While searching an old hard drive for an essay I wrote in college, I came across some unrelated documents which I had saved at approximately the same time: Â ATF position papers/reports on the importation of semiautomatic military-style rifles. I briefly skimmed these documents, and found several interesting points that I would like to raise. First, a brief refresher course on some recent history, with points illustrated by photographs of cute animals.
Jerry Tsai, former editor of Recoil magazine, made some comments about how HK MP7s served no sporting purposes, and therefore shouldn’t be imported. When a stink was (quite rightly) raised, he doubled down on his silliness and blamed HK.
Not taking this lightly, HK washed their hands of any responsibility. Tsai, along with practically every Recoil advertiser, was buried under an electronic avalanche of angry messages. Heads rolled and the crowd mentality slowly subsided.
Here’s the problem: While Tsai’s comments were a) wrong and b) lacking in knowledge of the current firearm community, they did nothing to actually stop you from owning anything. He just said, and I’m paraphrasing, “You aren’t good enough to own this.” It’s the same concept as Jim Zumbo’s ill-advised comments about “terrorist rifles” a few years back.
But in the ’80s and ’90s, magazine editors, hunting guides, state game commissioners, and competitive shooting groups were consulted by the ATF in order to determine whether certain rifles were importable under the ’89 import ban, and taking into consideration the “sporting purposes” test. I won’t be debating the merits of that “test” here, because it is a somewhat complex matter, although my position on the issue should not be a huge mystery (hint: it’s dumb).
What I want to focus on is the response of the magazine editors in particular. On multiple occasions, ATF asked them if rifles such as the SG550, FN FAL, AK-47, etc. had any useful “sporting purpose.” When polled directly in 1989, 0 (zero) of 14 magazine editors responded in the affirmative.
When polled directly in 1997, only 2 of 13 responded that such rifles were appropriate for the hunting of medium to large game (why ATF decided to exclude the hunting of small game from their report is not stated). Of 70 magazine articles reviewed by ATF (again, the selection process is not described), only one described what the ATF calls “large capacity military magazine rifles,” or LCMM rifles, as being “excellent” for hunting. Two others described 7.62×39 as being acceptable for hunting.
ATF also put down the idea of action competition shooting as being sporting, for the simple reason that it wasn’t “traditional.” I’m paraphrasing, but the gist of it is, “We didn’t like the idea of some sporting purposes, so we made up our own definition, and guess what, none of these rifles fit our new definition of sporting purposes. Except some do, but we’re going to ignore that.” I don’t grok this logic.
What else is interesting about this position paper? Well, of the manufacturers, trade groups, and so on that received letters from ATF seeking their input, exactly one company made an active attempt to stop what they saw coming. This manufacturer placed an advertisement in Shotgun News, attesting to how useful their firearms were for various sporting purposes, and encouraged owners of their firearms to write ATF with accounts of how they use their products as sporting arms. Which manufacturer was this?
That’s right. The one company to step up and say “This isn’t right,” was none other than the much-vilified Heckler & Koch (see page 115 of the PDF linked above).
The magazine editors? A few attempted to tell ATF the truth – good for them. The rest were perfectly happy to watch “those other guns” get banned, as long as they could keep their fancy, imported Browning semi-autos. Really, this sentiment is made quite clear at several times throughout the study, including the Senate report on the 1994 AWB.
As for the 1998 “study,” it was noted that a reason for it being undertaken was that some time had passed since the last one (8-9 years), and that the times might have changed since then.Â Well, it’s been almost 15 years, and I’m pretty sure that ATF would find a slightly different response if it asked these questions today. Which might be why I can’t find a more recent version.
So harbor all the resentment and ill will against Jerry Tsai, Recoil magazine, and anyone-who-didn’t-pull-their-advertisements-from-Recoil-within-5-seconds-of-hearing-about-this-whole-thing you want. In reality, nothing Jerry Tsai did had any effect on how many self-loading firearms you can buy. A bunch of former – and possibly current – magazine editors did have an effect, though.