The Bush Administration, concluding that foreign-made assault rifles are rarely used for legitimate sporting purposes, Friday ordered that 43 types of such weapons, including the AK-47 and Uzi carbine, be permanently barred from entry into the United States.
The import ban makes permanent a temporary moratorium on assault gun imports imposed nearly four months ago after a number of shooting sprees and a growing demand for the weapons raised concerns that the nation might soon be flooded with violent crime.
It prevents the importation of more than 750,000 assault weapons for which import licenses had been or were about to approved, and it requires that about 20,000 such weapons already intercepted at U.S. borders be sold to law enforcement agencies or shipped back overseas.
Action Can Be Appealed
The action, which remains subject to appeal in the courts, is the most sweeping that the Administration could have taken under existing law to halt the spread of the paramilitary-style weapons.
But it will have no effect on American-made versions of the rifles or on the estimated 3 million assault weapons already in circulation, which could be banned only if new legislation were enacted. So far, President Bush has refused to support any such move.
For that reason, the Administration made no claim that the action would have a demonstrable effect in reducing violent crime.
“We’re not saying that it will solve the basic problem,” said Stephen E. Higgins, director of the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. “Whether (the banned weapons) will be made here or substituted with something else remains to be seen.”
Nevertheless, the import ban won Bush effusive praise from gun control advocates, who applauded him for taking on the powerful gun lobby and voiced hope that he might also support curbs on domestic production of such weapons.
“This is truly a rather courageous move,” said Rep. Pete Stark (D-Oakland), the chief sponsor of sweeping anti-assault gun legislation in the House.
By contrast, the National Rifle Assn. chose blunt words to denounce the ban, charging that it violates the right of Americans to bear arms. Its executive director, Wayne LaPierre, pledged that the organization will fight the action “in the courts, on Capitol Hill and at the ballot box.”
That rallying cry is likely to set the stage for challenges across the country by gun dealers who oppose the Administration decision, which invokes the 1968 Gun Control Act to deny entry to weapons previously granted import rights under the same act.
Indeed, Higgins, director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, frankly acknowledged that the Administration expects to fight a series of legal battles and might be compelled by courts to offer compensation to gun importers whose rights to sell certain weapons are taken away by the order.
To justify the abrupt reversal, bureau officials contended that the agency had been mistaken when it ruled previously that the foreign-made assault weapons were “generally regarded as suitable for sporting purposes,” as required for importation under the 1968 law.
Friday, the agency said that it had found after more careful scrutiny that 43 of 50 foreign-made semiautomatic assault weapons studied did not meet that criterion.
Although the weapons are sometimes used for hunting and target shooting, their military appearance makes clear that they are designed for combat rather than sport, the agency said in an inch-thick report. That study defined “sporting purposes” narrowly to exclude such things as “plinking” at cans and bottles.
In addition to Chinese-made AK-47-type weapons and the Israeli Uzi carbine, assault rifles included in the ban are the Austrian Steyr AUG, the Italian Beretta AR70 and the Belgian FAL.
The seven weapons spared from the ban all were deemed to be particularly suitable for hunting. Six of them used .22-caliber cartridges--smaller than those generally fired by assault weapons--and one, although designed like an AK-47, has been specially modified for the use of hunters.
The prolonged study did not seek to determine the extent to which assault weapons have been used to commit crimes. But agency officials said that other statistics demonstrate that the frequency at which assault weapons have been recovered from crime scenes has risen sharply.
Crusade Against Weapons
The imposition of the permanent import ban marks a major step in a campaign against assault weapons that became a veritable crusade after the January tragedy in a Stockton, Calif., schoolyard, in which petty criminal Patrick Purdy opened fire with an AK-47, killing five schoolchildren and wounding 29 others before killing himself with a pistol.
The horror of that incident led the California Legislature to enact the nation’s first sweeping ban on the sale and possession of foreign- and domestic-made assault weapons and inspired a flurry of congressional efforts--led by Stark and Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio)--to replicate that prohibition on a federal level.
Subsequently, federal officials were dismayed to learn that applications to import assault weapons in early 1988 had increased more than tenfold over the previous year.
To stanch the flow, the government, at the urging of William J. Bennett, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, first imposed the temporary ban on five major types of weapons on March 15.
Later, after learning that the government had approved permits allowing 640,000 weapons to enter the country and was preparing to grant permission for 136,000 more, the Administration broadened the temporary moratorium to include dozens of additional types of weapons and ordered seizure of guns newly imported under the approved permits.
The combination of past horror and looming threat appeared to have been instrumental in propelling Bush, a life member of the National Rifle Assn., toward a position advocating the use of the 1968 law to ban the importation of assault weapons.
But the President nevertheless remained largely faithful to a traditional law-and-order view, making clear in the anti-crime package he announced last May that he favors legislation toughening the penalties against gun-toting criminals rather than banning the weapons themselves.
Among the measures he proposed is the imposition of a mandatory 10-year prison term for criminals who use assault guns in the commission of federal crimes. He had also pledged to support a permanent ban, such as was announced Friday, on imported weapons deemed unsuitable for sporting purposes.
In the face of the NRA’s implicit threat to use the electoral process to challenge the Republican White House, a Bush spokesman retorted that “the American people already went to the ballot box with their message on the abuses of violent weapons, and the President’s crime package addresses their feeling effectively.”
At the same time, gun control advocates expressed hope that the President would move toward support of a broader assault gun measure aimed at U.S.-made rifles.
“It doesn’t matter if you are killed by an imported or American-made assault weapon,” Metzenbaum said. “You are just as dead.”
“If you’re a cop on the street and some guy is spraying you with a Street Sweeper or an Uzi,” Rep. Stark added, “it’s not time to fuss about buy-American.”
The Administration action probably will end a period of limbo for the thousands of weapons intercepted by the Customs Service and stored in government warehouses in the months since the temporary ban went into effect.
After importers challenged the government’s right to seize such property temporarily without a hearing, the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals last week upheld the Administration action, making it probable that it would also support the permanent ban.