ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
California Senator Dianne Feinstein, reacting to the shooting deaths in Newtown, Connecticut, called yesterday for reinstating the Assault Weapon Ban, which was in effect from 1994 until 2004 when the law expired. How effective was it?
Well, we're going to ask Professor Daniel Webster who studies firearm policy and gun violence prevention. His field is public health, and he's at Johns Hopkins University. Dr. Webster, welcome to the program.
DANIEL WEBSTER: Thanks for having me.
SIEGEL: The ban covered certain semiautomatic weapons, but not all. And it covered large-capacity magazines. That is magazines, I gather, of more than 10 rounds. First, very generally, did it work?
WEBSTER: It did not have a significant impact on overall rates of gun violence. The researchers who studied this could not define any detectable difference in the use, particularly of guns with large-capacity magazines, which are far more prevalent as it relates to this ban.
SIEGEL: Given the not-entirely-clear definitions of assault weapons and the ban, do you know if the Bushmaster AR15 rifle that is said to have been used here, with the magazines that held 30 bullets each, would purchase of those have been banned under the Assault Weapon Ban?
WEBSTER: Honestly, I'm not entirely sure. And I have to look carefully at each of the features on the very specific weapon that was used. It certainly meets part of the classification, but you have to have multiple components to, in effect, be called an assault weapon. That's again why, I think, it's far more clear and more effective to focus on large-capacity magazines.
SIEGEL: Well, 30-round capacity magazines, shouldn't they have been banned under the law?
WEBSTER: Absolutely, yes. That magazine, without a doubt, would have been banned under the prior law. What's less clear is whether the rifle itself, without an extended large-capacity magazine, would have been banned.
SIEGEL: That the things depending on whether there's a pistol grip or not or whether there's a bayonet mount or not, these could be the difference between a weapon covered by the ban or not covered by the ban.
WEBSTER: Right. My recollection is that the weapon that - the photo that I saw of the weapon, it did have a pistol grip. So it probably would have been banned.
SIEGEL: But it's not an easy call for people who study this law, in this (unintelligible).
WEBSTER: No, it's not. And that's kind of the point, really, is that they made a relatively what should be a simple thing complicated. What's really most relevant to public safety has to do with the capacity to fire dozens of bullets, perhaps in some instances, in a matter of seconds. So it would make more sense to sort of focus on the functionality and the thing that's most relevant.
SIEGEL: The University of Pennsylvania study - that I think you were alluding to - wrote that the ban exempted assault weapons and large-capacity magazines manufactured before September 13, 1994. At that time, there were upwards of 1.5 million privately held assault weapons in the U.S. and nearly 25 million guns equipped with large-capacity magazines. So, certainly, a great many weapons escape the impact of the ban.
WEBSTER: That's right. My understanding is that Senator Feinstein's new legislation would try to go beyond what the prior legislation focused on and actually go for a broad ban even for so-called grandfathered weapons. I think that'll be harder to do politically. But if it does go through, I think it has a far better chance for impact.
SIEGEL: The discussion we're having now is occasioned by a mass shooting in which the, say, banning large-capacity magazines seems very germane because a gunman wouldn't be able to fire off that many rounds that quickly. But the victims of such shootings represent a very, very small share of the victims of gun violence in the United States.
WEBSTER: Yes, they do. I do think, though, even though they represent a small percentage of overall gun violence, it's very significant sort of they're meaning more in our overall psyche. You know, gun violence affects us beyond the death toll, beyond the number of individuals who were wounded and treated in hospitals. It affects our overall psyche, how safe we feel. And I think they leave us incredibly fearful. When we think about the effects of policies like this, we have to think beyond just body counts. It affects us in far more deep ways.
SIEGEL: Well, Professor Webster, thank you very much for talking with us.
WEBSTER: Thank you.
SIEGEL: That's Professor Daniel Webster, expert in firearm policy and gun violence prevention at Johns Hopkins University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.