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What's So Scary About Banning Assault Weapons?

Monday, December 15, 2003

Maybe you think it's OK to ban
military-looking firearms because
they don't have a "sporting purpose."

Maybe you think a ban on
"assault weapons" is harmless
because you don't own one.

Maybe you figure there's
nothing for you to fear.

Maybe you should read this article.

What if--under the threat of criminal prosecution--peaceable gun owners were only allowed to obtain and keep selected firearms based solely on a very limited list of government-approved activities?

What if owning a particular type of shotgun were a criminal act if you did not participate in government-sanctioned "traditional shotgun sports of hunting, trap and skeet shooting"?

What if government approval of your owning a rifle depended on its use as being "limited to certain traditional sports and not simply any lawful activity in which the weapons might be employed"?

Those strictures--those precise words--are not from Australia or England where firearms confiscation came into being: first, when gun owners were forced to justify their firearms by having to show participation in government-approved sports, and finally, when those reasons were ultimately disallowed and guns declared contraband.

Those words--those limitations--are reality here and now in the United States and have been in force since 1968 when Congress gave federal bureaucrats limitless authority to ban firearms imports based on "sporting purpose"- that is, approval of what Americans were permitted by government to do with those arms.

"Sporting purposes" criteria are the basis in law for two massive stroke-of the-pen regulatory long-gun bans on importation of what government bureaucrats unilaterally determined to be illegal "semi-automatic assault weapons"--first in 1989, then again in 1998.

Moreover, that same "sporting purpose" concept is, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the basis of the 1994 law banning private possession of new semi-automatic firearms defined by the likes of Dianne Feinstein and Chuck Schumer as illegal "assault weapons."

That law, which was a cornerstone of President Bill Clinton's efforts at civil disarmament, is scheduled to be erased automatically from the books Sept. 13, 2004. But don't bet the farm that will happen without a massive effort on the part of gun owners. Anti-gun rights forces are hoping that a segment of firearms owners won't care enough to make their voices heard.

We were saddled with the 1994 ban because of a divide-and-conquer strategy over "black guns." The media, gun ban politicians and federal bureaucrats were all reading off the same page--"you can't hunt with a semi auto AK-47" or endless variations of that theme--but they all added up to the concept that if a firearm is no good for sport, it's no good for private ownership. And that boils down to government telling peaceable Americans what they can and cannot keep firearms for. And that is the slipperiest slope of all.

Keeping the 1994 Clinton gun ban in place--and expanding it--is the goal of every anti-gun rights lobby politician and their friends in the national media.

Massive expansion of government's power to ban any firearm the bureau crats choose is tied to a series of amendments that anti-gun groups have at the ready--legislative amendments that center on the use of the "sporting purpose test."

Kristen Rand, the legislative director of the Violence Policy Center (VPC), in disclosing the nature of secret summit strategy meetings last November between most of the anti-gun rights groups, said:

"We would argue that there should be other, more subjective, definitions that would give law enforcement agencies the means to identify guns that are in fact assault weapons--something like the 'sporting purpose' test atf used in respect to imports." (Emphasis added.) This was described as "providing enforcement agencies greater latitude for decision-making."

To understand where the Violence Policy Center would take us and how they would smother our rights and freedoms through purely bureaucratic use of the law with respect to "sporting purpose," understanding some history is a must.

At the twilight of President Lyndon B. Johnson's star-crossed elected term in office, the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King in April 1968 and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy two months later set in motion an unprecedented frenzy for new federal anti-gun laws.

As part of what would become the 1968 Gun Control Act, Congress set up a massive new bureaucratic scheme run by the U.S. Department of the Treasury to regulate all commercial commerce in firearms and ammunition; prohibit mail order sales of firearms; prohibit interstate firearms transfers between individuals; ban outright the importation of surplus military arms; and give the Treasury secretary broad authority to ban importation of any other firearms which it might declare as not "generally-recognized as particularly suitable for or readily adaptable to sporting purposes . . ."

Those basic words, or variations on the theme of "sporting purposes," became the single most dangerous and elastic phrase in the federal gun law.

Those words were originally coined by the domestic handgun manufac-turers as a device to have government implement a kind of legalized restraint of trade against foreign competition. The ban on the importation of military surplus arms--all of which Congress generically determined to have no "sporting purpose"--was also a protectionist measure long sought by elements of the American firearms industry.

Initially, the phrase, "not particularly suitable for sporting purposes" was aimed exclusively at banning those imported handguns.

On the question of a specific definition as to what "sporting purpose" actually meant, Congress was deadly silent. There is no definition in the law itself. And the law set no limits as to the power granted to the U.S. Treasury Department to write its own definition, and set its own criteria for "sporting purposes." In practice, it proved to mean whatever bureaucrats said it means.

As a result, following the enactment of the new federal gun laws, the then new Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (now BATFE) established a "Firearms Evaluation Panel," which--with considerable input from the domestic handgun industry--came up with what it called "factoring criteria" to determine which handguns would be banned from importation. The criteria consisted of design requirements based on large physical size, caliber, weight, frame construction, target sights and the addition of import-only safety devices.

