Helpfully for the executive branch, Republican Rep. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming filed the “Collectible Firearms Protection Act” last month. While Lummis’s bill sounds wide-ranging, it actually targets a strange and singular quandary that’s given the State Department fits since 2009: What to do with almost a million vintage, American-made M1 Garand and Carbine rifles now moldering in the arsenals of their custodian, South Korea.
“Legislation shouldn’t even be needed for U.S. citizens to purchase perfectly legal and regulated firearms, especially in this case, with storied, American-made rifles that are pieces of U.S. military history,” Rep. Lummis said in a statement. In fact, legislation wouldn’t be necessary if former President Obama had been okay with the purchase, which in this case, his administration was in favor of. Until it wasn’t.
During the Cold War, the U.S. provided hundreds of thousands of M1 rifles to South Korea, which used them for 50 years before deciding to upgrade. To defray this cost, the Korean government wants to sell the M1s to American citizens. This involves not a little bit of chutzpah on the part of the Koreans, considering that most, if not all of the rifles, were gifts from America. U.S. collectors don’t seem to mind — they’re desperate to buy the guns. The .30-caliber, semiautomatic M1 Garand was the standard-issue American service rifle from 1936 through 1957 — that is, during WWII — so while M1s have long since passed into military obsolescence, their value as collectibles has expanded with every new D-Day–themed movie, miniseries, and Ken Burns special. Today, most of the M1s that are still available in the U.S. have had multiple components replaced or are otherwise adulterated. But the rare, collector grade M1 Garand that just has most of its original parts can easily command $4,000 or more. Which means that the M1s that South Korea is sitting on amount to a gold mine.
And the South Koreans know it. Back in 2007, the country began the tedious process of asking permission to send the M1s back to their motherland for sale on the U.S. private market. A patchwork of ’50s- and ’70s-era laws (originally meant to shield U.S. small-arms makers from foreign competition) prohibits reimport of U.S.-made military firearms unless they’re being sold to the U.S. armed forces or a law enforcement agency, or if the weapons are 50 or more years old. (Note: This applies only to small arms. If you can get the permits, you can buy a Sherman tank.) The M1s qualify under the second criteria, but when the import conditions are met, the State Department still has to approve the venture.
In 2009, the executive branch was fine with the Korean arms plan, but it changed its mind in early in 2010, citing concerns that the guns could “be exploited by individuals seeking firearms for illicit purposes.” In 2011, the State Department reportedly began negotiations to import 86,000 South Korea–held Garands — but not the carbines, which can accept a bigger magazine — and the Korean press announced this as a done deal.