How U.S. gunmakers are helping Ukrainians against Russia’s war

Click to play video: 'U.S. accuses Russia of spreading bioweapons ‘conspiracy theories’ at UNSC meeting'
U.S. accuses Russia of spreading bioweapons ‘conspiracy theories’ at UNSC meeting
The U.S. accused Russia of spreading “disinformation and conspiracy theories” after Russia presented documents that it said were evidence of U.S.-backed bioweapons labs in Ukraine at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on Friday – Mar 18, 2022

Adrian Kellgren’s family-owned gun company in Florida was left holding a $200,000 shipment of semi-automatic rifles after a longtime customer in Ukraine suddenly went silent during Vladimir Putin‘s invasion of the country.

Fearing the worst, Kellgren and his company KelTec decided to put those stranded 400 guns to use, sending them to Ukraine‘s nascent resistance movement to help civilians fight back against a Russian military that has been repeatedly shelling their apartment buildings, schools, hospitals and hiding places.

“The American people want to do something,” said Kellgren, a former U.S. Navy pilot. “We enjoy our freedoms, we cherish those things. And when we see a group of people out there getting hammered like this, it’s heartbreaking.”

Cocoa-based KelTec’s donation is a high-profile example of Americans collecting guns, ammunition, body armor, helmets and other tactical gear in response to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy‘s promise to arm his citizens. But many similar grassroots efforts have been snarled by inexperience with the complex web of regulations governing the international shipment of such equipment.

Story continues below advertisement

Kellgren, who has dealt with such red tape for years, managed to connect through a Ukrainian neighbor with a diplomat in the Ukrainian Embassy who helped him secure a federal arms export license in just four days. That process can often take months.

This week, as Congress debated whether to send more advanced weapons and defense systems to Ukraine, workers at KelTec’s warehouse forklifted four plastic-wrapped pallets containing their 9 mm foldable rifles for delivery to an undisclosed NATO-run facility. From there, the shipment’s new recipient, Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense, will be responsible for smuggling the weapons into the war zone.

“That’s when the real derring-do and heroism begins,” Kellgren said.

Click to play video: 'Biden presses China’s Xi on support of Russia in Ukraine war'
Biden presses China’s Xi on support of Russia in Ukraine war

From California to New York, elected officials, sheriff’s departments and nonprofits say they have also collected thousands of sets of body armor and millions of rounds of ammunition for Ukraine.

Story continues below advertisement

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis kicked off a campaign last week to ask police and sheriff’s departments to donate surplus ballistic helmets and other equipment. “We know that it can urgently be used to help stop Putin and save Ukraine,” he said.

But hazards abound: One New York City nonprofit leading an effort to collect tactical gear had 400 bulletproof vests stolen before they could be dispatched.

Many of the organizers have no clue how to navigate international arms export rules, which sometimes require approvals from the Departments of State, Commerce and Defense to ship even non-lethal tactical gear. Organizers of one such drive in New York are piggybacking on KelTec’s license to export 60 long guns they recently collected.

“I’m hoping that this movement spreads through the whole United States and every gun store and every gun manufacturer in the U.S. accepts these donations,” Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman said at a news conference Friday.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade group for firearms manufacturers, distributed step-by-step instructions this week to its more than 8,000 members on how to apply for an expedited export license. They also provided a list of specific sniper rifles, pistols and ammo requested by Ukraine’s Embassy in Washington.

Story continues below advertisement

KelTec hopes to arrange more shipments in the future. Its license allows the export of up to 10,000 weapons and the company has offered the Ukrainians their own production line and weekly shipments.

Details of KelTec’s efforts surfaced in a Justice Department filing this week by a Maryland-based real estate lawyer, Lukas Jan Kaczmarek, who said that as a volunteer with the Ukrainian-American Bar Association he is helping Ukraine acquire weapons in tandem with Volodymyr Muzylov, the first secretary at the Ukraine Embassy.

“I expect to work in this capacity for the duration of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and I have not, am not, and shall not receive any monetary compensation for my assistance,” Kaczmarek wrote in his registration as a foreign agent of the Zelenskyy government.

KelTec isn’t the only arms manufacturer to have answered the call.

Click to play video: '4 Russian missiles strike aircraft repair facility at Ukraine’s Lviv airport'
4 Russian missiles strike aircraft repair facility at Ukraine’s Lviv airport

Another Florida company, Adams Arms, posted on its Facebook account a video of what it said is a shipment of carbine rifles destined for Ukraine. The company has also started selling T-shirts emblazoned with the iconic final broadcast of a bombarded Ukrainian Border Guard unit that told a Russian warship to “Go (expletive) Yourself!” Proceeds from shirt sales will go to the Ukrainian National Bank’s war funds.

Story continues below advertisement

While rifles are no match for Putin’s firepower of Sukhoi fighter jets and cluster bombs, they can play an important role if the Russians get bogged down in street-to-street combat, retired U.S. Army Major John Spencer said.

The semi-automatic rifles KelTec is shipping are perhaps even more valuable than high-tech, anti-aircraft missiles that require extensive training beyond the reach of most civilians, many of whom have never even held a gun before, he said.

“Every shipment of firearms is critical,” said Spencer, an urban warfare analyst at the Madison Policy Forum, a New York-based think tank. “You’re giving one more fighter, out of tens of thousands, the opportunity to resist with a simple-to-use weapon.”

People who fled the war in Ukraine rest inside an indoor sports stadium of a high school in Przemysl, southeastern Poland, on Friday March 18, 2022. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

Kellgren said he’s been inspired by the resourcefulness and tenacity of Ukrainian citizens and is confident the rifles he’s sending will make a difference.

Story continues below advertisement

“The people of Ukraine have had mostly just civilian firearms and they’re holding off a superpower,” he said. “So the X-factor here not isn’t necessarily what equipment you’re holding. … It comes down to the will to fight.”

AP Writer Christopher Weber in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

Sponsored content