In effect, the bureaucrats at BATF had entered the foreign handgun design business.

The question of long guns and "sporting purpose" came up briefly before the 1968 Firearms Evaluation Panel, involving the Beretta BM59, the SIG-AMT and the Cetme semi-automatic rifles, which were all authorized for importation as being "suitable for sporting purposes."

But the first real application of the "sporting purpose" test on long guns came in 1984 when, as BATF described it, the agency "undertook a meaningful analysis" and declared the Striker-12 shotgun as not suitable for "sporting purposes." (Emphasis added.)

That analysis was "meaningful" all right, because BATF stretched both the definition of sporting purposes and the agency's own power--this time to declare the actual use of a firearm as unacceptable.

. . . the media was saying it was about crime; and the BATF said crime had nothing to do with its ban.

It was a chilling precedent. The agency demanded the importer prove the sporting use of the shotgun and was told that it could be used for "police/combat style competitions." BATF determined that this type of competition did not constitute "sporting" purposes under the statute, and that this shotgun was "not suitable for traditional purposes, such as hunting, and trap and skeet shooting."There it was: an agency of the federal government determining acceptable private uses for a firearm.

"Sporting purposes" and long guns became an issue again in 1986 when the agency stopped importation of the USAS-12 shotgun and grabbed more power unto itself.

Read the agency's own description: "Again ATF refused to recognize police/combat competitions as a 'sporting purpose' and emphasized the criteria was based on 'suitability for traditional shotgun sports of hunting, trap and skeet shooting . . . .' In these cases atf adopted an interpretation of sporting as being limited to certain traditional sports and not simply any lawful activity in which the weapons might be employed." (Emphasis added.)

The agency was no longer in the imported gun design business; it had entered into the domestic social engineering business--approving or disapproving of perfectly legal activities practiced by peaceable Americans.

The most profoundly dangerous step in the metastasis of BATF's social engineering scheme came in 1989 when the "sporting purposes" language of the '68 Act was brought to bear upon the first large-scale long gun prohibition in U.S. history--a ban on the importation of semi-automatic versions of military rifles.

The ban came at the urging of Prof. William Bennett, who had been appointed "drug czar" by then-President George H. W. Bush.

The nation was locked in an epidemic of rampant drug use. Network television and films exploited the theme, and Americans were fed a daily diet of trendy drug dealers all sporting UZIs and AK-47s. It was a fiction that created the notion that these guns were actually used by violent criminals.

But the fiction was sufficient to create a whipping boy--the so-called "assault weapon."

The actual ban itself was sparked by a single horrific event. A rabidly racist sociopath named Patrick Purdy shot and killed five Asian school children and wounded 30 others on an elementary school playground in Stockton, Calif., in January 1989. Purdy used an imported Chinese manufactured semi-auto variant of the Kalashnikov.

In committing his multiple murders, Purdy--an habitual criminal--had violated a dozen gun laws. But the only fact that was of any importance to the media and politicians was that he had used a semi-auto military look-alike, hundreds of thousands of which had been lawfully imported and legally sold to peaceable citizens.

With the media screaming about the dangers of imported "assault rifles," the White House moved in lockstep. The president telling a meeting of Drug Enforcement Administration officers in New York City on March 9, 1989:
"I've asked Bill Bennett to look into what can be done to prevent these fully automatic assault weapons from falling into the hands of the criminals that you face." (Emphasis added)

At Bennett's urging, on March 14, 1989, BATF suspended imports of "AKS type weapons, UZI carbines, FN/FAL-type weapons, FN/FNC-type weapons and Steyr Aug semi-automatic weapons." The "temporary" ban was extended to virtually all other imported military look-alike semi-autos on April 5, 1989.

The suspension was actually based on three factors--"military appearance, large magazine capacity or semi-automatic version of a machine gun."

Treasury then set up what it called an "ATF Working Group"--essentially a committee of faceless bureaucrats to decide what foreign-made semi-auto rifles law-abiding Americans would be allowed to buy and own in the future.

This ban was never really about hardware. The work inside BATF's smoke filled backrooms actually produced a document containing the seeds of great peril to the rights of all peaceable firearms owners.


That document exponentially expanded BATF's social engineering notion of gun control--that bureaucrats had the power under "sporting purposes" import authority to approve or disapprove of what peaceable Americans did with their firearms.

Despite what the media said or what anti-gunners said, this was never about crime, addressing that issue on one short paragraph: "The criminal misuse of semi-automatic assault rifles is a matter of significant public concern and was an important factor in the decision to suspend their importation. Nevertheless, the working group did not consider criminal misuse as a factor in its analysis of the importability of this type of rifle." (Emphasis added.)

The drug czar was telling the American people this was about crime; the President of the United States was saying this was about crime; the media was saying it was about crime; and the BATF said crime had nothing to do with its ban. The conclusion: "The working group reviewed all of the information gathered . . . and determined that while these weapons may legally be used for sporting purposes in most states, the evidence was compelling that, as a type of firearm, the semi-automatic assault rifle is not generally recognized as particularly suitable for sporting purposes." (Emphasis added.)

