In 1989, Patrick Purdy—armed with an imported semiautomatic AK-47 assault rifle—opened fire in a Stockton, California schoolyard. Purdy killed five and wounded 29. Since then, two Administrations have grappled with how to keep foreign-made assault weapons out of the United States. Unfortunately, these efforts have met with little success.
This failure is primarily the result of profound flaws in the manner by which the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) has attempted to regulate the import of such weapons. The major shortcoming of ATF's approach is the agency's failure to develop import criteria that treat assault weapons as a distinct class of firearm. Instead, the agency has relied on a gun-by-gun analysis which has allowed manufacturers to make slight cosmetic modifications that have little effect on the weapons' lethality.
The effects of ATF's short-sighted approach have been exacerbated by its practice of working with foreign manufacturers to circumvent the agency's own import standards. In essence, ATF has supplied foreign manufacturers with a road map to beat the ban. The most common method used by foreign manufacturers to gain import approval for their weapons is to "sporterize" them.
This study offers a brief chronology of the renewed debate over the import of foreign-made "sporterized" semiautomatic assault rifles leading up to ATF's decision regarding the import of these weapons. The study contains four sections.
1) ATF is the government agency charged with enforcing federal firearms laws. The agency decides which firearms meet the standards for import.
2) "Sporterized" assault weapons incorporate minor cosmetic modifications in an effort to subvert restrictions on their manufacture and sale. For example, one common tactic is to substitute a "thumbhole" stock for a pistol grip. This slight modification changes the appearance of the firearm while maintaining the function of a pistol grip—allowing the gun to be easily fired from the hip.
Back to Target America Table of Contents
The Violence Policy Center is a national non-profit educational foundation that conducts research on violence in America and works to develop violence-reduction policies and proposals. The Center examines the role of firearms in America, conducts research on firearms violence, and explores new ways to decrease firearm-related death and injury.