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Federal Handgun Importation Criteria

Wednesday, July 28, 1999

In 1968, Congress enacted the Gun Control Act, which included provisions relating to the importation of firearms. As amended, one provision [Title 18 U.S.C. §925(d)(3)] provides that?

"The Secretary [of the Treasury] shall authorize a firearm or ammunition to be imported or brought into the United States or any possession thereof if the firearm or ammunition . . . is of a type . . . generally recognized as particularly suitable for or readily adaptable to sporting purposes. . . ."

During hearings of Subcommittee Number 5 of the House Committee on the Judiciary in April 1967, the Commissioner of Internal Revenue, Sheldon S. Cohen, explained that the provision "would not, and I emphasize, would not, preclude the importation of good quality sporting type firearms or of military surplus rifles or shotguns particularly suitable for or adaptable to sporting use."

Soon after the 1968 Act, what is now the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF), Treasury`s agency with regulatory authority over firearm issues, adopted "Factoring Criteria" to be used to determine whether a given handgun is eligible for importation under 925(d)(3). Under the criteria, a handgun must meet certain "prerequisites" and achieve a sufficient number of points under a "point system" which awards points based upon a handgun`s overall length and height (pistols) or frame length and barrel length (revolvers), weight, caliber, frame construction, safety-related features, and miscellaneous equipment such as target sights and grips.

Despite the "sporting language" in 925(d)(3), BATF`s criteria are in some respects weighted against handguns with well-established sporting credentials. As examples, the fact that a handgun uses .22 caliber ammunition earns it relatively few points, though more target shooting is done with .22 caliber handguns than with those of any other caliber. A pistol receives 10 points for having a double-action trigger mechanism, though single-action pistols dominate many long-established target shooting activities. A pistol receives points for having a target trigger and external hammer, though most .22 caliber pistols designed for target shooting do not possess external hammers.

"Gun control" supporters incorrectly claim that the criteria prohibit the importation of only unsafe and relatively inexpensive handguns, which they incorrectly imply are one and the same. (Many relatively inexpensive handguns perform well in durability tests.) As noted, however, "safety features" are but one category addressed in the criteria. Indeed, due to the criteria`s emphasis on the size of a handgun, some handguns with well-established reputations for quality of design and manufacture, such as the relatively expensive Walther PPK, are prohibited from importation. A handgun`s sale price is not a factor determining its eligibility for importation.
Based upon their false assumptions, "gun control" supporters have proposed to adopt the criteria as a rule governing the manufacture of handguns in the U.S. Separately, they have proposed that handguns or, alternately, firearms, be prohibited from manufacture in the U.S. if they would be prohibited from importation for any reason. Among the reasons for opposing such a measure, the BATF does not consistently adhere to the criteria. When directed to do so by the Administration, the BATF has ignored the criteria to prohibit the importation of certain handguns. Further, BATF has never formally adopted criteria for rifles and shotguns and, when directed by the Administration, has prohibited the importation of rifles and shotguns that it had previously approved for importation. Ironically, in 1986, Congress enacted the Firearms Owners Protection Act, which, among other things amended 925(d)(3) to prevent precisely this kind of arbitrary decision-making. Prior to the 1986 Act, the Secretary was permitted to authorize the importation of firearms meeting the federal standard; the 1986 amendment mandated that "the Secretary shall authorize the importation" of eligible firearms. (Emphasis added.)

There are two sections to the factoring criteria, and a handgun must satisfy the requirements of both sections to be eligible for importation.

I. Handgun Size and Safety "Prerequisites"

Pistols: A pistol must have (1) a combined length "not less than 10" with the height . . . at least 4" and the length being at least 6" and (2) "a positive manually operated safety device."

Revolvers: A revolver must (1) have a frame "of 4 1/2" minimum [and] a barrel length of at least 3" and (2) pass a "safety test" consisting of what is commonly referred to as a "drop test."

II. The "Point System"

Pistols: A pistol must earn at least 75 points from the following characteristic areas:

Overall Length For each 1/4" over 6", 1 pt.
Frame Construction If investment cast or forged steel, 15 pts.; if investment cast or forged HTS alloy, 20 pts.
Weight One pt. per ounce; most pistols weigh between 15-40 ounces.
Caliber If between .22 LR and .380 ACP, three pts.; if 9mm or larger, 10 pts.
Safety Features Firing pin block or lock, 10 pts.; locked breech, loaded chamber indicator and magazine safety, 5 pts. each; grip safety, 3 pts.
Misc. Equipment Double-action mechanism, 10 pts.; click adjustble target sight, 10 pts.; drift adjustable target sight, five pts.; target grips, five pts.; target trigger and external hammer, two pts. each.

Revolvers: A revolver must earn at least 45 points from the following characteristic areas:

Barrel length For each 1/4" over 4", 1/2 pt.
Frame construction If investment cast or forged steel, 15 pts.; if investment cast or forged HTS alloy, 20 pts.
Weight One pt. per ounce. Most revolvers weigh between 15-50 ounces.
Caliber If .22 LR and .30 to .38 S&W, three pts.; if .357 Mag. or larger, 5 pts.
Misc. Equipment Adjustable target sights, five pts.; target grips, five pts.; target hammer and trigger, five pts.

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