As increasingly restrictive gun laws are enacted in major industrialized countries, gunmakers around the globe are flocking to the biggest and least regulated gun market in the world -- the United States.

At least a dozen entities with familiar names in the United States, from historic Smith & Wesson and Winchester to Beretta and Glock, are owned by foreign companies, many of which are legally constrained from selling in their own countries many of the guns they produce. But as countries overseas increasingly have cracked down on gun sales at home, they have not passed similar laws regarding exports.

Slightly more than half of the 1.7 million handguns made or imported in the United States came from foreign companies or were made by their subsidiaries, according to 1997 figures from individual companies and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Gun industry officials say they are simply selling their products in the best possible market.

"Companies invest where there are markets, and the U.S. is one of the few places in the world where gun ownership proliferates," said Wendy Cukier, a professor of business and justice studies at Ryerson Polytechnic University in Toronto who has written about differences in international gun laws. "That doesn't change the fact that Americans decide the level of gun ownership they'll tolerate."

Jeff Reh, Beretta U.S.A. Corp.'s general counsel, said the U.S. subsidiary is responsible only for marketing guns here. "It's not hypocritical for a company to obey the laws of the country it sells in," he said of the differences in gun laws in the United States and Italy. "It doesn't mean the company agrees the law is logical. It just means it's acting as a good corporate citizen."

"Some countries choose to have stricter gun laws. . . . We think that's unfortunate," said Travis Hall, public relations manager for Browning and U.S. Repeating Arms Co., which owns the license to make Winchester firearms. Browning and Winchester are affiliated companies owned by Fabrique Nationale Group, an entity of the Belgian government. Many of their guns are made in Japan, where it is virtually impossible for a private citizen to own a gun.

Beretta U.S.A., with U.S. headquarters in Accokeek, Md., is a subsidiary of the Italian gun company P. Beretta SpA Glock Inc., one of the biggest providers of guns to U.S. police departments, is an offshoot of an Austrian company. SIGArms Inc., an importer of handguns in New Hampshire, is a division of Swiss Industrial Group, which imports from Switzerland and Germany. Each of those countries has more restrictive gun laws than the United States.

"One of the things that isn't understood about the gun business in this country is the extent of foreign ownership and importing of foreign-made guns," said Tom Diaz, of the Violence Policy Center, a pro gun-control group. "When people talk about guns in America, they tend to talk about patriotism and try to wrap it in the American flag."

According to a recent United Nations study on firearms regulation, 29 countries in the past five years tightened rules on the civilian ownership of firearms. Gun manufacturers and other experts say that as tougher gun laws have been enacted overseas, the United States has become even more important as a gun market.

"The biggest market [for guns] is in the U.S.," said Ken Jorgenson, general counsel of Smith & Wesson, the largest maker of handguns in the United States and a subsidiary of a British conglomerate. Two years ago, after a 1996 massacre at an elementary school in Scotland, the British government outlawed the sale of all handguns and ordered the surrender of all existing handguns.

With virtually all gun manufacturers privately held, it is difficult to assemble a complete picture of the profit, revenue or even market share in the global gun market. Only one U.S. gun manufacturer -- Sturm, Ruger & Co. -- is publicly owned and thus discloses financial information, while many foreign-owned companies are part of big corporations that do not break out financial information about their subsidiaries.

The U.S. government keeps records only of how many guns each country exports, not how many guns are exported by a particular company, and other governments provide even less information. The Commerce Department, in fact, reports higher gun imports than the ATF.

"Most governments don't make their figures available," said Kate Joseph, an analyst for the British American Security Information Council. "Private companies don't make their figures available. So it's virtually impossible to get a clear picture of it."

In some cases, foreign gun companies have set up plants in the United States specifically so they can make guns here that they couldn't import. Congress has set higher standards for guns that are imported than for guns made in this country.

For example, Taurus International Manufacturing Inc., an underling of Brazil's largest gunmaker, produces guns in Miami and also imports them. Brazilian companies export about 90 percent of the guns made in that country, making it the second-largest handgun exporter to the United States. In 1982, Taurus opened a plant in Miami that makes tens of thousands of guns and is one of the biggest gun factories in the country. It sells the majority of those guns in the United States.

