The BATF Importation Ban
Sugarmann also mused, “Criteria to identify and categorize assault weapons could be developed by ATF now and applied toward restricting the availability of both foreign- and domestically-produced assault weapons.” The BATF20 imposed the first “assault weapon” ban the following year.21, 22
Under a federal law passed in 1968 (as amended in 1986), the government (in practice, the BATFE) “shall authorize a firearm . . . to be imported . . . if the firearm . . . is generally recognized as particularly suitable for or readily adaptable to sporting purposes.”23
Under that law, BATF had approved the importation of many firearms, including 43 rifles that gun control groups called “assault weapons.” In 1989, however, the BATF reversed itself, and prohibited the importation of the 43 rifles on the basis of their having various external attachments, such as a pistol-like grip, a folding stock, or a flash suppressor.24 (The attachments have always been legal on other firearms. For example, all handguns, including those approved for importation, have pistol grips. None of the attachments provides an advantage to a criminal.)
Self-defense is the primary purpose of the right to keep and bear arms,25 thus a firearm shouldn’t be prohibited from importation on the basis of its relationship to sports. And, any firearm that is legal to manufacture in this country should be eligible for importation. Nevertheless, the importation law focuses on sports. Yet all of the 43 rifles were, at a minimum, “readily adaptable to sporting purposes.” Comparable U.S.-made rifles dominated most major center-fire rifle marksmanship competitions in this country in 1989, as they do to a greater extent today.
The BATF arbitrarily decided that “‘sporting purpose’ (sic) should properly be given a narrow reading,” to include “organized marksmanship competition,” provided paper targets are used, but not to include “combat type competitions.” Under that political-purpose-driven standard, the BATF expressly rejected, as non-“sporting,” the preeminent rifle and pistol marksmanship competitions in the United States, the NRA/Civilian Marksmanship Program National Matches, at which rifles of the type the BATF prohibited from importation are the most commonly used.
The National Matches certainly are “organized.” They were authorized by Congress in 1903 and have been conducted annually ever since.26 And though target material is irrelevant to whether a competition is “sporting,”27 only paper targets are used at the National Matches.
Combat marksmanship competitions are certainly “sporting” as well. Congress authorized the National Matches to enhance combat marksmanship skills among citizens, particularly those eligible for military service. In 1905, Congress provided support in furtherance of that objective, by passing a law signed by President Theodore Roosevelt, authorizing the sale of surplus military rifles and ammunition to civilians under the rules of the National Board for the Promotion of Rifle Practice, approved by the War Department.
With America’s entry to World War I impending, Congress provided additional support to civilian combat marksmanship training in the National Defense Act of 1916, authorizing the War Department to distribute military arms and ammunition to civilian rifle clubs in support of their training programs, providing funding for military marksmanship instructors to assist the clubs, opening all military rifle ranges to civilians, and creating the Office of the Director of Civilian Marksmanship under the National Board. Under the National Defense Authorization Act of 1996, the Civilian Marksmanship Program continues the mission undertaken a century ago, by selling surplus military rifles and ammunition to members of marksmanship clubs, and co-sponsoring the National Matches. Civilians and military rifle team members have always competed together in the matches, now held at the National Guard’s Camp Perry Training Site, in Ohio.
State “Assault Weapon” Bans
California banned “assault weapons” in May 1989, and New Jersey banned “assault firearms” in 1990. California’s ban labeled several dozen firearms as “assault weapons” by name, while New Jersey’s named a similar number of guns but banned additional guns on the basis of their external attachments.28 Both states allowed owners to register and keep banned guns already owned, but New Jersey limited that option to guns “used in competitive shooting matches sanctioned by the Director of Civilian Marksmanship” (AR-15s, M1As and M1 Carbines).29 In both states, only about 10 percent of the estimated number of banned guns were registered. California expanded its ban in 2000, by defining other guns as “assault weapons,” including those having only one of the proscribed attachments. Other states subsequently banned “assault weapons” (Connecticut, 1993; Massachusetts, 1998; New York, 2000; or “assault pistols” (Hawaii, 1992; Maryland, 1994).30
The Brady Campaign calls California’s ban the “model for the nation,”31 though California’s murder rate increased every year for five years after its 1989 ban, 26 percent overall, while in the rest of the country murder increased 11 percent; and California’s rate has increased 13 percent since its 2000 ban, against a two percent decrease in the rest of the country.32
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