The Clinton administration on Friday imposed an immediate ban on the importation of semiautomatic assault-type weapons until the government decides whether they have been modified to skirt U.S. restrictions on foreign-made firearms that are not suitable for "sporting purposes."
The order, signed by President Clinton, calls for the Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to suspend for a maximum of 120 days the importation of up to 600,000 military-style weapons that have already been approved for entry into the country.
The directive also orders the Treasury Department to temporarily suspend acting on pending requests for the importation of more than 1 million additional modified semiautomatic assault weapons, according to a copy of the order obtained by The Times.
Clinton said in his directive that requests for applications from gun importers had "skyrocketed" since Oct. 9, when there were only 10,000 requests on file.
"The number of weapons at issue underscores the potential threat to the public health and safety that necessitates immediate action," Clinton said in his directive to Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin.
Clinton plans to announce the temporary ban--which is certain to draw fierce criticism from the gun lobby--during his radio address today.
The text of the radio address was initially embargoed by the White House but then released Friday night. In it, Clinton said, "You don't need an Uzi to go deer hunting, and everyone knows it.
"As effective as the assault-weapons ban has been, we know that some foreign gun manufacturers are getting around the ban by making minor modifications to their weapons that amount to nothing more than cosmetic surgery.
"We didn't fight as hard as we have--to pass the assault-weapons [ban] in the first place--only to let a few gun manufacturers sidestep our laws and undermine our progress."
Clinton's order substantially widens a proposed directive the White House was considering three weeks ago. That proposal would only have covered future requests from gun importers, and would have allowed gun shipments that had already been approved to come in, including modified Uzis and Galils from Israel.
Earlier this week, the administration was surprised to learn that the ATF had already approved the importation of 600,000 weapons. While importers don't often bring in as many weapons as authorized, that revelation appeared to be a factor in issuing the directive.
Friday's development comes six weeks after 30 U.S. senators, led by California's Dianne Feinstein, implored Clinton in a highly publicized letter to use his executive authority to prevent the entrance into the country of foreign-made weapons. Those weapons have come to symbolize the glaring shortcomings in the nation's laws on military-style assault weapons that don't meet the legal definition of a "sporting" weapon.
The effort by the senators and a similar letter-writing effort by members of the House came after a series in The Times revealed that the laws on assault weapons were seriously flawed. Among other shortcomings, foreign and domestic gun makers could still market military-style guns by making slight modifications that leave intact the lethal ability to accept high-capacity ammunition magazines of up to 100 rounds.
By law, imported weapons also must meet the 1968 Gun Control Act's "sporting purposes" test, which requires that a gun have a legitimate sporting use, such as hunting or trap and skeet shooting.
"This is exactly the action we had urged the president to take," said Feinstein, who spoke with Clinton on Friday before he signed the directive. "I believe that hundreds of lives will ultimately be saved.
"When the review is completed," the Democratic lawmaker continued, "thousands of military-style assault weapons that have been allowed to be imported under the guise of sporting weapons will be barred from importation."
Gun proponents have correctly pointed out that domestic gun makers have likewise made slight modifications to their weapons to make them legal. They argue that the laws are ineffective and unnecessary. Assault weapons, gun proponents say, represent a very small number of the weapons in the United States.
However, gun-control advocates say the firing characteristics of semiautomatic assault weapons, particularly their ability to accept large-capacity ammunition magazines, pose a unique threat.
"We certainly produce more than enough guns right here in this country," said Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), who had urged Clinton to issue a broad directive. "I'm sorry, the importers are modifying these assault weapons, and that flies in the face of the spirit of the law."
President Bush invoked the same "sporting purposes" clause in 1989 when he suspended the importation of 43 models of semiautomatic assault weapons, including those whose importation had already been granted. Bush's action was challenged in court but was upheld.
Clinton's measure could also trigger legal action, especially from dealers and manufacturers whose guns had already been approved for importation, according to Bob Ricker of the American Shooting Sports Council.
"To try to stretch or bend the law is only going to mean litigation and other possible ramifications," Ricker said. "If this directive does include everything, we're going to want to know how the administration can say certain firearms are legal before tomorrow's date and then turn around and say they are not legal now.
"By the stroke of a pen those guns are going to be bad?" Ricker continued. "The ATF looked at their applications [for import permits] and ruled they complied with the law."
At the same time, Ricker said his organization, which represents gun makers and dealers, wants to work with the Clinton administration and Feinstein.
"If this is a process that must take place, we're more than willing to sit down with Sen. Feinstein and the president," he said.
Tanya Metaksa, the National Rifle Assn.'s chief lobbyist, charged that Clinton's directive is an attempt to broaden gun laws by changing the definition of assault weapons to envelope a "whole new class of weapons."
She said it is a poorly disguised effort to plug holes in the law passed by Congress in 1994--over the NRA's strong objections--to restrict domestically produced weapons.
Bob Walker, president of Handgun Control Inc., said Clinton's action is a welcome first step, but he said more needs to be done on the home front.
"We urge Congress to consider outlawing domestically-manufactured copycat assault weapons as well," Walker said.
"The bottom line is we don't need more Uzis no matter how they may be reconfigured. When more American children die from firearms, more than in 25 other industrialized nations combined, importing more battlefield weapons is the way to more mayhem and tragedy."
* RELATED STORY: B1