Chuck Neubauer of the Washington Times discovers something that firearms owners and especially manufacturers have been dealing with for, well, decades. And that’s the ATF’s arbitrary, often contradictory, definitions for what is – and isn’t – legal. Focusing on the agency’s opaque “letter ruling” process for obtaining their blessing on a new design, Neubauer reveals that those rulings (shazam!) don’t always make sense…
Despite overseeing an industry that includes machine guns and other deadly weapons, ATF regulations for the manufacture of weapons are often unclear, leading to reliance on a secretive system by which firearms manufacturers cansubmit proposed weapons for testing and find out one at a time whether they comply with the law, critics say.
The ATF recommends that manufacturers voluntarily submit weapons for case-by-case determination. But those judgments are private and, it turns out, sometimes contradictory. Critics say nearly identical prototypes can be approved for one manufacturer but denied for another.
See, when the ATF gnomes send a puff of smoke up the chimney, designating a gun as either legal or verboten, they won’t let anyone else know about it. So other gunmakers can’t base future designs on existing rulings. If another company comes up with a similar design, the only way to find out if it’s likely to be legal is to roll the dice, produce a prototype and pray to the regulatory gods that the ATF be consistent. If the sheep entrails arrange in their favor, maybe the ATF will give them the go-ahead.
But even then that doesn’t mean they’re good to go. Because, like your high school girlfriend, the ATF reserves the right to change it’s collective mind. For no apparent reason. Just ask Bill Akins.
Bill Akins, a Florida inventor, said the ATF initially approved his Akins Accelerator to increase the firing speed of semi-automatic rifles to simulate fully automatics, but later ruled the device illegal — leaving him with $500,000 worth of useless inventory.
But a similar product, the Slide Fire stock is perfectly legal. Go figure.
And then there are the instances that can only be classified as downright surreal.
(Former ATF official Robert E. Sanders) noted that ATF once issued a letter ruling saying a 14-inch shoestring was a machine gun because it could be used to convert a semi-automatic rifle into an automatic weapon. The letter was later rescinded.
Maybe the ATF only wanted to extend it’s regulatory reach over local cobblers and shoe stores with that one. Thwarted again!
Laws to force the ATF to video tape its testing process have been proposed but haven’t gotten anywhere.
Larry Keane, general counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, said letter rulings can be “all over the map,” particularly on the point in the manufacturing process when a piece of metal becomes a firearm subject to federal law.
He said the rulings are determined on “an ad hoc basis” and that it is nearly impossible to comply with the law with no clear definition from the ATF and varying interpretations from the courts.
“It is unfair for ATF to hold individuals to a standard that they cannot articulate themselves,” he said.
All of which is true. Sort of. it’s not that the ATF can’t articulate themselves, only that it doesn’t really want to. If gunmakers know what and what isn’t compliant, they won’t need the ATF and their steenkin’ badges for letter rulings. They’d just design their firearms to be compliant and go from there. They’d also have something to hang their hat on in court if rules one illegal.
No, as far as the ATF is concerned it’s much more advantageous to keep the rubes guessing. Better to be arbitrary and unfathomable. That way they can make it up as they go along. All of which means more work – and more control – for the bureaucracy.