Semiautomatic Gun Bans
By Jeff W. Zimba

To take you to the beginning of this particular subject, you have to know that 18 U.S.C. §925(d)(3) is a statutory requirement that prohibits the importation of firearms unless they are determined to be “particularly suitable for or readily adaptable to sporting purposes” under the 1968 Gun Control Act. There were many other bad things that happened in 1968 regarding machine guns and the transfer of firearms but, for the purposes of this article, we will only be focusing on the semiautomatic variants.

The current importation problems addressed here culminated with the 1989 importation ban on non-sporting semiautomatic rifles, brought to us by President George H. W. Bush. In 1989, the criteria for importing a semiautomatic rifle for resale in the USA changed drastically. There was an official determination that rifles which possessed certain military style features, no longer fell under the category of “particularly suitable for or readily adaptable to sporting purposes” and were therefore suddenly and immediately, un-importable. There were originally a little over 40 types of rifles disallowed for importation based upon these military features. The criteria were very similar to that used in the 1994 Clinton Gun Ban, which pertained to domestically manufactured semiautomatic firearms and would be enacted several years later.

Importers immediately started stripping down the offending military features since those features were the basis of the import ban. Pistol grips were replaced with thumbhole stocks, barrels were cut and no longer threaded. Some barrels just had thread protectors tack-welded or pinned on, and no flash hiders were attached. Bayonet lugs were ground off or removed. Since these guns once again met the criteria for “sporting guns”, the imports resumed on firearms that had not been specifically banned by name.

This all went fine at first, and we began to see several new variations of older rifles. This brought about the first time we commonly used the term “pre-ban” when referring to semiautomatic firearms. Semiautomatic rifles imported before 1989 were referred to as pre-ban guns and those imported later, without the offending features, were marketed as post-ban. Rifles specifically banned from importation by name were reconfigured to meet the new importation criteria, and given new, kinder and friendlier names. Some examples of these were AK47S and RPK rifles that were imported as MAK-90s and NHM-91s. HK91s became HK911’s and SR9s.

Once again, the industry improvised, adapted, and overcame the current restrictions. Everything went well again until Bill Clinton, and his then Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin, decided to “reinterpret” the 1989 ruling. It was their new determination on April 6, 1998 that any semiautomatic rifle, which could accept a “large capacity military magazine”, was no longer eligible for importation. Their press release issued the same day read: “This review concluded that the original prohibition is correct and that military-style semiautomatic rifles are not importable. This review further concluded that firearms with the ability to accept a large capacity magazine designed and produced for a military assault weapon should be banned.” At this point, no more variations were imported.

While this original bout of legislation and Treasury Department positions (from 1968 to 1989) only pertained to importation, firearms domestically manufactured were not affected. One of the first instances of this being apparent was when I ordered a new “Made in the USA” AK47. It was basically a Norinco parts kit imported from China and assembled in the USA. Once again, the industry was forced to comply with new rules being bestowed upon us and, once again, the industry was told, “STOP.” There were no current rules pertaining to domestic assembly of foreign parts at the time, but there soon came 18 U.S.C. §922(r), mandating that imported parts could not be domestically assembled into a semiautomatic rifle or any shotgun that would not have met the criteria for importation.

In 1993, 27 CFR Section 178.39 (now 27 C.F.R. §478.39) was implemented. This ruling stated that: “No person shall assemble a semiautomatic rifle or any shotgun using more than 10 of the imported parts listed in paragraph (c) of this section if the assembled firearm is prohibited from importation under section 925(d)(3) as not being particularly suitable for or readily adaptable to sporting purposes.” The parts included in paragraph (C) are:
  • Frames, receivers, receiver castings, forgings or stampings
  • Barrels
  • Barrel extensions
  • Mounting blocks (trunions)
  • Muzzle attachments
  • Bolts
  • Bolt carriers
  • Operating rods
  • Gas pistons
  • Trigger housings
  • Triggers
  • Hammers
  • Sears
  • Disconnectors
  • Buttstocks
  • Pistol grips
  • Forearms, handguards
  • Magazine bodies
  • Followers
  • Floorplates

For many years following this ruling, there were many ugly, thumbhole AK type rifles on the market. Interest in them was at a low and they were quite common and becoming inexpensive again. Exactly following the requirements of 27 CFR Section 178.39, Wes Dannon of Soupbowl Enterprises assembled a parts kit manufactured in the United States with enough of those parts so the gun would no longer have too many of the prohibited, imported parts. Once the number of American parts brought the overall necessary imported parts to under the required limit, the rifles could again be placed back in a configuration closer to the original. After receiving approval from BATF confirming this he started marketing the kits as the USAK-97. (See Small Arms Review Vol. 1 No. 8 for an article on the USAK-97 kit.) Again, the AK family of rifles looked almost like they were supposed to look and it was no longer necessary to have the thumbhole stock, which was originally necessary to delete the dreaded pistol grip from the approved configuration. This same logic, and parts count, has since been used by several other companies dealing with many other models of firearms. You can now find a huge number of these otherwise unimportable firearms in a configuration very close to their original configuration, sans the features no longer allowed on any firearms by the Clinton Gun Ban of 1994.

This brings us to the latest ban on the books. 18 U.S.C. 922(v), better known as the Clinton Gun Ban. On September 13, 1994, Bill Clinton signed a bill to make it illegal to domestically manufacture, transfer or possess firearms that would come to be known, inaccurately, as semiautomatic assault weapons. With the assistance of Sarah Brady and several other anti-gun members of the United States Congress, a completely new category of firearm was established. It was not based on logic, function or action design. It was based solely on the features of the particular firearm. Gun prohibitionists salivated as they actually brought forth a ban on firearms that simply “looked like” military firearms, regardless of their function. Generally, the list of criteria used to disallow the importation of certain firearms in 1989 now applied to domestically manufactured firearms as well. From this date forward, it would not be legal to manufacture domestically a firearm with two or more specified military features including a bayonet lug, flash hider, threaded muzzle or several other cosmetic features.

Other than banning a few specifically named firearms, the Clinton Gun Ban stated the following: A semiautomatic rifle that has an ability to accept a detachable magazine and has at least two of the following features -
  • a folding or telescopic stock;
  • a pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon;
  • a bayonet mount;
  • a flash suppressor or threaded barrel designed to accommodate a flash suppressor; and
  • a grenade launcher;

A semiautomatic pistol that has ability to accept a detachable magazine and has at least two of the following features -
  • an ammunition magazine that attaches to the pistol outside of the pistol grip;
  • a threaded barrel capable of accepting a barrel extender, flash suppressor, forward handgrip, or silencer;
  • a shroud that is attached to, or partially or completely encircles, the barrel and that permits the shooter to hold the firearm with the non-trigger hand without being burned;
  • a manufactured weight of 50 ounces or more when the pistol is unloaded; and
  • a semiautomatic version of an automatic firearm; and

A semiautomatic shotgun that has at least two of the following features-
  • a folding or telescoping stock;
  • a pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon;
  • a fixed magazine capacity in excess of 5 rounds; and
  • an ability to accept a detachable magazine.

The only blessing in disguise located within the Clinton Gun Ban is that it was written into the legislation that it would expire in 10 years. As of this writing, the clock is ticking, and we are slowly approaching September 13th, the date it will expire and the ban will be lifted. There have been a few back-door attempts to extend this ridiculous ban but so far, all have been thwarted. As it stands now, congress is on their 6-week summer break and will only be back in session for a few short days before the expiration date. It has been my belief all along that this will indeed expire as intended. Because of the publishing deadlines the fate of this ban will be decided before you receive this issue of Small Arms Review. I can hope my beliefs have been correct.

One thing to remember about the Clinton Gun Ban is if it does indeed sunset, it will have no affect on those firearms banned from importation. Those nice HK91s and type 56 AK47S rifles are still not going to qualify for importation under the 1989 importation ban. Only domestically manufactured firearms and high capacity feeding devices will be directly affected.

Regardless of the outcome of this current legislation, there are still going to be several categories of pre-ban, post-ban, transitional, pre-pre-ban firearms, and so on for purposes of collecting. For someone intimately involved with these particular guns it gets more than a little confusing at times. If you want to see someone’s eyes quickly gloss over, the next time you are at a gun show and a gun dealer who usually just sells hunting rifles holds out an AR15 and proudly proclaims, “It’s a pre-ban”, just ask him, “which one?”

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V8N2 (November 2004)
and was posted online on July 5, 2013


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