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Interview on “Sporting Purposes”

Since a few days ago, NRA called on Congress to abolish the “sporting purposes” importation standard, we decided to interview someone who knows about these things. John Frazer is Director of NRA-ILA’s Research and Information Division. He has been with NRA for 18 years, and holds a J.D. from George Mason University. My questions below are in bold, with the answers italicized.

The recent study released by ATF, proposing new importation restrictions on shotguns, has a lot of people talking about the the “sporting purposes” clause of the Gun Control Act of 1968. NRA has gone on record calling for the law to be changed. Can you give us some background on how we came to be in this situation?

The “sporting purposes” test was passed back in 1968 because the Congress wanted to cut off imports of military surplus guns and of some very cheap imported handguns.  The bill sponsors–and unfortunately, far too many gun owners at the time–had a very narrow idea of what was “sporting.”   Since then, the Congress has also repeatedly moved to make it easier to import actual surplus military rifles based on collectors’ interest–as many people are familiar with due to the current situation with the Korean Garand imports.

Obviously, a “sporting purposes” test gives really short shrift to self-defense.  In those days there were only a small handful of right-to-carry states, and of course we were 40 years away from the Heller decision making clear that the Second Amendment was intended to protect defensive arms.

Early on, a Treasury Department panel approved importation of semi-automatic rifles based on military designs, because they understood that those rifles could be used in events such as high power matches.  For handguns, they created the “point system” that bases importability on the gun’s size, weight and caliber, as well as features like target sights and target-style grips.

In the ’80s and ’90s, they started restricting some imports as classes of firearms, rather than just by letter rulings on specific types of guns.  In 1989, BATF banned the importation of certain semi-automatic rifles with “military features,” including some of the same guns that were approved right after the 1968 Act.  In 1993, they banned importation of “assault pistols” that easily passed the “point system.”  And in 1998, they banned semi-automatic rifles that could accept “large capacity military magazines.”

This proposal to ban some shotguns really follows from the 1989 and 1998 rifle bans. What’s interesting now is that even if the use of some particular type of gun for “sporting purposes” was the right question, the answer has changed due to the growth of three-gun and other practical shooting competitions.  The current study recognizes that issue, but dodges it instead of just saying that these competitions aren’t a “sport” the way they did in 1989 and 1998.

Is NRA actively looking at pushing a bill in this Congress to repeal this clause?

We’re still very early in this process, but there’s no doubt we’ll be talking to our allies as the Congress becomes more aware of this.  If someone does introduce a bill, it won’t be the first — former Rep. Bob Barr, who’s now on the NRA Board of Directors, introduced a bill on this back when the ’98 import ban was first proposed.

Aside from the importation issue, nearly all shotguns in common gauges, indeed any firearm over 1/2 inch diameter bore, are by default destructive devices unless they also meet a “sporting purposes” test, as determined by the Attorney General. Considering even countries like the UK allow shotguns up to a two inch bore size, and have no overall limits on bore size, it there any possibility of raising the bore limit in general? Or absent that, getting a blanket exemption for shotguns in common gauges?

It’s hard to say what the Congress might or might not do on any issue.  I’ve seen even minor amendments that no one strongly opposed take years to pass.  The excise tax exemption for manufacturers who produce fewer than 50 guns a year is probably the best example; that one took 25 years or more even though the government admitted at one point that collecting the tax cost more than the revenue it generated.

Also, it’s worth remembering that a destructive device classification doesn’t necessarily follow automatically from a decision on importability.  One example is that BATF banned the importation of the Striker-12 shotgun in the mid-1980s but didn’t reclassify it as a “destructive device” until 1994.  Even if a shotgun isn’t found to be “generally recognized as particularly suitable for sporting purposes,” it can still avoid destructive device classification if the BATFE finds it’s “not likely to be used as a weapon.”

7 Responses to “Interview on “Sporting Purposes””

  1. btr says:

    Is it possible that the “sporting purpose” ban could be struck down based on a court challenge?

    Have someone attempt to import a common self-defense gun, such as snub-nosed revolver. When permission is denied, sue to get the sporting purpose clause struck as violating people’s rights to buy guns for self-defense.

  2. Sebastian says:

    It’s possible, yes. There have been and are cases in the works right now to do that. But obviously the courts carry some risk with them that legislation does not.

  3. Ian Argent says:

    Lawsuits are expensive and time-consuming

  4. btr says:

    There have got to be some importers or foreign manufacturers that would get behind this- Century Arms? Taurus? Berretta? Glock?

  5. Ian Argent says:

    They have to wait for the ruling, basically. And then have to deal with a vengeful BATFE when their FFL’s are up for renewal…

    I think the potential plaintiffs would much rather it be done legislatively. I would as well – the judiciary deciding constitutionality is a backstop (and, to be honest, a constitutional hack)

  6. Chas says:

    Markie Marxist sez: “I don’t see what the NRA is complaining about. The purpose of ATF is to impose as much unconstitutional infringement of the right to keep and bear arms as possible. They do a lot of that, so the “sporting purpose” requirement is just another way to deprive Americans of access to firearms that are consistent with the Second Amendment. What’s the problem with that? It’s just common communist sense to do it and we do it all the time.”

  7. MicroBalrog says:

    I… they proposed WHAT?

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