assault weapons ban], ARs are far from dead. Stunned momentarily, they sprang back with a vengeance and seem better than ever. Purveyors abound producing post-ban ARs for civilians and pre-ban models for government and law enforcement agencies, and new companies are joining the fray.7

Just such a post-ban AR, the Bushmaster XM15 M4 A3 assault rifle, was used by the Washington, DC-area snipers to kill 10 and injure three in October 2002. The Bushmaster is the poster child for the industry's success at evading the ban. The snipers' Bushmaster is even marketed as a "Post-Ban Carbine."

The Bushmaster XM15 used by the Washington, DC-area snipers to kill 10 and wound three in October 2002 is the poster child for the gun industry's cynical efforts to circumvent the federal assault weapons ban. Maine-based Bushmaster even advertises the gun�based on the banned Colt AR-15 assault rifle�as a "Post-Ban Carbine."

The industry's efforts have been aided by the fact that not all assault weapons are covered by the 1994 ban. For example, assault weapons with more conventional designs, such as the Ruger Mini-14, were not covered by the 1994 law�although gun experts define them as assault weapons. Furthermore, any gun that was legally possessed as of the date the 1994 law took effect may still be legally possessed and transferred without restriction. With respect to high-capacity ammunition magazines, manufacturers stockpiled thousands, or perhaps hundreds of thousands, of magazines before the ban took effect. Those magazines�some of which can hold up to 75 rounds of ammunition�are still widely available.

Still a Threat to Police�One in Five Law Enforcement Officers Slain in the Line of Duty is Killed With an Assault Weapon

The gun industry's evasion of the 1994 ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines continues to put law enforcement officers at extreme risk. Using data obtained from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Violence Policy Center has determined that at least 41 of the 211 law enforcement officers slain in the line of duty between January 1, 1998, and December 31, 2001, were killed with assault weapons.8 Using these figures, one in five law enforcement officers slain in the line of duty was killed with an assault weapon.

While no comprehensive information is yet available for the years 2002 and 2003, it is clear that law enforcement personnel continue to be killed by assault weapons. For example, on February 20, 2003, in Alexandria, Louisiana, two police officers were killed in an ambush with an AK-47-type assault rifle. Anthony Molette, age 25, had a long criminal history, including a charge of attempted first-degree murder. The day before the murders, Molette opened fire on an officer in his patrol car. The officer was not hurt, but 18 to 20 rounds were fired into the vehicle. Molette bragged to his friends about the shooting, prompting Alexandria police to search for him. When officers arrived at Molette's residence to serve a warrant, Molette opened fire, fatally wounding Officers Charles Ezernack, age 26, and Jeremy "Jay" Carruth, age 29. Molette was shot and killed as he charged two other police officers.9

The fact that from 1998 through 2001 one in five law enforcement officers slain in the line of duty was killed with an assault weapon indicates that the ban in its current form is inadequate to protect police and the public from the hazards presented by assault weapons.

According to the Urban Institute's 1997 study of the effects of the 1994 ban,10 "the relatively high use of assault weapons in murders of police suggests that police gun murders should be more sensitive to the effects of the ban than gun murders of civilians." The stark reality that murders of law enforcement personnel committed with assault weapons have not abated demonstrates the need to not only renew, but significantly strengthen, the current ban.

4) Cop Killers: Assault Weapon Attacks on America's Police, Violence Policy Center, September 1995.

5) The law states, "The term `semiautomatic assault weapon' means�(A) any of the firearms, or copies or duplicates of the firearms in any caliber, known as�(i) Norinco, Mitchell, and Poly Technologies Avtomat Kalashnikovs (all models); (ii) Action Arms Israeli Military Industries UZI and Galil; (iii) Beretta Ar70 (SC-70); (iv) Colt AR-15; (v) Fabrique National FN/FAL, FN/LAR, and FNC; (vi) SWD �10, M-11/9, and M-12; (vii) Steyr AUG; (viii) INTRATEC TEC-9, TEC-DC9 and TEC-22; and (ix) revolving cylinder shotguns, such as (or similar to) the Street Sweeper and Striker 12...."

6) Assault weapons that have not been reintroduced are the Beretta AR70, Street Sweeper and Striker 12 assault shotguns (the latter two guns were re-classified by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) as subject to the strict regulations of the National Firearms Act of 1934), and Steyr AUG, although Steyr has begun marketing a new assault weapon�the Vector�that, like the AUG, is of a bullpup design.

7) "Rock River's LE Tactical Carbine," Gun World (May 2003), p. 50.

8) The Federal Bureau of Investigation data does not identify the firearm used in some instances, in those cases the type of firearm is listed as "unknown." Therefore, the number of law enforcement officers killed with assault weapons may actually be higher. (This figure does not include the 72 law enforcement deaths that resulted from the events of September 11, 2001. The foreword of the FBI's Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted, 2001 states, "Because a catastrophe such as the September 11 attacks falls far outside the normal course of police experience, the FBI has not included those fatalities in the 2001 rate, trend, or disposition tables for to do so would skew the data and render analyses meaningless.") The year 2001 is the most recent year for which complete information is available from the FBI.

9) "Police Killings Baffling," State-Times/Morning Advocate, February 22, 2003.

10) Roth and Koper, Impact Evaluation of the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act of 1994 Final Report, Urban Institute, March 13, 1997.

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  All contents � 2003 Violence Policy Center


The Violence Policy Center is a national non-profit educational foundation that conducts research on violence in America and works to develop violence-reduction policies and proposals. The Center examines the role of firearms in America, conducts research on firearms violence, and explores new ways to decrease firearm-related death and injury.