A Treasury Department agency, stunned to discover that it has already given gun dealers permission to import more than 400,000 AK-47s and other assault rifles, today ordered the Customs Service to halt all shipments of the weapons at the nation’s borders, The Times has learned.
The action goes far beyond steps taken two weeks ago, when the Administration announced a temporary moratorium on newly issued permits for five types of assault weapons, including the AK-47 and Uzi carbine.
The Administration said at that time it had no power to block shipments it had already approved. But an internal audit found that Treasury’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms already had authorized imports of so many weapons that officials decided to take the emergency action.
Officials at ATF refused to say how many assault weapons it had discovered already in the pipeline. A senior Administration official, however, said ATF officials had told him the number was 420,000.
That figure is nearly four times the number of requests for new imports that were pending when the Administration, at the urging of drug czar William J. Bennett, imposed the temporary ban.
Under the terms of the new order, which customs agents across the country began enforcing this afternoon, the five types of weapons are now to be barred unconditionally from entering the United States.
Sources said the Customs Service has expressed concerns that Treasury’s ATF lacks legal authority to take such a step, which effectively revokes permission it has already granted to gun importers.
But ATF Deputy Director William Drake insisted in an interview today that the agency can exercise such powers under the Gun Control Act of 1968, and said he planned to issue a formal directive to customs by late this afternoon.
“It’s our law,” Drake said, “and their job is to enforce our law.”
A customs source said this afternoon that no new imports of assault weapons had arrived today at U.S. ports, but said agents would hold the weapons when they are received.
“We’re prepared to exercise administrative discretion if any guns show up, and we’ll hold them until the legal situation clears up,” the customs source said.
Ban on New Permits
When the ban on new permits was imposed two weeks ago, ATF officials said they had no idea how many assault weapons might still be imported under existing authorization. The discovery that the number exceeded 400,000 came after a two-week search through the agency’s files, which are not computerized.
While refusing to confirm that figure, ATF official Drake said that the fact that permission to import had already been granted for the large number of weapons did not necessarily mean that the weapons would have been imported.