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TALK ABOUT A LOADED ISSUE

Among the Clinton Administration's proudest accomplishments are the fruits of its aggressive drive to promote U.S. exports abroad. But there's one export-promotion coup the Administration isn't boasting about: the sale of huge quantities of shotguns to Russia.

Last December, BUSINESS WEEK has learned, the Commerce, State, and Defense Depts. gave the green light for massive sales of U.S.-made shotguns and shells to Russia. Officials estimate that once Commerce approves the more than 100 export applications that remain in the pipeline, U.S. gun sales to Russia will top several hundred thousand units, with a value approaching $100 million.

The Administration confirms the new policy, but it hasn't done any horn-blowing. Why not? "It's a political hot potato," admits a State Dept. official. In the U.S., the Clintonites are calling for tighter controls on gun sales. Indeed, on Feb. 28, Treasury Secretary Lloyd M. Bentsen announced restrictions on three types of rapid-fire shotguns--deadly cousins of the pump-action firearms approved for export. "I'd like to see Bentsen explain how a 12-gauge pump is O.K. but not the [rapid-fire] ones," says Richard J. Feldman, executive director of the Atlanta-based American Shooting Sports Council, a trade association opposed to gun control.

The Russians have only recently become interested in American-made shotguns. Hyperinflated food prices have sparked an increase in hunting, long tightly restricted by the former Soviet government. And a shocking rise in crime has driven up the demand for guns as personal protection. Meanwhile, Russian factories are unable to meet the demand, creating a market for U.S. guns, as well as imports from Germany, Italy, China, and Brazil.

Among the U.S. gunmakers shipping overseas is O.F. Mossberg & Sons Inc. of North Haven, Conn. The company says it has export licenses pending to sell more than 50,000 guns, worth about $10 million, to Russia and other former Soviet republics. U.S. Repeating Arms Co., which produces the Winchester brand, and Remington Arms Co. also are awaiting Commerce approval.

The Administration first approved small shipments of shotguns to Russia in mid-1993 but held up further licenses after Russian President Boris Yeltsin disbanded Parliament in September. In December, the U.S. decided that exports could go forward so long as the guns weren't falling into criminal and paramilitary hands. "These shotguns are for hunting and home protection," declares Iain S. Baird, a senior Commerce official. Ironically, that sounds a lot like the standard anti-gun-control defense. This export policy may prove difficult to reconcile with a tough line on violence at home.Owen Ullmann and Douglas Harbrecht in Washington


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