When federal agents this month arrested 14 people, including six United States marines, for allegedly trafficking in stolen military weapons, they sought to dam a rivulet feeding a nationwide flood of small arms.
President Clinton may be about to block another source, at least temporarily. He is considering a 90-day suspension of imports of semi-automatic versions of guns such as the AK-47.
Such imports were banned in 1989 by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). But newly released ATF data show they have since resumed with the agency's approval, with more than 35,000 such rifles entering the US in 1996.
Just why the ATF, a Treasury Department division that oversees federal gun laws, began signing off on the imports again is unclear and is to be reviewed during the suspension period.
Whatever the reason, demands for the suspension underscore the alarm over the growing use of powerful weapons on US streets - as evidenced by police in Los Angeles and Miami recently upgrading their own arsenals to match those of criminals.
Critics accuse Clinton of using the issue to further limit firearms - even beyond the 1994 ban on US-made assault weapons. "The Clinton administration is introducing the bigger Clinton gun ban ... still another prohibition that bans more guns," contends Tanya Metaksa, chief lobbyist for the National Rifle Association. For the NRA, any restrictions on gun sales constitutes a breach of the constitutional right to bear arms.
But advocates of the suspension, including 30 senators led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, say a crackdown on imported semi-automatic rifles is urgently needed to bolster the 1994 ban and limit the number guns available to criminals.
"These weapons ... have become the weapon of choice for grievance killers, gangs, and those who use them against police," the senators said in a Sept. 17 letter to Clinton.
Their cause was bolstered this week by a new study of the global proliferation of small arms by the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington think tank. It estimates there are about 500 million firearms outside the control of the world's militaries. Data from the NRA and FBI show that between 230 million and 250 million of them are in the hands of US civilians, the study says.
"At the high end of that range, this would mean one firearm for every American, from infant to senior citizen," says the study.
IMPORTED semi-automatic assault rifles were banned in 1989 after a gunman opened fire with one on a Stockton, Calif., schoolyard. The agency found that the imports did not meet a "suitability for sporting purposes" test required by a 1968 gun-control law. The decision was upheld by a federal court.
But the ATF has since resumed approving such imports, apparently because gunmakers were modifying them by removing military-style features, such as pistol grips, prohibited under the 1994 ban. Domestic manufacturers have also been skirting the ban by making the same cosmetic changes to their arms.
The new imports came to light after Senator Feinstein learned the ATF authorized imports by state-run Israeli Military Industries Ltd. of thousands of modified Uzi and Galil assault rifles.
Feinstein charges that the ATF has stopped applying the "sporting purposes" test. Indeed, preliminary ATF data obtained by the Monitor show that in 1995, several thousand semi-automatic rifles arrived from Brazil and Bulgaria. In 1996, at least 35,037 were imported from those countries, Egypt, Hungary and Greece. Comment from the ATF was not immediately available.
The suspension will allow the ATF to apply anew the "sporting purposes" test. Feinstein believes this will stem the tide.