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Deactivated Guns Are a Hit in Japan : Business: In a country where handguns are outlawed, a Fullerton dealer captures the market with his gold-plated, welded wall ornaments.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

John B. Williams sells a special kind of guns--the kind that don’t work.

You can’t put bullets in Williams’ revolvers; he rigs the chambers so the shells won’t fit. And even if you somehow were able to force the bullets in, the springs have been removed from the guns, so the triggers and hammers won’t click.

You can’t insert an ammunition clip in Williams’ semiautomatics; the grips have been sealed. And the guns wouldn’t shoot anyway, because the slides have been welded to keep them from firing.

Williams, 52, uses his federal firearms license to buy working weapons from manufacturers, then takes them apart and deactivates them. Then he sells them to Japanese entrepreneurs who market them as wall ornaments to eager buyers in Japan.

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Of the more than 1,000 federally licensed gun dealers in Orange County, Williams is the only one who commercially deactivates guns, he claims. In fact, he boasts, he is “the only one in the country.”

Spokesmen for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the National Rifle Assn. said they have no information to verify or contradict Williams’ claim.

The enterprise, John B. Williams Custom Gunsmith, was founded three years ago as a way for Williams to expand his business overseas by meeting a demand for firearm novelties in Japan, where handguns are outlawed.

“If possible, we in Japan like real guns,” said Oba Yusuo, a Japanese businessman who has been buying inoperable firearms from Williams for the past three years. “But since we can’t have real guns, the people in Japan love these ones, because handguns are one of those things we can’t have in our country.”

While personal ownership of handguns is against the law in Japan, citizens may own other firearms, such as rifles and shotguns. The Japanese, with the exception of the samurai class, were disarmed by Shogun Hideyoshi Toyotomi, who ruled the nation more than 400 years ago.

“In Japan, people go to the movies and they see American movies. They see the gunfights and they’re fascinated,” Williams said. “So, when they (can), they buy my guns and they literally hang them on the wall for decoration.”

Williams declined to discuss the profitability of his enterprise, or even the prices he charges, saying only that his markup is small.

Yusuo was a little bit more forthcoming: “Business is very good,” he said.

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Williams is hoping that the collecting of deactivated firearms will also become popular in the United States in the wake of the Nov. 30 enactment of the legislation known as the Brady bill, which imposes a five-day waiting period on the purchase of handguns. The Clinton Administration’s recent proposal to drastically increase the cost of a federal license to sell guns may also impact the weapons trade, he said.

“A large percentage of gun owners buy only commemorative pieces or buy guns for their collection anyway,” he said. “And it makes sense that if you buy them only because you’re a collector, to buy deactivated guns.”

The deactivation process is not very complicated, as Williams explained it. First, the handgun or rifle is disassembled. Then, all the parts that normally hold bullets or cartridges are welded so the casings can no longer fit. The barrel is plugged. The frame is also welded to render moving parts useless.

“It would be easier to build a complete gun than to attempt to reactivate something we’ve already worked on,” Williams said. “If you put a new barrel and a new cylinder in (a deactivated gun), it still wouldn’t work because the frame is bad. And if you buy a new frame as well . . . you have a new gun.”

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Once deactivated, the handguns are electroplated in 24-karat gold. “That way, they would be recognized by (Japanese) customs (officials) as being guns that do not fire,” Williams said.

Williams’ gun deactivation enterprise began three years ago during an informal brainstorming session with his Japanese customers, who up until then were buying his designs for firearm sighting devices. Williams still operates his firearm optics business, but mostly contracts with the military and police departments.

“We were sitting around one evening over sake and sushi and decided we needed to do something to expand our businesses,” Williams recalled. “Then someone hit upon the perfect idea: The Japanese cannot have handguns as weapons, so why not sell them as conversational pieces? That was how it all started.”

Japanese customs officials were more than a bit wary when Williams’ guns were first imported into their country.

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At first, “they tested them and they tested them,” Williams said, “but I guess they now know what kind of business we’re in, because we don’t have that much problem with customs anymore.”


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