WASHINGTON — In the face of a widening revolt against deadly assault weapons, the nation's largest manufacturer of such rifles, Colt Industries, announced Wednesday that it will suspend commercial sales of its semiautomatic AR-15 rifle until the Bush Administration can decide whether the weapon should be outlawed.
The voluntary move was made as a gesture of support for the Administration decision Tuesday to temporarily bar imports of foreign-made military-type weapons. Colt said that it is prepared to accept an outright ban on AR-15 production if Congress enacts one.
NRA Plans Campaign
At the same time, the National Rifle Assn. mounted a major campaign aimed at reversing the ban on imported semiautomatic rifles and heading off legislation to ban their domestic production as well as their importation.
The NRA vowed to use its vast resources to back gun importers in a bid to persuade the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to lift its ban on importing such weapons. That ban affects the AK-47, Uzi carbine and other semiautomatic assault rifles that have been used by gang members and drug dealers in an explosion of street crime.
And the NRA sought to convince the public that assault weapons are no different from the semiautomatic .22-caliber rifles and pistols widely used by hunters. If Congress banned assault rifles, said Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's executive director, their functional similarity to other semiautomatics would "turn millions of Americans into felons. A semiautomatic firearm is a semiautomatic firearm."
But signals sent by Administration officials Wednesday indicated that the tide is turning against the NRA, whose 3 million members include President Bush.
A top official of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms made clear that the ban on imported assault weapons would be lifted only if those who sought to import them demonstrated conclusively that the weapons are widely used for hunting and other sporting purposes.
Bennett Praises Colt
Administration anti-drug chief William J. Bennett, who had called for the import ban but lacked the power to take similar action regulating assault weapons made in the United States, pointedly hailed the Colt decision to take the AR-15 off the market voluntarily.
"This is an act of civic responsibility," Bennett said in a statement. "I am confident that the country is better for it."
Gun stores across the country may continue to sell AR-15s, AK-47s and other banned weapons until current stocks are exhausted. But, if the ban remains in effect, the only widely used weapons of this type still generally available will be the Mini-14 and Mini-30 semiautomatics produced by the Connecticut-based Sturm Ruger Co.
That firm's general counsel said Wednesday that the gun maker will "absolutely not" follow Colt's example in halting production of the weapons, whose relatively low price of $400 to $500 adds to their popularity.
"We're proud of these weapons," said the executive, Stephen Sanetti. "We have no plans to pull them from the market."
As a compromise, Sanetti said that the company favors legislation that would make it a crime to equip semiautomatic weapons with large-capacity magazines that enable gunmen to fire up to 30 shots in quick succession. Standard civilian magazines generally hold about five rounds.
At Colt, a spokesman said that the company will continue to produce the AR-15, which is the semiautomatic version of the military M-16, for its clients in law enforcement and the military. But he said that the company will halt production and sales of the weapon to commercial clients until the Bush Administration decides whether the weapon should be regulated.
The AR-15 is among the most widely used assault weapons in the nation. Colt, although refusing to disclose how many it produces each year, noted that AR-15 sales provided a "multimillion-dollar business" for the company. Gun control advocates estimate that production of AR-15s for civilian use ranges from 10,000 to 20,000 annually.
At their news conference here, NRA officers asserted that the gun lobby's public support had not ebbed as a result of the debate on assault guns.
But director LaPierre said that the "hysteria" over the issue is "like something we've never seen before" and that the NRA would mount an active effort to set the record straight.
In warning that legislation to ban semiautomatic rifles would deprive sportsmen of their hunting guns, he said that the gun lobby would seek to redirect attention toward the judicial system for its failure to imprison criminals who used guns illegally.
"There's not a single drug dealer on the street who's worried" about the prospect that assault weapons might be banned, he said.
Among those most concerned in the wake of the Administration's action on assault weapons are the gun importers, who are barred from bringing the German-, Chinese- and Israeli-made weapons into the country.
Most refused to comment Wednesday. But one importer, who sells expensive German Steyr Aug rifles to the U.S. Customs Service and individual buyers, denounced the ban as misdirected.
"We hate to see our product associated with the inexpensive assault rifles coming in," he said. He charged that the ban on imports simply benefits remaining U.S. producers like Ruger.
"We just want to be treated fair and equitable," he said.