The Clinton administration's decision to seek no limit on the number of small firearms that Russia could export to the United States in upcoming trade talks has gun-control advocates piqued.
But the National Rifle Association is equally irked that the administration wants to prohibit the importation of certain concealable rapid-fire handguns and military-style semiautomatic rifles when the trade talks open Feb. 7."What we are planning to negotiate with the Russians is analogous to the assault-weapons ban that permitted certain types of weapons and banned some others," Rahm Emanuel, White House director of special projects, said Friday.
"We want to keep weapons out of here that need not be here and allow sporting, hunting and collectibles in," Emanuel said. He added that the agreement being sought "is actually more stringent than we have with other countries."
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms last year received 270 applications for licenses to import from Russia up to 3 million rifles, 1.2 million handguns and 9 billion rounds of ammunition.
However, an administration official familiar with the negotiations said, "There aren't that many guns in Russia" available for sale.
"When you apply for a license, it's an option to import things," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "They were all applying to import the same 300,000 guns" that Russia is estimated to produce annually.
But Rep. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and other gun-control advocates fear that Russia will boost its production and exports once the agreement is reached.
"This is putting diplomacy above the safety of the citizens within America," Schumer said in an interview Friday. "It's one of the things people hate about Washington."
At the NRA, top lobbyist Tanya Metaksa said the Russian firearms that the administration wants to effectively ban include rifles and shotguns as well as handguns that could be used for self-defense.
"These Russian firearms meet importation criteria, yet this administration wants the Russians to negotiate voluntary restraint on firearms so that they can get involved in trade in other areas," Metaksa said. "I predict that voluntary restraint for Russia will lead to restraints on firearms from Europe, Brazil and other trading partners."
And one government official acknowledged that, in the interest of fairness, the administration would make the voluntary agreement a model for pacts with other countries.
Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin agreed in recent talks with Vice President Al Gore to negotiate on the understanding that the United States would block the imports of those firearms that the FBI and ATF deemed particularly dangerous, said the U.S. official familiar with the talks.