WASHINGTON – Nearly 100 congressional Democrats are asking President Barack Obama to take executive action to close loopholes in a ban on the importation of military-style firearms.
In separate letters sent to the White House over the last week, a dozen Senate Democrats and 82 House Democrats urged the president to use his broad authority under the 1968 Gun Control Act to impose a stricter ban.
Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer of New York are among the Senate letter's signatories. Fifteen of New York's 27 House members signed the other letter, including Reps. Louise Slaughter of Fairport, Nita Lowey of Harrison and Eliot Engel of the Bronx.
The ban on importing military-style weapons began during the George H.W. Bush administration. Bush took action following the 1989 shooting deaths of five children and the wounding of 30 others at Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, Calif., by gunman Patrick Purdy, who used an imported AK-47 rifle.
The ban continued under President Bill Clinton but lapsed under President George W. Bush, according to Engel, who initiated the House letter.
Engel said he has lobbied unsuccessfully for the stricter ban for the last decade and urged Obama to take action beginning shortly after the president took office in 2009.
"I really am at a loss to know why the administration hasn't implemented it,'' Engel said Thursday.
White House spokesman Keith Maley had no comment.
Obama did issue an executive order last August denying requests to re-import surplus military firearms such as M-1s that had been shipped to allies such as South Korea. That order doesn't cover foreign-made firearms.
"These military-style firearms are not prohibited under the current import ban, even though they are functionally equivalent to prohibited rifles with a military origin,'' the Senate letter said.
The Senate letter also says a 1998 Treasury Department guidance issued during the Clinton administration "allows foreign-made firearms to be imported into the United States without military features, even if the firearms have the capacity to fire multiple time in quick succession without the need to reload and can easily have military features attached.''
Citing research by the Violence Policy Center, the lawmakers say imported military-style firearms were involved in 64 percent of the 2,528 firearms prosecutions in 2011 and 2012 in which the gun type was identified. That's up from 18 percent between 2008 and 2010.
The Violence Policy Center data covers the limited number of cases in which details of the weapons was publicly available.
The Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms has a comprehensive database that tracks the make of guns used to commit crimes, but Congress has barred the agency from releasing that data to the public. It can be shared only with law enforcement agencies.
ATF does not keep data on imports of military-style weapons. But it says imports of rifles, shotguns and handguns almost tripled, from 1.63 million in 2002 to 4.84 million in 2012.
Brazil, Austria, Germany, Turkey and Italy are the largest sources of imported guns.
The Violence Policy Center says imported assault-style weapons are widely marketed for sale in the U.S. and estimates 300,000 were imported in 2012.
A 2013 edition of "Shotgun News'' magazine contains an ad for Romanian AK-47s and AK variants along with a Russian-made Saiga AK modified in the U.S, a Hungarian AMD-65 semi-automatic and a Yugoslavian M76 sniper gun, the center noted.
Engel said he privately discussed the issue with Vice President Joe Biden more than a year ago when Biden was formulating the administration's response to the December 2012 mass shooting of students and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
"His last words to me were that he was all for this and this would be a great thing to do,'' Engel said. "So if there's some reason that's holding up the administration, I'd like to know it, because no one has told me.''