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Feinstein Asks President To Tighten Import Restrictions On Semi-Automatic Rifles

Friday, February 4, 2011

On Tuesday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) sent a letter to President Barack Obama, urging him to have the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives review its interpretation of the federal law that provides for the importation of firearms "generally recognized as particularly suitable for or readily adaptable to sporting purposes."  Adopting a narrower interpretation of the law would, Feinstein claimed, help reduce violence in Mexico and the United States.

As the Supreme Court said in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), the Second Amendment protects the right to keep and bear arms primarily for self-defense.  This means the "sporting purposes" limitation imposed by the Gun Control Act of 1968 is constitutionally suspect, to put it mildly.  What makes matters worse is that BATFE repeatedly misinterprets the law to serve political ends, which is precisely what Feinstein has in mind.

In 1989, under orders from the White House, BATF (as it was then called) disapproved the importation of 43 models of semi-automatic rifles of a type BATF had approved for importation for over 20 years.

To reach that decision, BATF said it recognized that "sporting purposes" included "the traditional sports of target shooting, skeet and trap shooting, and hunting," but limited its interpretation of "target shooting" to "organized marksmanship competition."  Next, BATF failed to acknowledge that the most traditional, organized marksmanship shooting competitions in the United States for more than a century -- the NRA National Rifle Championships and the Civilian Marksmanship Program National Rifle Matches, authorized by Congress since 1903, and the hundreds of local, state and regional matches that precede the national events each year -- were dominated by rifles like those BATF prohibited.

In 1993, President Clinton made BATF play politics with federal law again, in order to ban the importation of so-called "assault pistols."  Such pistols had long been approved for importation because they garnered enough points under BATF's longstanding "Handgun Factoring Criteria," which assign point values to handgun features and characteristics such as weight, caliber, and sights.  To ban the pistols, BATF simply disregarded the criteria.

In 1998, the BATF went further on rifles, banning the importation of previously importable semi-automatics that are capable of using a magazine that holds more than 10 rounds.  BATF claimed that its action was justified because the federal "assault weapon" ban of 1994 had prohibited new magazines of over 10 rounds capacity.  Of course, the 1994 ban didn't prohibit rifles on the basis of their ability to use such magazines.  The White House bragged "We're taking the law and bending it as far as we can."

Sen. Feinstein's call for more restrictions comes on the heels of last week's news that a BATFE working group has proposed banning the importation of various shotguns under the sporting purposes test, even while recognizing that the shotguns are commonly used in three-gun and other practical shooting competitions.  The working group said it didn't want to give consideration to practical shooting competitions, because doing so might require BATFE to reconsider its previous bans on rifles and pistols.

In each case, BATFE has disregarded the plain language of the sporting purposes test, defining "generally recognized," "suitable," and "sporting" in whatever way supported the restrictions its political bosses demanded.  And it completely ignored the law's provision for firearms that are "readily adaptable" to sports.  Under the latter standard, even a hypothetical firearm designed solely for defensive purposes is qualified for importation if it is readily adaptable to sporting purposes.

Of course, while the BATFE deserves criticism for its repeated misinterpretations of the law, and Feinstein deserves criticism for encouraging yet another misinterpretation, the primary problem is the law's "sporting purpose" limitation.  Imposed in 1968, in the pre-Right-to-Carry and pre-Heller days, when government enjoyed a near monopoly on the use of armed defense outside a person's home, the law is ripe for a remedy in Congress or the courts.

NRA members can help right now by sending their comments to the BATFE concerning its working group's proposal to ban the importation of shotguns that have magazines that hold over five rounds, rail systems for lighting devices, adjustable stocks, and other features listed in the group's report.

Comments should be sent to BATFE no later than May 1, 2011, at shotgunstudy@atf.gov, or by fax to (202) 648-9601.  Faxed comments may not exceed 5 pages.  All comments must include name and mailing address.

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