Gunmakers recycle military junk into weapons Baltimore factory builds and sells assault rifles using U.S. surplus parts

December 28, 1997|By CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CHICAGO -- Jack Friese makes a variation of the M-14, the assault rifle developed by the military and used in Vietnam.

Friese doesn't build these guns from scratch; he pieces them together using parts gathered from the unlikeliest of places. One of those places is a U.S. military scrap yard.

Friese's Baltimore-based Armscorp USA is one of more than a dozen gunmakers that use U.S. military parts to rebuild battlefield firearms that they sell to the public.

These rapid-fire weapons, some of which can shoot four or more rounds a second, are more powerful than those used today in combat. Many, like Friese's M-14s, fire bullets with enough force to pierce lightly armored cars.

Gun industry experts estimate the number of rebuilt military guns to be in the tens of thousands. This is a fraction of the more than 3 million guns produced each year in the United States, a country that now has nearly as many guns as people.

But the sale of rebuilt military weapons demonstrates the inability of the nation's gun laws to keep some of the most deadly military firearms off the streets. And it shows how gun manufacturers have created a perfectly legal and profitable enterprise with an unlikely partner -- the U.S. government.

Thousands of weapons that end up in private hands originate in the stockpiles of the U.S. military. By order of the military, many are supposed to be ground into unusable scrap but nonetheless find their way to gun shows, gun shops and, with some regularity, into the hands of criminals.

A Chicago Tribune investigation of the gun industry, particularly of the secondhand market that includes assault weapons once owned by the military, found America's war on gun crime halfhearted, sporadic and inefficient. Gun laws are riddled with loopholes. Law enforcement agencies are stripped of essential crime-fighting tools. And Congress has repeatedly shied away from tougher gun legislation.

Congress has never passed a gun law to take a single weapon -- including military assault rifles -- out of circulation. At most, laws have stopped the production of some weapons and barred the '' importation of others.

More than 95 percent of the nation's estimated 240 million guns are in private hands. In most states, the resale of these guns, with the exception of machine guns, is unregulated by federal or local laws. They can be sold, traded or given away without waiting periods, background checks or paperwork.

One of the briskest markets for secondhand weapons -- gun shows -- remains virtually free of federal and state regulation, despite a 1993 General Accounting Office investigation that found stolen military guns and weapons being routinely sold at them.

And in a troubling new trend for law enforcement, 24-hour, seven-day-a-week gun shows are popping up on the Internet. Gun buyers can order just about any type of firearm -- including military weapons -- from sellers in their state, often without filling out federal paperwork or submitting to a background check. It's all perfectly legal.

Military parts for sale

But the role of the U.S. government as arms supplier, selling hundreds of thousands of high-powered guns to the public, clearly illustrates the difficulties in curtailing the flow of weapons to U.S. streets.

In addition to M-14s such as those rebuilt by Friese, M-1 carbines and M-1 Garands -- guns specifically developed for the battlefield and declared surplus by the U.S. military -- have found their way into the civilian gun supply.

Some have been resold by foreign governments that were given the weapons decades ago. Others were reconstructed from spare parts. And in some cases, these guns were sold directly to U.S. civilians through a little-known government marksmanship program. Together, these sources contribute significantly to the nation's plentiful supply of deadly firepower.

The global gun business of Friese's Armscorp offers a rare insight into the world of military surplus sales.

It shows how two seemingly minor amendments and loopholes in tough federal laws allowed millions of American-made military firearms and gun parts to be brought back into this country and resold for handsome profits.

The 1968 Gun Control Act blocked the importation of foreign military weapons that had "no sporting value." The 1976 Arms Export Control Act tightened the law by prohibiting importation of American military guns given or sold to foreign allies.

Both laws dealt with complete weapons but said nothing about weapon parts, and so the parts were imported by the ton.

In addition, amendments to the '68 and '76 laws, lobbied for by the National Rifle Association, allowed millions of complete military weapons into the United States as collectors' items.

Currently, the importation of weapons given or sold by the United States to its allies is being held up by the Clinton administration, which says it is re-evaluating the criteria for imports. This moratorium is scheduled to expire in March.

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