Target America – Section One: The Debate Over Imported Assault Weapons

Reports of Rising Import Applications

In the summer of 1997, news outlets began reporting that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was poised to once again allow the import of the Israeli-made UZI assault rifle. The rifle was to be imported by O. F. Mossberg & Sons. The pending approval of the UZI focused public and press attention on the fact that although foreign-made assault rifles such as the UZI, AK-47, and others were supposedly banned from import since 1989, ATF was allowing an increasing number of slightly modified (“sporterized”) weapons into the country. In November 1997, the Los Angeles Times reported that ATF had expedited the approval of import permits for 150,000 foreign-made assault rifles and that permits for another 600,000 assault weapons were pending.[3]

Public concern intensified as it became clear that the UZI was only the tip of the iceberg. Members of Congress, led by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), began urging the Clinton Administration to use its executive powers to stop this most recent wave of assault weapons from coming into the country.

Presidential Reaction

Apparently recognizing that ATF’s lax import criteria was a clear and direct violation of long-standing Administration policy,[4] President Clinton moved to counteract ATF’s actions. On November 14, 1997, the President issued a memorandum [available from the VPC] to Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin ordering him to review within 120 days ATF’s interpretation and implementation of the “sporting purposes” test, the provision of The Gun Control Act of 1968 that governs the importability of most firearms.[5] The memorandum instructed, “The results of this review will govern action on pending and future applications for import permits….” The President also ordered that all outstanding import permits be suspended.

ATF’s Initial Response: A Closed Process

On December 10, 1997, ATF Director John Magaw sent a letter and survey to hunting and shooting sports magazine editors as well as competitive shooting groups [the version of the survey that was sent to competitive shooting groups is available from the VPC]. The purpose of the letter and survey was to solicit their opinions as to whether specific guns with pending import applications were “particularly suitable for or readily adaptable to hunting or organized competitive target shooting” in accordance with the “sporting purposes” test of The Gun Control Act of 1968. The National Rifle Association (NRA) and some firearm manufacturers responded to this inquiry with a coordinated campaign to deluge ATF with comments urging that the weapons in question be approved for import. 

ATF Modifies Its Position

On December 15, 1997, the Violence Policy Center (VPC) wrote to ATF Director Magaw [letter available from the VPC] protesting that the closed process by which ATF was conducting the “sporting purposes” test review was not in accordance with the instructions set forth in the November presidential memorandum. Joining the VPC in protest were Representatives Charles Schumer (D-NY), the ranking member of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, and Representative Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY). Representatives Schumer and McCarthy wrote to Secretary Rubin on December 16, 1997 [letter available from the VPC] urging that the review process be opened to public comment.

ATF responded to the VPC on December 17, 1997 with a letter [available from the VPC] inviting submission of information related to whether “semiautomatic rifles based on the AK-47, FN-FAL, HK91, HK93, SIG SG550-1, and UZI designs…are particularly suitable for or readily adaptable to hunting or organized competitive target shooting.”

The NRA’s Flawed Reasoning

On December 24, 1997, the NRA submitted its written comments to ATF [available from the VPC]. In its comments, the NRA insisted that the fact that a specific firearm could be used for target shooting, hunting, or even informal target shooting at tin cans (commonly known as “plinking”) should suffice to imbue that gun with a “sporting purpose.” Yet such an interpretation of the statutory standard is clearly at odds with the intent of Congress. During Senate consideration of the 1968 Gun Control Act, Senator Thomas Dodd (D-CT), one of the primary sponsors of the legislation, engaged in a colloquy with one of his Senate colleagues[6] to clarify the meaning of the “sporting purposes” test:

Mr. HANSEN. [T]he type of firearms used at Camp Perry [national target shooting match]…includes a wide variety of military types…. Would all of these firearms be classified as weapons constituting a `sporting purpose’?Mr. DODD. No. I would not say so. I think when we get into that, we definitely get into a military type of weapon for use in matches like that at Camp Perry; but I do not think it is generally described as a sporting weapon. It is a military weapon. I assume they have certain types of competition in which they use military weapons as they would in an otherwise, completely sporting event. I do not think that fact would change the nature of the weapon from a military to a sporting one.