Taurus, maker of such guns as the Raging Bull 454 Casull double-action revolver, is one of the largest makers of firearms in the world. It began shipping handguns to the United States in 1968, not long after the Brazilian government passed legislation that would restrict its sales there, particularly of 9mm semiautomatic pistols, according to an account at the time by the publication Guns & Ammo.

Gun laws may get even stronger in Brazil. The state of Rio de Janeiro recently passed one of the toughest gun laws in the world, and Brazilian lawmakers are debating a similar law for the whole country.

Industry officials said that foreign buyers have helped bring needed financing and stability to some of the most venerated U.S. gun manufacturers, notably Smith & Wesson, a formerly family-owned business founded by Horace Smith and Daniel B. Wesson in the 1850s.

"A lot of gun owners were very upset that this icon of an American company was sold to the British," Jorgenson said. "But it was probably the best thing that ever happened to this company. We might not still be here if it hadn't happened."

Tomkins PLC, a British diversified manufacturer of prosaic but profitable products ranging from lawn mowers to baked goods and windshield wipers, bought Smith & Wesson in 1987. At the time the gunmaker's manufacturing equipment could have been a turn-of-the-century museum exhibit. Tomkins later poured more than $60 million into updating it.

Glock of Austria assembles about 200,000 handguns a year from Austrian-made parts at a plant near Atlanta. Austria also is the No. 1 exporter of guns to the United States, shipping more than 170,000 guns in 1998, according to the Customs Service. Virtually all of those guns were Glocks, since there is no other major Austrian exporter of guns. In Austria, citizens must be 21 to own a handgun, must have a license and can buy a maximum of two handguns per person.

Beretta U.S.A. is a subsidiary of the oldest gun company in the world, founded in Italy in the 14th century. Like other European countries, Italy requires hunters to show membership in a hunting club in which they have been trained before they get a license for a rifle. For a handgun, individuals must prove they genuinely need the gun for self-defense.

Others note that the countries that produce these guns like to point out that the United States has far more gun crimes and deaths than they do.

"Europeans are so sanctimonious about their gun-control laws," said Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police and a former ATF official. "But their shock at our rate of gun deaths doesn't keep them from making guns. . . . It's ironic that the money goes back to those countries."

Selling to the U.S.

The largest number of U.S. imports of handguns in 1998 came from these four countries.

1. Austria: 170,240

2. Brazil: 133,270

3. Germany: 107,232

4. Italy: 41,071

SOURCE: U.S. Customs Service

Foreign Guns, Foreign Laws

COMPANY

OWNERSHIP

GUN RESTRICTIONS IN COUNTRY OF OWNERSHIP

Smith & Wesson, Springfield, Mass.

Owned by Tomkins, a publicly held company in Britain.

Handgun ownership is prohibited, and there are

strict laws on licensing and registration. Police do not carry guns.

Taurus International Manufacturing Inc. in Miami

Owned by Forjas Taurus S.A., a Brazilian

company.

Rio de Janeiro recently banned the sale of guns, and a similar law for the whole country has been proposed.

Glock, in Smyrna, Ga.

Owned by Glock in Austria.

Glock imports its gun parts from Austria, where you

must be 21 to own a handgun and each person can buy only two guns.

Beretta U.S.A. Corp., in Accokeek, Md.

A subsidiary of the Italian company P. Beretta S.p.A.

In Italy, hunters must show membership in a hunting

club where they've been trained; to buy a handgun, individuals must prove they genuninely need the gun for self-defense.

Browning in Morgan, Utah, and Winchester in New Haven, Conn.

Affiliated companies owned by Fabrique Nationale Group in Belgium

Gun owners must be licensed, and all firearms must be registered. Some of the guns are made in Japan, which generally does not allow citizens to own guns.

Para-Ordnance, Scarborough, Ontario (exports guns to the United States)

Privately owned company

In Canada, owners must be licensed and all guns must

be registered. Some automatic and semi-automatic assault weapons and about half of the types of handguns are banned.

SOURCE: Staff reports