Gun Laws & Legislation
Sen. Dianne Feinstein stands next to a display of assault weapons during a news conference January 24, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images) Sen. Dianne Feinstein stands next to a display of assault weapons during a news conference January 24, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)  

Dianne Feinstein pushes for semi-automatic rifle import ban based on 45-year-old law

Mike Piccione
Editor, Guns & Gear

California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein is circulating a letter on Capitol Hill calling once again for a ban on semi-automatic rifles and asking for President Barack Obama to keep his State of the Union promise to make 2014 a “year of action.”

Citing the Gun Control Act of 1968, Feinstein states, “In recent years… importers of firearms have taken advantage of ATF’s interpretation of the ‘sporting purposes’ test to evade the import ban.”

The phrase contained in The Gun Control Act of 1968 Feinstein is referencing prohibits the importation of firearms that are not “generally recognized as particularly suitable for or readily adaptable to sporting purposes.”  She claims that in recent years firearms importers have taken advantage of ATF’s interpretation of “sporting purposes” to circumvent the ban.

Although Feinstein recognizes that the firearms are designed for civilian use and never manufactured or used by any standing army, she maintained that “many semiautomatic firearms on the market today do not have a military origin but are modeled closely after military firearms.”

To justify the ban, Feinstein cited a study by The Center for Public Integrity and expressed concern regarding international gun-running.

“700 Romanian AK-47 variant rifles were identified in 134 federal gun trafficking prosecutions involving illegal smuggling from the United States to Mexico and other Latin American countries,” she wrote.

The ban would target attributes like “thumbhole stocks” and “semi-automatic rifles with fixed magazines with a capacity of more than 10 rounds” which would prohibit tube-fed .22 rimfire rifles.

Additionally, rifles and “assault pistols” capable of accommodating detachable magazines with a capacity in excess of 10 rounds would be banned “regardless of the military pedigree of the firearm or the configuration of the firearm’s magazine well.”

Feinstein’s letter does not appear on her Senate.gov page, where constituents can view her other positions.

Read the complete text of the letter, as provided to The Daily Caller:

The President

The White House

Washington, DC  20500

Dear Mr. President:

During your State of the Union address, you stated that you want to make 2014 a “year of action.”  We write to urge you to take immediate action to address the significant number of assault weapons that are being imported into the United States in contravention of federal law.  We respectfully request that you take steps to ensure that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) fully enforces the ban on the importation of these military-style firearms.     

A provision of the Gun Control Act of 1968, codified at 18 U.S.C. § 925(d)(3), prohibits the importation of firearms that are not “generally recognized as particularly suitable for or readily adaptable to sporting purposes.”  In recent years, however, importers of firearms have taken advantage of ATF’s interpretation of the “sporting purposes” test to evade the import ban.  In 1998, the Department of the Treasury — which then housed ATF — issued guidance that interpreted the import ban to prohibit only semiautomatic rifles that use magazines originally designed for a military rifle.  Many semiautomatic firearms on the market today do not have a military origin but are modeled closely after military firearms.  These military-style firearms are not prohibited under the current import ban, even though they are functionally equivalent to prohibited rifles with a military origin.  In addition, the Treasury Department’s 1998 guidance allows foreign-made firearms to be imported into the United States without military features, even though these firearms have the capacity to fire multiple times in quick succession without the need to reload and can easily have military features attached.

As a result of the Treasury Department’s unnecessarily restrictive interpretation of the sporting purposes test, imports of military-style weapons have increased dramatically in recent years, helping to fuel deadly gun violence along the Southwest border and in neighboring Mexico.  According to data obtained from the Commerce Department and the International Trade Commission and analyzed by The Center for Public Integrity, 2.96 million rifles and handguns were imported into the United States in 2009, more than double the 1.32 million firearms imported in 2005.  In January of this year, Russia’s Kalashnikov gun maker announced that it plans to sell in the United States up to 200,000 rifles and shotguns, many of which are designed after the Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle.  An analysis by the Violence Policy Center found that more than 700 Romanian AK-47 variant rifles were identified in 134 federal gun trafficking prosecutions involving illegal smuggling from the United States to Mexico and other Latin American countries.

For example, one imported Romanian AK firearm, the WASR-10, was carefully designed to exploit the sporting purposes test and has become a favorite of the gun traffickers that profit by arming Mexican drug trafficking organizations.  The importer of the WASR-10, Century International Arms, circumvents the import ban by taking the following steps:  First, the company imports the inexpensive weapon without any military features, to avoid contravening the ban.  Next, the weapon is disassembled, and American-made parts are added, to make the weapon “American-made,” not “foreign-made.”  The magazine well is also modified to accept higher capacity ammunition magazines.  Finally, assault features — which would be illegal if added to a foreign-made weapon — are added to the now-American-made weapon, rendering the weapon an assault rifle for all practical purposes.  The resulting firearm is then sold on the civilian market, either to be used in violent acts here at home or smuggled across the border into Mexico.

WASR-10s have repeatedly been found in the arsenals of top drug kingpins and their associates.  For example, at least one WASR-10 was used in May 2008 to kill eight police officers in Culiacan, Mexico, a city in the northwestern part of the country.  An analysis conducted by The Center for Public Integrity found that, over the last four years, WASR-10 rifles comprised more than 17% of the firearms recovered at Mexican crime scenes and successfully traced back to the United States.  In all, according to a memorandum by the Council on Foreign Relations published in July 2013, over 70% of the 99,000 weapons recovered by Mexican law enforcement since 2007 were traced to U.S. manufacturers and importers.

We urge ATF to close the loopholes that allow the importation of military-style weapons into the United States.  Such an approach should, at a minimum:

  • Prohibit importation of all semiautomatic rifles that can accept, or be readily converted to accept, a large capacity ammunition magazine of more than 10 rounds, regardless of the military pedigree of the firearm or the configuration of the firearm’s magazine well;
  • Prohibit semiautomatic rifles with fixed magazines with a capacity of more than 10 rounds;
  • Prohibit the importation of the frame or receiver of any prohibited rifle, regardless of whether it is incorporated into a fully manufactured firearm;
  • Prohibit the practice of importing assault rifles in parts and then constructing the rifles once they are in the United States by adding the requisite number of American-made parts;
  • Prohibit the use of a “thumbhole” stock as a means to avoid classification of a rifle as an assault rifle; and
  • Prohibit the importation of assault pistols, in addition to assault rifles.

 We urge you to review enforcement of the sporting purposes test and take the necessary regulatory steps to stop the importation of all military-style, non-sporting firearms, and the assembly of those firearms from imported parts.  We have endured too many funerals and mourned the loss of too many innocent lives to accept less than full enforcement of the import ban.  Thank you for your attention to this important issue.

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