In the first federal attempt to curb the spread of assault weapons, the Bush Administration Tuesday imposed an immediate ban on the importation of more than 110,000 AK-47s, Uzi carbines and other semiautomatic rifles until the government decides whether they are suitable for “sporting purposes.”
The surprise action, taken less than a month after President Bush had declared his opposition to banning the weapons, temporarily halts the supply of new semiautomatic rifles and carbines until an intergovernmental dispute on their fate can be resolved.
The order permits the continued production and sale of the American-made AR-15, as well as the sale of Chinese- and Israeli-produced weapons already in stores and warehouses.
Bennett Moves Quickly
The action by the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was taken at the urging of the nation’s top anti-drug officer, William J. Bennett, who has moved quickly in his first two days in office to impose his agenda across all branches of government.
Bennett, who had publicly questioned the President’s stance on assault weapons, said in a statement that he recommended the move after learning of an “alarming surge” in requests to import the military-type weapons, which have been widely used in an explosion of drug-related crime.
In just 10 weeks this year, he said, importers have sought permission to ship more than 100,000 semiautomatic rifles to this country--a total that “vastly exceeds” the number imported in the previous three years.
The move takes advantage of a provision of federal gun law that allows firearms to be imported only when weapons are “particularly suitable for, or readily adaptable to, sporting purposes.” No law permits the government to impose curbs on domestically produced weapons, aides to Bennett noted.
A White House spokesman said Tuesday that the President supports Bennett’s decision but that he had not been formally consulted about the action.
Under prodding from Bennett, Bush began last week to ease away from his opposition to gun control legislation aimed at assault weapons. He said that he would encourage Bennett to find a “sensible answer” to stemming the flow of the weapons.
No federal move had been expected, however, until Bennett had completed a review that was to take into consideration Bush’s concern that a ban on the weapons would abridge the rights of hunters and other sportsmen.
Under the plan outlined Tuesday, that review is to continue while officials at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms conduct a parallel study to learn how many of the semiautomatic weapons actually are being used for sporting purposes. At the conclusion of the studies, Bennett may recommend permanent steps that could range from banning the semiautomatic weapons altogether to doing nothing at all.
But, in the meantime, Tuesday’s abrupt action temporarily will bar a wide range of imported semiautomatic rifles. Requests are pending to import more than 100,000 AKS-type weapons alone. This type includes the AK-47.
Representatives from both sides of the gun control debate applauded the decision, with gun control advocates hailing it as a first step toward an eventual ban and the National Rifle Assn. saying that it should put a stop to the “media hysteria” about the issue.
“The time is long overdue for a cool-headed look at the facts on this issue,” said NRA Executive Director Wayne LaPierre. He said that semiautomatic rifles and carbines are owned by 20 million to 30 million Americans and are used for hunting in 48 states.
A spokesman for Handgun Control Inc., on the other hand, described the action as “a big blow to the NRA and a big boost to public safety.”
“The Administration has recognized that there is a serious problem with the ready access of these combat weapons,” Susan Whitmore said.
The shift in the Administration’s stance followed path-breaking action by the state of California, where approval of an anti-assault gun measure by the Assembly Monday makes it all but certain that California will become the first state in the nation to ban such weapons.
In Sacramento, Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp said that his discussions with U.S. Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh had indicated that the use of an AK-47 in the Stockton schoolyard shooting in January and the subsequent California effort to ban such firearms “had a tremendous impact on the Administration’s thinking on this issue.”
In a statement, he urged Bush and Congress to “follow California’s lead and enact legislation to permanently ban assault weapons.”
The sale of fully automatic weapons, which fire a stream of bullets with a single pull of the trigger, already is banned without a special license. Semiautomatic weapons fire one bullet for each pull of the trigger but can be illegally converted to automatic function.
Estimates of the number of the semiautomatic assault weapons already in circulation vary widely, but one report, by Van de Kamp’s office, says that there are 500,000 assault weapons on the streets, with 50,000 to 75,000 in California alone.
Other Banned Guns
The weapons covered by the new temporary ban constitute a significant majority of those now on the U.S. market. In addition to AK-47s and Uzis, they include Steyr Aug semiautomatic weapons and FN/FAL-type and FN/FNC-type weapons, federal officials said.
All have been officially regarded as sporting weapons under U.S. policy on the basis of a 20-year-old Treasury Department study which determined that they were used in target shooting and hunting.
However, that study did not examine either Uzis or AK-47s, neither of which was widely imported until recently. But bureau officials said that the earlier evaluation was used in deciding to permit importation of the two guns as sporting weapons.
U.S. officials said that it is impossible to estimate how many assault weapons will remain in retailers’ inventories after the action, but one source said that the number could be in the “tens of thousands.”
In California, gun control advocates hailed the federal action as an indication that a powerful tide is sweeping against their opponents.