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STAFFERS SHOOT DOWN AK-47 ON HATCH'S WALL

Tall, thin, prim and proper Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, looks more like a Yankee preacher than a machine-gun-loving Rambo.

But he still apparently technically violated federal firearms law for years by proudly displaying a captured Soviet AK-47 on his office wall.The weapon has been surrendered to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and likely will be melted down or otherwise destroyed. That left Hatch to lament Monday, "I really miss that old gun."

Ironically, Hatch's miscue came to light this week just as he was planning to lead fights against gun control provisions in a crime bill before the Senate. They include requiring a seven-day waiting period for the purchase of handguns.

Hatch said his involvement with his AK-47 was innocent enough - no matter how legal it may or may not have been.

He explained that the weapon was captured from the Soviets by freedom fighters in Afghanistan years ago.

Hatch - a former member of the Senate Intelligence Committee - said the gun was then given to him "by a leading U.S. intelligence official" as a gift.

"It caused quite a stir with the Capitol police when they tried to bring it through security. It really made their eyes pop," Hatch said. "They got it through by showing it was intended as a gift for me, that its barrel had been fully plugged and that it couldn't be fired."

Hatch prominently displayed it on the wall next to his desk as a symbol of his support to Afghani resistance.

But then problems arose - beginning with his own staff.

Wendy Higginbotham, Hatch's administrative assistant, said, "I didn't think it was an appropriate to have a machine gun on the wall, especially with incidents like the shooting of schoolchildren (in Stockton, Calif.). People got the wrong idea."

So she started urging Hatch to remove it. In the meantime, she stuck flowers around it and in the barrel to make it less menacing.

Then Kevin McGuiness, a former Hatch aide, said questions arose whether a machinegun registration law that passed a few years ago would require Hatch to register it even though its barrel was plugged, its firing pin removed and its trigger bolted to the plaque.

He said the staff called the ATF, which said it figured the weapon could still be made to fire with spare parts. So the bureau considered it a machine gun and said it would have to be registered.

There was one hitch for Hatch, though. As ATF spokesman Jack Killorin explained, federal law prohibits anyone except law officers to own such a weapon. Therefore, it is impossible to register it - and owning such a gun is a violation of federal law.

So to be safe, McGuiness said, Hatch's staff decided to turn it over to the ATF about a year ago. Hatch was out of town at the time.

"Had I been here, I would have fought a little harder and argued that it really wasn't a working gun and that I should be allowed to keep it," Hatch said.

What finally happened to the gun? Killorin said he isn't precisely sure, "but all such weapons collected by the ATF are destroyed." The exception, he said, are guns that are confiscated that are truly unique specimens. "But AK-47s are common as dirt," he said.

Hatch still has a gun hanging on his wall. It is a flintlock, black-powder rifle given to him by the National Rifle Association. No laws require registration of that single-shot gun. "It'll have to do," Hatch said.