A Treasury Department agency, stunned when it discovered that it had given gun dealers permission to import more than 400,000 AK-47s and other assault rifles, has 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 earlier this month, when the Administration announced a temporary moratorium on issuing new permits for five types of assault weapons, including the AK-47.
It essentially revokes licenses that already had been issued to gun importers, a step almost certain to be challenged in court.
William T. Drake, a top official at Treasury’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, acknowledged in an interview that the move would be controversial. But he said that an internal audit detailing the vast extent of imports already authorized had persuaded the agency to take the emergency action.
The bureau refused to disclose how many weapons have been approved for importation, but a knowledgeable Customs Service source said the number is 420,000.
These weapons were not affected by the moratorium two weeks ago, which only blocked approval of new applications for weapons imports. When the action was taken, new applications for importation of 110,000 assault weapons were pending. The moratorium will be lifted only if importers can prove that the weapons are used generally for sporting purposes.
About 70,000 assault rifles have been imported into the United States in the last three years, according to bureau officials.
In announcing the moratorium on new permits, the officials indicated that they had no power to restrict imports of weapons for which permits had already been granted. But Drake said that the agency, which has been trying to persuade importers to halt assault-gun shipments voluntarily, believes that it has the authority to make that ban mandatory.
‘God Taketh Away’
The authority comes, he contended, from the Gun Control Act of 1968, which empowered the bureau to grant licenses authorizing gun imports. “What God giveth,” Drake said of the permission to import weapons, “God can taketh away.”
The bureau’s order, transmitted orally Thursday and made formal in a directive issued by Drake Friday afternoon, officially bars five types of assault weapons from entering the United States.
They include a wide variety of AKS-type weapons, including the Chinese-made AK-47 and Finnish M-76, the Israeli Uzi carbine, the Belgian FNC, Austrian and Belgian FAL-type weapons and German Aug-type weapons.
Customs agents across the country were ordered Friday to begin enforcing the order and were equipped with lists of assault-gun importers so that they might more easily identify the weapons shipments. As of Friday evening, however, no new shipments of assault weapons had arrived at U.S. ports, Administration officials said.
Under arrangements worked out by Customs and the Treasury agency, any of the banned weapons that do arrive in the United States will be barred from entry until it is determined whether the weapons are generally used for sporting purposes. Only such weapons may be imported under U.S. laws.
Bond Will Be Required
Until that decision is reached, importers will be permitted to store the weapons in their own warehouses. The weapons will remain under Customs Service jurisdiction, however, and the importers will be required to leave a substantial bond on deposit with Customs.
The effective confiscation of the rifles is almost certain to result in legal action as furious gun importers attempt to overturn the directive, Administration officials warned.
The importers, they noted, stand to profit enormously in what has become a seller’s market for assault weapons across much of the country.
In the wake of the Administration ban and the decision by Colt Industries to take its AR-15 rifle off the market, gun enthusiasts--fearful that the weapons might be banned altogether--have bought up most of the assault rifles available. As demand has boomed, prices have skyrocketed.
When the ban on new permits was imposed two weeks ago, bureau officials said that they had no idea how many assault weapons might still be imported under existing authorization. The discovery that the number exceeded 400,000 resulted from a painstaking two-week search of the agency’s files, which are not computerized.
Although refusing to confirm that figure, Drake said the fact that permission to import had already been granted for a large number of weapons did not necessarily mean that the weapons would have been imported.
Often, he said, gun dealers who plan to import fewer than 100 weapons file “Form 6" documents requesting permission to import 10,000 or even 20,000. The agency has no authority to ask dealers to modify such requests.
Officials said they were worried, however, that the increased demand for assault weapons might have prompted dealers to place orders for all the guns they were authorized to import.
Customs Service officials initially expressed qualms about the new import ban. But their concerns were eased when the bureau, with its directive Friday, took full responsibility for the order. That would make it likely that the bureau--not Customs--would face court challenges, sources said.
Drake said that the decision had been taken by the bureau under consultation with Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady.