WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
16 Jul 2013 | Commentary | News

Fully Enforce the Ban on Imported Assault Weapons

By Clay Boggs and Kristen Rand*

Opponents of common-sense reforms to prevent gun violence—such as universal background checks, a renewed assault weapons ban, and tougher penalties for gun trafficking—are fond of saying that we do not need new laws, but instead need to enforce the laws already on the books.

This argument is usually disingenuous; the same lawmakers that deploy it have in many cases supported legislation that actually prevents the government from enforcing the laws already on the books. For instance, the so-called “Tiahrt amendments,” authored and supported by opponents of gun violence prevention, block the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) from ordering gun stores to carry out inventory checks, and they also require the Justice Department to destroy records of background checks within 24 hours. This makes it harder for the ATF to identify stores and individuals that are involved in gun trafficking. Hence, the principle obstacle to enforcing existing laws is opposition from the pro-gun legislators that make it impossible for the ATF to do its job.

But in some cases, the problem is lack of political will within the Executive Branch itself. One key example is the ban on imported assault weapons. The ban was initially declared by President George H.W. Bush in 1989 and strengthened by the Clinton administration in 1998. Its purpose is to limit criminals’ access to dangerous, non-sporting imported weapons.

But the ban is not being fully enforced. Over the years, importers and manufacturers have found a variety of clever ways to get around the ban. They have succeeded in having many assault rifles classified as for “sporting purposes,” which exempts them from the ban. They have also imported the weapons in parts and make slight design modifications in order to evade the restrictions. The Obama administration has the power to stop importers and manufacturers from getting around the ban. It can issue a new ruling that closes the many loopholes in the current ban. It just needs the political will and the courage to do so.

This would make a difference in the United States. Imported guns have been linked to several mass shootings across the country, as well as numerous homicides in U.S. cities.

It would also make a difference in Mexico, where drug-related violence continues to devastate communities and families. Seventy percent of the guns that are recovered in Mexico and submitted for tracing come from the United States, and most of the guns included in an analysis of federal gun trafficking cases by the Violence Policy Center were first legally imported into the United States and later trafficked to Mexico. Imported guns are coveted by drug trafficking organizations in Mexico because they are relatively inexpensive and can be easily converted into fully automatic weapons.

We need a comprehensive solution to the problem of gun violence in the United States and Mexico. Part of this is Congress’ job: universal background checks, tougher penalties for gun traffickers, and a renewed assault weapons ban. All require legislation, and despite overwhelming popular support, Congress has failed to pass even these modest reforms. In January, in the aftermath of the Newtown massacre, the Obama administration announced several reforms of its own. But there is a lot more that the Obama administration can do. Enforcing the import ban would be a good start.

Kristen Rand is the Legislative Director at the Violence Policy Center

Clay Boggs is a Program Officer at WOLA.