Mr. HANSEN. Is it not true that military weapons are used in Olympic competition also…?

Mr. DODD. Here again I would have to say that if a military weapon is used in a special sporting event, it does not become a sporting weapon. It is a military weapon used in a special sporting event….I do not know how else we could describe it.

Minutes after Senator Dodd completed these remarks, the Senate overwhelmingly rejected an amendment to change the “sporting purposes” test to “not peculiarly susceptible to criminal use for which there is an active market for sporting and other legitimate purposes.” Such action makes clear that the intent of the “sporting purposes” test is to allow the import only of sporting firearms and not of military weapons that might be used in a sporting event.

Lobbying by the NRA and the Gun Industry

In addition to its submitted comments, the NRA redoubled its efforts to ensure that the voice of the pro-gun community would drown out that of those seeking to restrict the import of assault weapons.[7] According to the NRA’s March 1998 Grassfire newsletter, “That action [ATF’s sending surveys to pro-gun control organizations] made it that much more important for BATF to receive responses from a variety of pro-gun individuals and organizations, and prompted NRA to convene a working group of firearms experts that prepared our reply to the BATF survey and helped individuals and groups respond as well.” 

Heckler and Koch, the manufacturer of the SR9 and PSG1 assault rifles, began an advertising campaign urging owners of such rifles to write to ATF about how they use their SR9s and PSG1s for hunting, target shooting, and “even informal plinking.” The company also urged gunowners to submit photographs as well as magazine and newspaper articles that would provide “supporting documentation concerning the sporting use” of the SR9 and PSG1 [advertisement available from the VPC]. 

In a similar vein, importer Century Arms International posted a questionnaire on the Internet asking respondents to describe their uses for “AK-type semi-auto sporting rifles” and other assault rifles [available from the VPC]. The questionnaire admonished, “[W]e must prove to them [ATF] that people do use…[these weapons]…for “sporting purposes,” otherwise you know what will happen…! The bottom line is that we feel your response to this survey can make a difference in their decision in not banning this group of firearms and who knows which group next year?” 

The Position of the Violence Policy Center

On January 9, 1998 the VPC responded to the ATF letter with correspondence [available from the VPC] arguing that the gun-by-gun approach being taken by ATF was not in accordance with the instructions contained in the presidential memorandum and could not produce a rule that would effectively govern action on future applications. The VPC also laid out specific, substantive recommendations for the rule.

To date, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms’ action on foreign-made assault weapons has better served the interests of foreign manufacturers and firearm importers than the American public. ATF now has the opportunity to abandon its failed gun-by-gun approach and develop a comprehensive rule that treats assault weapons as a specific class of firearm. Any solution short of a tightly crafted rule prohibiting the import of all firearms with an assault weapon configuration—including “sporterized” weapons—is, unfortunately, doomed to fail. 

3) The import permit process requires importers to submit an application that includes an explanation as to why the firearm is suitable for “sporting purposes.” Approval by the director of ATF serves as a permit to import the firearm described in the application [27 C.F.R. § 178.112]. In practice, ATF often gives importers advice on ways to modify specific weapons to ensure importability.

4) The Clinton Administration has always opposed the manufacture, distribution, and sale of new assault weapons and supported passage of a ban on the domestic production of such weapons in 1994. 

5) 18 U.S.C. § 925(d)(3).

6) 114 Cong. Rec. S. 27461-62 (September 18, 1968).

7) According to the National Rifle Association, the “original BATF survey was mailed to only three pro- and three anti-gun groups, NRA-ILA learned that in an apparent effort to influence the outcome of this supposedly impartial study, the Clinton Administration had ordered BATF to send surveys to an additional 30 anti-gun organizations.” [American Guardian, NRA Grassfire newsletter, March 1998.]

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