Legislation will pass the rational basis test, Cramer explains, if the court finds it is “rationally related to a legitimate state interest.” Because AW bans apply to a segment of firearms that are among the least criminally used, are arbitrarily applied, call for irrational punishment lengths, and target a politically unpopular class of people, they are not rationally based.
While the bans (such as California’s Roberti-Roos Assault Weapons Control Act of 1989) cite a threat to the health, safety, and security of the public as justification for their existence, the banned weapons are seldom criminally misused. In a study performed to assess the effectiveness of the 1994 federal assault weapons ban, the authors had a difficult time “’discerning the effects of the ban’ at least partly because ‘the banned weapons and magazines were rarely used to commit murders in this country” before the 1994 ban.’”
AW bans focus primarily on name and model numbers rather than functional characteristics, since weapons banned are “functionally indistinguishable from sporting arms that have been used for more than a century by civilians in the U.S. with semiautomatic, detachable magazine feed.” This arbitrary application of the law makes such bans vulnerable to an equal protection challenge.
Also, the lack of distinctive qualities makes it difficult to define specifically what an assault weapon is. In fact, Steve Helsley, a California DOJ official, wrote in a 1988 memo:
“Consequently, I believe that assault weapons cannot be defined in a workable way, by size, caliber, action type or magazine capacity. . . . Unless a realistic definition can be developed for ‘assault weapons,’ we should leave the issue alone.”
Cramer also found that the punishments associated with violating California’s AW ban (either the possession or the importation of an assault weapon) involve lengthier prison terms than possession of a machine gun, possession of a hand grenade, or forcible rape.
Original study: Assault_Weapon_Bans_rational_scrutiny_fail