In a single stroke, BATF also erased the earlier 1968 semi-auto long gun findings of the initial "sporting purposes" panel, calling its work "superficial and unpersuasive." The guns permitted for importation in 1968 were now banned as well.

To get the gist of what the bureaucrats had in mind, consider these gems:

"The broadest interpretation could take in virtually any lawful activity or competition which any person or groups of persons might undertake. Under this interpretation, any rifle could meet the 'sporting purposes test.' A narrower interpretation which focuses on the traditional sports of hunting and organized marksmanship competition would result in a more selective importation process."

". . . the legislative history suggests a narrow meaning and indicates that the term 'sporting purposes' refers to the traditional sports of target shooting, skeet and trap shooting, and hunting . . . ." (Emphasis added.)

BATF was told at the time, in fact, that the rifles they were about to ban, at least some of them, were indeed used in organized competition. But that was simply not good enough.

Here they cited what they claimed was the legislative history of the Gun Control Act. "There is nothing in its history to indicate that it was intended to recognize every conceivable type of activity or competition which might employ a firearm. To the contrary, the history indicates that mere use in some competition would not make the rifle a sporting rifle." (Emphasis added.)

Or try this; ". . . the fact that there may be some evidence that a particular rifle of this type is used or recommended for sporting purposes should not control its importability."

Or this: ". . . the so-called activity of plinking is not a recognized sport."

There was no way law-abiding users of these imported firearms could win. The fix was in.

As for competition with military rifles: "Moreover, we believe that reference to sporting purposes was intended also to stand in contrast to military and law enforcement applications. Consequently, the working group does not believe that police/combat-type competitions should be treated as sporting activities." (Emphasis added.)

The significance of this last finding cannot be understated.

Were this "sporting purpose" power to be extended implicitly to BATF's oversight of domestic transfer and possession of firearms, today this would clearly rule out every match course involving military or police-style arms and all of the shooting games that have any connection to police or military applications. Think about Camp Perry or ipsc or any other "combat-type" competitions which millions of Americans enjoy.

They all would be banned as "non-sporting."

In fact, the use of military arms in civilian competition was a question raised on the floor of the Senate when the ban on military arms as being "not suitable for sporting purposes" was debated in 1968.

In an exchange with Connecticut U.S. Sen. Thomas Dodd, Wyoming's Sen. Clifford Hansen asked Dodd if "Olympic shooting competition" and "Camp Perry national matches" would be considered "a sporting purpose." In both instances, Dodd emphatically said they would fulfill the definition of a "sporting purpose."

Cliff Hansen then asked if military arms that are used at Camp Perry would qualify as sporting arms, and Dodd replied, ". . . if a military weapon is used in a special sporting event, it does not become a sporting weapon."

Pressed with the fact that military arms are widely used in competitive shooting events, Dodd's answer was, "I do not know . . . I am not well informed on that." (Emphasis added.)

It is clear that Sen. Hansen knew and spoke of the true facts about the use of military arms in pure sporting events, yet it is upon Dodd's ignorance that BATF rationalized its "sporting purpose" power grab.

Here is what the bureaucrats drew from that specific floor discussion:

"Similarly, it is apparent that the drafters of the legislation did not intend for 'sports' to include every conceivable type of activity or competition which might employ a firearm; otherwise a 'sporting purpose' could be advanced for every firearm sought to be imported." From that they concluded, "The mere fact that a military firearm may be used in a sporting event does not make it importable as a sporting firearm."

In the end, the federal gun police got the "semi-automatic assault rifle" import ban they wanted, concluding: "While these weapons can be used, and indeed may be used by some, for hunting and target shooting, we believe it is clear that they are not generally recognized as particularly suitable for these purposes."

BATF said their intent was "to preserve the sportsman's right to sporting firearms. This decision will in no way preclude the importation of true sporting firearms. It will only prevent the importation of military-style firearms which, although popular among some gun owners for collection, self defense, combat competitions, or plinking, simply cannot be fairly characterized as sporting rifles." (Emphasis added.)

In that one expression--"preserve the sportsman's right to sporting firearms"--federal bureaucrats drafted their own definition of the Second Amendment Right to Keep and Bear Arms cutting out "collection, self defense, combat competitions, or plinking" as legitimate reasons for Americans to own firearms--in this case imported semi-automatic firearms.The ban was based on an absurd hardware criteria that included five elements: a bayonet lug, flash-hider, grenade launcher, protruding pistol grip and night sights.

By BATF's own admission, it had nothing whatsoever to do with crime, but it would become the model for other federal bans to come. Again, the real danger was not in the hardware criteria, but in defining what Americans could do and could not do with their own firearms. The greatest danger was in BATF's pompous pledge to "preserve the sportsman's right to sporting firearms."

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Guide To The Interstate Transportation Of Firearms

Gun Laws  

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CAUTION: Federal and state firearms laws are subject to frequent change. This summary is not to be considered as legal advice or a restatement of law.


Established in 1975, the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA) is the "lobbying" arm of the National Rifle Association of America. ILA is responsible for preserving the right of all law-abiding individuals in the legislative, political, and legal arenas, to purchase, possess and use firearms for legitimate purposes as guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.