One year after the Bush administration banned imported assault weapons to help keep high-powered firearms out of the hands of drug traffickers and other criminals, federal officials have given the green light for the importation of modified versions of the same semiautomatic rifles.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has granted requests of gun importers to import new versions of the Uzi, AK-47, Galil, HK-91 and other assault weapons that were prohibited under last year's ban.
The new versions have been altered to remove flash suppressors, grenade launchers, bayonet attachments and other military-style features that made them unsuitable for "sporting purposes," according to a BATF spokeswoman.
But these guns can still accept high-capacity magazines -- of up to 30 rounds of ammunition -- and have stocks that can act as pistol grips, allowing the rifles to be fired and reloaded rapidly from the hip. This makes them every bit as deadly as the banned weapons and "makes a mockery of last year's action," charged Josh Sugarman, director of the Firearms Policy Project, which released BATF documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act that showed approval of the imports.
How many and which of the weapons approved for import will actually be brought into the country is unclear.
The National Rifle Association, which bitterly opposed last year's ban, has argued that there is functionally no difference between most standard sporting rifles, many of which are also semiautomatic, and the assault weapons that have been at the center of public controversy.
But Sugarman, whose group advocates gun control, contended that the combination of features such as the pistol grip and high-capacity magazine makes the weapons, including the modified versions, far more menacing than the average sporting rifle.
"No matter how you dress it up -- if it's semiautomatic, can fire high-capacity detachable ammunition magazines and has what is in effect a pistol grip -- it's an assault weapon," he said.
The effectiveness of the import ban was criticized from the start because President Bush failed to take similar action against domestically manufactured assault rifles, which account for most of the assault weapons in the country. In addition, some gun makers have moved to fill the void by importing semiautomatic "assault pistols" that bear striking resemblances to the banned weapons.
BATF spokeswoman Dot Koester said the agency was only upholding the law in approving the import licenses. Once the military-style features were removed "they no longer fit the category of a semiautomatic, assault-type rifle" and BATF had no grounds for keeping them out, she said.
One of the new weapons approved by BATF and being imported is the "Orion SR-9" hunting rifle, manufactured by Heckler & Koch, the West German firm that makes the HK-91, one of the weapons barred by last year's action. The weapon comes equipped with a five-round magazine but, like the HK-91, can accept 30-round magazines.
"The synthetic stock, and an action based on the popular HK-91 semiauto, makes the Orion SR-9 one tough customer," according to a recent ad for the weapon in a gun magazine by Heckler & Koch, which has a U.S. subsidiary.
But it is unclear how many weapons other than the Orion will actually be imported. Koester said that BATF was unaware of plans of any other importers that obtained the rulings to begin marketing new guns.
Evan H. Whilden, vice president of Action Arms Ltd. in Philadelphia, which has imported the Israeli-made Uzi and Galil, said the firm has no plans "any time in the foreseeable future" to import modified versions of the guns, even though BATF documents show the firm requested -- and won -- approval to do so earlier this year.
"It was done as an exercise to see if it could be put on the market," said Whilden, when asked why his firm sought the approvals. But at the moment, modifying large numbers of Uzis and Galils to bring into the United States "is not cost-feasible," he said.
Whilden also argued that the import ban was meaningless anyway. "When one considers that less than 1 percent of the weapons used in crimes are long guns . . . this is a foolishness," he said. "It's all baloney."