Feinstein Wants Obama to Pull a Clinton on Firearm Importation

Posted on March 21, 2014

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U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), sponsor of the federal "assault weapon" and "large" magazine "ban"  of 1994-2004, is asking President Barack Obama to direct the BATFE to reinterpret a provision of the Gun Control Act of 1968 to prohibit the importation of various semi-automatic firearms and their parts.

In a letter to Obama, the text of which was included in an article published by the Daily Caller on Thursday, Feinstein said that, "at a minimum," the BATFE should:

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 . . . .  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 . . . . prohibit the practice of importing assault rifles in parts ….  prohibit the use of a "thumbhole" stock . . . . and prohibit the importation of assault pistols.

Though Feinstein failed to gain approval of legislation she introduced in Congress last year, which would have imposed the biggest gun ban in American history, she has reason to believe that she could achieve some of her ends through the president's use of his executive authority.  In the 1990s, Feinstein urged then-President Bill Clinton to direct the then-BATF to restrict the importation of semi-automatic rifles, and Clinton agreed.  With the White House saying "we're taking the law and bending it as far as we can to capture a whole new class of guns," the BATF prohibited the importation of semi-automatic rifles capable of using standard magazines holding over 10 rounds.

In its report on its 1998 action, the BATF attempted to justify its decision on the grounds that Feinstein's 1994 law had banned the importation of magazines that held more than 10 rounds.

There were many flaws with that argument, including:

  • The 1994 law didn't define a rifle as an "assault weapon" on the basis of the size of its magazine. Rather, it did so on the basis of its action (semi-automatic), its ability to use a detachable magazine (regardless of the magazine's size), and its attachments, such as a pistol-type grip, and a folding or telescoping stock.
  • The 10-round magazine limit applied to magazines for all types of firearms--rifles, pistols and shotguns. The BATF's decision applied only to rifles.
  • The 1994 law didn't ban the importation of magazines that hold more than 10 rounds made before the law took effect. It banned only the domestic manufacture and importation of such magazines made after the law took effect.
  • Contrary to the BATF's claim that semi-automatic, detachable-magazine rifles "may be used for organized competitive target shooting, [but] their suitability for these competitions is limited," American-made rifles of that type are the most commonly used rifles for organized marksmanship competitions.
  • Feinstein's 1994 ban expired in 2004, but the BATFE has not rescinded its 1998 ban.

In her letter to Obama, Feinstein incorrectly stated that the relevant provision of the Gun Control Act, 18 USC 925(d)(3), "prohibits the importation of firearms that are not generally recognized as particularly suitable for or readily adaptable to sporting purposes.'"  (Emphasis added.) Instead, it requires the Attorney General to approve the importation of firearms meeting either standard.  While an important point, however, it may ultimately become moot, as the entire provision has become constitutionally suspect.  In District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), the Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment protects the individual right to keep and bear arms for defensive purposes, not merely for sports.

One might think it doesn't make sense for Feinstein to agitate for gun control in an election year, especially one in which a number of anti-gun senators are going to be facing the voters. However, she is religiously committed to gun control and has been for a long time.

In 1982, then-San Francisco mayor Feinstein said she was "deeply committed" to her proposal to ban the private possession of handguns in the city, even as she carried a handgun for her own protection.  In 1993, she described semi-automatic firearms as "weapons of mass destruction," even as she admitted that the guns she wanted to ban were rarely used in crime.

The same year, Feinstein implied support for banning magazines holding four or more rounds, saying on the Senate floor "I intend to add an amendment that would exempt semiautomatic bolt action (sic) shotguns and bona fide hunting rifles whose clips don't exceed three rounds."

In 1995, Feinstein admitted "there is no question that I would have preferred to see an outright ban on the possession of semiautomatic assault weapons in America, including the 1.5 million to two million currently in circulation. But, simply stated, the votes were not there."  Later, she said "If I could have gotten 51 votes in the Senate of the United States for an outright ban, picking up every one of them, Mr. and Mrs. America turn them all in, I would have done it. I could not do that. The votes weren't there."

In 1995, six months after Feinstein's 1994 ban took effect, CBS 60 Minutes' Leslie Stahl, in a segment titled "What Assault Weapons Ban?" reported that "Assault weapons are still . . . . sold by the thousands." Calling 1994 "the best year for the sales of assault weapons ever," she dismissed as "a good applause line" President Clinton's claim that the ban reduced the number of "assault weapons."  The Christian Science Monitor similarly noted, "gun manufacturers only had to make minor changes to weapons in order to comply with the ban," such as omitting a flash suppressor.

Violent crime had been decreasing and continued to decrease, as Feinstein's "ban" remained in effect. Nevertheless, in 1997, after the Los Angeles Times joined the chorus of news entities reporting the weakness of her ban, Feinstein said she wanted it tightened.

In 1998, Feinstein began introducing bills to expand her 1994 ban's ammunition magazine restriction.  In 2004, knowing she didn't have enough votes to expand the ban, she introduced bills to extend it another 10 years, none of which passed.

With her plea for greater restriction on the importation of firearms, Feinstein continues to badger America for gun control in abject denial of relevant statistics. The nation's murder rate is now at nearly an all-time low, even as Americans have been buying hundreds of thousands of AR-15s annually, including over 800,000 in 2012 alone.

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