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When Is A Machine Gun Not A Machine Gun?

December 27, 1986

WASHINGTON (AP) _ To machinist Dominick Spadea, his idea seemed like a sure-fire moneymaker. But to federal authorities, his potential customers were criminals and his product was a killer machine gun.

It was in 1980 when a group of investors convinced Spadea to retool his Westmont, N.J., shop to make guns. The plan was to offer an improved version of the MAC-10 semiautomatic, a pistol-like weapon of military design, in the style known to ″Rambo″ and ″Miami Vice″ fans.

″In our time no civilian pistol existed to defend American soil ... until now,″ boasts a gun-publication advertisement for Spadea’s product, the Partisan Avenger.

The ad is decorated with a skyful of paratroopers and an American eagle perched on the menacing-looking gun.

Though semiautomatics like Spadea’s fire only one shot with each pull of the trigger, the weapons are increasingly popular with gun buffs who like the way they look.

But the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms says the guns are also popular with drug dealers and terrorists. The ATF has strictly regulated gunmakers like Spadea, whose products the bureau deems prime for misue because they can be converted easily to full automatic capability.

″The weapons that we go after are the ones that are used in crimes. There is a public danger to these weapons,″ says ATF spokesman Jack Killoran.

Spadea claims his rights have been trampled simply because he decided to make the wrong product, and a nationwide pro-gun group agrees, saying the ATF has targeted Spadea in an ongoing campaign to eliminate all semiautomatic weapons from general ownership.

Like fully automatic guns, semiautomatics use the power of a previous shot to reload themselves. But automatics - also known as machine guns - go one step further, firing repeatedly with a single pull of the trigger.

The difference can be deadly: The automatic version of Spadea’s easily concealable Avenger can spray up to 1,000 rounds a minute. Any of its .45- caliber slugs would be enough to blow a man off his feet.

A new federal law banned civilian sales of fully automatic guns as of May. Federal controls on machine guns date back to 1934, when Congress first outlawed ″gangster-type″ weapons.

Today, ATF agents say, criminals still want the intimidating firepower so they obtain semiautomatics and, the ATF alleges, easily convert them to machine guns.

When Spadea and his partners formed the small Jersey Arms Works, they had no intention of making anything but a legitimate, legal semiautomatic, the gunmaker says.

In 1981, Jersey Arms Works advertised its product and Spadea said he received more than 10,000 orders for the gun then known as the S-7 Avenger.

But in 1982, before a single gun had been shipped, the ATF reclassified the semiautomatic MAC-10, the Georgia-made gun that inspired Spadea’s product, declaring it a machine gun. Legal up to then, the MAC-10 - and the Avenger along with it - suddenly became illegal.

ATF experts acknowledge they changed their minds about the guns’ operation. But, agents say, more and more MAC-10s began showing up in the wrong hands.

The weapons, the agents say, were being easily changed into machine guns and used in crimes. In some cases, the ATF alleges, all it took was a stack of nickels taped behind the gun’s trigger to convert it to a machine gun.

The MAC-10 ruling left Spadea with 2,500 guns in various stages of production. He was also broke, he claims.

Spadea sued the ATF in 1983, but U.S. District Judge Stanley Brotman in Camden, N.J., agreed with bureau experts that the S-7 Avenger was a machine gun. ATF experts, who say they have never been overruled in such a case, testified the Avenger could be converted from semiautomatic to automatic with a hammer and a paperclip.

Spadea decided to stay with the gun business, reworking the Avenger to met ATF semiautomatic standards. He took the extra step getting his lawyer to draft a letter certifying the new gun as meeting the guidelines approved in court.

On Dec. 23, 1985, as the gun readied completion, ATF agents visited Spadea’s shop. Charles Bartlett of the bureau’s Technical Branch studied the new gun on the spot and deemed it, too, was a machine gun.

Spadea says it took 15 seconds for his all-new product to become illegal. He says the agents seized all his guns, and traveled to his foreman’s house to confiscate prototypes kept there.

Larry Pratt, the executive director of the Virginia-based Gun Owners of America Inc., claims the ATF’s regulation of Jersey Arms is classic case of power-hungry bureaucrats running amok.

The group’s newsletter, ″The Gun Owner,″ has taken up Spadea’s case in stories headlined, ″BATF On The Rampage,″ and ″Putting the Bite On JAWS (Jersey Arms Works).″ A 1983 edition called for the firing of ATF Director Stephen Higgins.

ATF officials declined to comment specifically on the Jersey Arms case. But agents, accustomed to criticism from pro-gun groups, insist they’re only concerned with guns that are likely to be misused.

ATF technicians also say Spadea could have saved himself a lot of time and money by simply submitting his prototypes for approval in advance.

The ATF lauds Action Arms Inc. of Philadelphia, the U.S. importer of the Israeli-made Uzi - one of the most popular semiautomatics on the civilian market. The semiautomatic Uzi is a nearly conversion-proof gun, ATF experts say.

C.B. Stern, Action Arms operations manager says the company has sold about 70,000 semiautomatic Uzis at a suggested retail of $679 each.

Stern says his company has ″a good relationship″ with the ATF, but at a price: ″It cost more to make a civilian gun. We’re more or less forced to live with it.″

Spadea, meanwhile, has built yet-another Avenger. Finally deemed semiautomatic by the ATF, the newest Avenger model is on sale now.

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