ATF apparently disregarded assault weapons standards Records suggest agency strayed from own advice in approving gun imports

December 15, 1997|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has for years been allowing arms dealers to import tens of thousands of assault weapons that apparently fail to meet standards written by top officials of the agency.

Those standards -- contained in a 1989 report obtained by the Los Angeles Times through the Freedom of Information Act -- likely will play a key role in the Clinton administration's current review of whether the ATF has been lax in blocking shipments of high-powered weapons.

Although not widely circulated, the report is considered highly significant because it provides the agency's most comprehensive analysis of what kinds of weapons can be lawfully imported.

It states that under a 1968 federal law, foreign firearms must be for "sporting purposes" only, such as "target shooting, skeet and trap shooting, and hunting." The report said most weapons used for hunting are not semiautomatic. The vast majority of sporting weapons, the agency said, do not have grips that can be used for one-handed combat shooting and do not use large ammunition clips.

Further, the report stressed that the law should be interpreted restrictively -- meaning that any of these nonsporting characteristics could be potential grounds for barring a weapon from U.S. soil.

Since the report's writing, however, documents and interviews suggest that the agency has strayed from its own advice, approving firearms that would not meet a conservative application of the law. Among them:

The WUM-1. This gun is comparable to the Romanian AK-47 and fires bullets with more wounding power than those unleashed by an assault rifle specifically banned by federal law, the AR-15.

The SAR 4800. Ads for this weapon boast that it is an "exact model and fully interchangeable" with the banned Belgian FN-FAL.

The SAR 8. Billed in gun publications as a "counter-sniper rifle," it is the successor to the California-banned HK-91 and PSG-1 assault rifles.

Although ATF officials declined repeated requests for interviews, they have said in the past that they have no authority to ban imports that technically comply with the 1994 federal assault weapons law -- a position that 30 U.S. senators disputed in a letter to President Clinton three months ago.

The senators argued that the 1994 statute -- which restricts specifically named assault guns and more broadly prohibits certain military-style features -- applies only to firearms already in the United States. Imported guns, they said, must meet the more restrictive "sporting purposes" test of the 1968 Gun Control Act.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, said that by failing to strictly enforce that test, the ATF has improperly approved numerous weapons and jeopardized the public safety.

"To say that these weapons meet the sporting purposes test makes a mockery of the word 'sport,' " she said.

Feinstein has found support for her position in a study by the Congressional Research Service, a branch of the Library of Congress.

That study, while remaining neutral in its conclusions, found that the ATF has used its virtually "unbridled discretion" to interpret the "sporting" law in a way that has been generous toward gun importers.

Some of the very weapons approved in this fashion are at the heart of the White House's review of the ATF -- and prompted Clinton to suspend last month all assault weapon imports.

In determining whether the shipments should resume, the administration likely will review a number of internal ATF documents, including the 1989 "sporting purposes" study, written for Clinton predecessor George Bush.

Pub Date: 12/15/97

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