WASHINGTON — President Clinton plans to sign a directive to limit the influx of thousands of foreign-made assault weapons while the federal government rethinks its criteria for allowing such firearms into the United States, a senior White House official said Tuesday.
Although the directive has not been finalized, the administration is, at the minimum, committed to temporarily suspending the issuance of new permits to foreign gun makers, who have exploited loopholes in federal firearms laws by making slight modifications to their guns.
These dealers are "trying to be cute on the assault weapons ban," presidential assistant Rahm Emanuel said. "This strengthens the assault weapons ban on the books."
Emanuel said he expects the president to sign the directive "within the week."
The planned action comes in response to an aggressive drive by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to crack down on the importation of modified assault weapons from 15 countries. Late last month, Feinstein and 29 other senators wrote to Clinton urging him to use his executive authority to prevent such weapons from entering the country.
Under Clinton's proposed directive, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms will study the use of about 30 so-called modified assault rifles which are manufactured abroad. Depending on the outcome, the administration may issue tighter rules for keeping nonsporting weapons out of the country. Imports of firearms that do not meet those specifications will be banned.
But Feinstein said Tuesday that while the study is underway, she also wants Clinton to put an immediate halt to the importation of all assault weapons, even those with valid federal permits.
"It's virtually worthless," Feinstein said of the proposed directive, "if it does not include pending imports. That's the whole purpose; to stop these weapons from coming into the country."
Feinstein's push came after a series in The Times revealed that deep flaws in the nation's assault weapons laws had allowed manufacturers to produce so-called copycats, which are slightly different but just as deadly as the banned models.
Among other things, Feinstein compiled a list of nearly three dozen weapons from 15 countries that she believes fall into the category of modified assault weapons. Approximately 35,000 of these guns, primarily modified AK-47s, reached America over the last two years, according to the Clinton administration.
Feinstein contends that these weapons not only skirt the 1994 assault weapons restrictions but violate a 1968 law banning the importation of firearms that have no legitimate "sporting purposes."
Feinstein and the other senators had specifically asked the president to prevent entry from Israel of a couple thousand modified semiautomatic Uzi and Galil firearms, which had already been approved by the ATF.
Emanuel said Tuesday that under the language of the directive, shipments that have already been given permits, including the permit for the Uzis, will not be revoked.
"You can't go back on permits you've already issued," Emanuel said.
Another White House official who specializes in gun-control policy, Jose Cerda, added: "We are taking the law and bending it as far as we can to capture a whole new class of guns."
However, former President Bush invoked the same 1968 sporting-purposes law in suspending importation of 43 semiautomatic assault rifles in 1989. Gun dealers whose permits had been revoked challenged the action in court, but lost.
When questioned about that late Tuesday, one White House official said "our assumption . . . was that we were doing as much as we could." The official, who asked not to be quoted by name, said, "I'm going to revisit [the directive's scope] before we put this in final form."
The official added that the administration would have to consider whether the short-term action of banning imports during the review period would jeopardize the long-term policy goal of keeping such weapons off the streets.
If the directive was expanded to include an immediate ban on imports, the administration would face a certain fight with gun advocates.
"The president and the folks at the White House need to reexamine the Constitution and the 2nd Amendment," said Bill Powers, spokesperson for the National Rifle Assn. "There is nothing in the 2nd Amendment about sport. The government should not be in business of determining what a sport is."
Shogren reported from Washington, and Brazil and Berry from Los Angeles.