Criminal Use of Assault Weapons and High-Capacity Semiautomatic Firearms: an Updated Examination of Local and National Sources


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.

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The authors thank the police agencies that provided data for this study: the Hartford (CT) Police Department, the New York State Police, the Baltimore Police Department, the Richmond (VA) Police Department, the Minneapolis Police Department, the Milwaukee Police Department, the Kansas City (MO) Police Department, the Sacramento Police Department, the Seattle Police Department, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The authors also thank Grace Beya, Mark Ecleo, and Thomas Prifti for additional research assistance. The opinions expressed in this manuscript are those of the authors and should not be attributed to any of the aforementioned organizations or individuals.

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Correspondence to Christopher S. Koper.

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Koper, C.S., Johnson, W.D., Nichols, J.L. et al. Criminal Use of Assault Weapons and High-Capacity Semiautomatic Firearms: an Updated Examination of Local and National Sources. J Urban Health 95, 313–321 (2018).

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  • Firearms
  • Assault weapons
  • Violence