Wednesday, September 1, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Cheap Rifle Imports Flood U.S. Market

A SEATTLE MAN last weekend fired all 30 rounds from his MAK-90 on a city street while stopping a robber. These assault rifles cost next to nothing, and the People's Republic of China has plenty of them to sell.

They are lethal, legal and cheap.

And for the price - ranging from $80 to $300 - the Soviet-designed, Chinese-made SKS and MAK-90 assault rifles have become top-sellers in the nation's gun market. "You can't beat the price," said Wade Gaughran, owner of a Bellevue gun shop. "In the gun world, $80 is really close to what you would say is nothing."

In the past year, the SKS and MAK-90 have become gun fanciers' weapon du jour, according to gun dealers and importers all over the country. They are outselling more traditional assault rifles, priced at anywhere from $500 to $8,000.

By all accounts, SKS and MAK-90 are not only bargains, but are also reliable and efficient.

"It would be like buying a brand new car that didn't break down for a thousand dollars," Gaughran said.

Like other military-style weapons, the SKS and MAC-90 are designed to fire a lot of high-powered bullets quickly. Although Gaughran sees them as fine target guns (partly because the ammunition is cheaper than most), Cheryl Brolin, spokeswoman for Handgun Control Inc., in Washington, D.C., says they are nothing but killing machines.

"They are designed for war and for nothing but war," she said. "We are the only industrialized nation that is selling these weapons over the counter."

But no matter what side of the gun debate you're on, the popularity of the SKS and the MAK-90 has raised some intriguing issues. One involves the people who are selling them; the other focuses on the way these guns skirt the U.S. ban on imports of other assault weapons.

When a patriotic American buyer plops down hard cash to buy an SKS or a MAK-90, he is supporting the military-industrial complex of the People's Republic of China. The manufacturer and wholesaler of these guns is a Chinese trading company, Norenco, which has loose ties to the People's Liberation Army. Norenco (China North Industries) sells the ammunition for these guns, too.

Experts like China-watcher Wendy Frieman say the Chinese defense establishment is flooding the United States with cheap guns and bullets to obtain hard currency. The dollars they raise will allow them to buy high-tech equipment on the international market, said Frieman, of Science Application International Corp. in Virginia.

Aging arsenal

Frieman says the Chinese, in essence, are selling their aging arsenal to buy computers and other advanced equipment. With it, they will produce, among other things, better weapons, she says.

Guns are not the only thing they sell. NIC International, a Norenco subsidiary located in the warehouse district of Tukwila, sells everything from truck springs to textiles.

No one from the Chinese companies was willing to talk about the gun trade.

Until 1989, the most popular such weapon in the United States was the Chinese-built AK-47, a high-powered rifle that can be retooled into a rapid-firing machine gun. (A fully automatic version of the AK-47 was the weapon used by the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War.)

Having been visible for decades in news clippings from wars around the globe, the AK-47 developed a fan club among military buffs.

Because of some well-publicized shootings, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms moved to ban the import of certain assault rifles, including the AK-47, in 1989. The regulation listed dozens of specific weapons and also specified the qualities that make these semi-automatic rifles unique - pistol grips or folding stocks, bayonet mountings, and a flash suppressor at the end of the barrel.

But the SKS, a predecessor of the AK-47, has no pistol grip and the bayonet mounting can be sawed off. For that reason, the ATF ban covers only one version of the SKS, a type that has a detachable magazine. Even the importable version of the SKS can be modified, with kits advertised in magazines, to allow it to be used with a detachable 30-round clip.

The MAK-90 is a modified version of the AK-47 that was specifically designed by the Chinese to skirt the ATF ban. Instead of having the AK-47s banned pistol grip, the MAK-90 has a thumb-hole grip, which is very similar in function. The importers removed the flash suppressor and the bayonet mounting.

Thus, the MAK-90 is an AK-47 in sheep's clothing, although Gaughran and other dealers insist that neither the SKS nor the MAK-90 is an assault weapon. Rather, they are "civilian versions of military weapons." Even in the few states that have banned assault-type weapons - California, New Jersey, Hawaii and Connecticut - many versions of the SKS and all types of the MAK-90 are allowed.

Washington does not ban any assault rifles - though Gov. Mike Lowry said yesterday he intends to seek legislation in the 1994 session that would reduce their availability.

According to an ATF estimate, China is exporting to the U.S. roughly 80,000 of the rifles annually.

The walls of Wade's Eastside Gun Shop in the heart of downtown Bellevue are lined with military-style weapons that far outnumber the traditional rifles and shotguns used for hunting. Gaughran's customers, mostly male, mill around, looking mostly at pistols in glass display cases. The one man who showed interest in an SKS did not want to discuss his reasons.

An honored place on wall

Guns that are banned for import occupy an honored place on the wall, and fetch the highest prices. The SKS and the MAK-90 are priced like items in a going-out-of-business sale.

Gun opponents like Brolin fear the SKS and MAK-90 will become assault-rifle versions of the Saturday Night special - inexpensive weapons with much more firepower than the cheap pistols they would supplant. But crime statistics involving the SKS and MAK-90 are very sketchy. According to one ATF statistic, assault weapons make up less than 3 percent of guns owned by Americans but account for 6 percent to 10 percent of those used in crimes. The statistics don't specify which assault weapons were used.

A demented man killed a college professor and a student and wounded four others with an SKS on a college campus in Massachusetts last year.

Last weekend, a 20-year-old Seattle man used his MAK-90 - purchased for target practice - to retaliate against a robber who had threatened him with a knife. He emptied the 30-round magazine of the gun in the air and in the thief's direction. The shots missed, but the man ended up bludgeoning the robber with the stock of the weapon.

There have been other shootings involving the SKS and the MAK-90 or guns like them around the country, but Frank Lee, a firearms expert at the Washington State Patrol lab in Seattle, says he can remember only one SKS coming to his office for crime analysis. By far the most popular weapon with criminals is a concealed pistol, he said.

But fashions change. Gun dealers report, for instance, that a weapon's popularity soars whenever it is shown in a Hollywood movie.

Another factor that makes guns popular is the threat of a ban, says Gaughran. Rumors have it that the SKS and the MAK-90 are on the federal chopping block, which is causing some buyers to flock to them, he said.

"Whenever anyone talks about banning this or that, it increases sales," he said.

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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