I just got off the phone with Dimitrios Karras, owner of Ares Armor (which was recently raided by the ATF). Ever since the ATF’s visit they’ve gone completely radio silent, and the lack of information has made it hard for even us to keep track of what’s really happening. There’s a lot of conflicting information floating around, and he wanted a chance to clean things up and explain exactly what was going on. It’s still not 100% clear even to Karras, but I’ll take a shot at laying out the facts of the case . . .
It all started over a hunk of plastic.
A firearm only becomes a firearm when it becomes fully functional. Raw materials — even those destined to become firearms — are not regulated like a firearm until all the manufacturing processes have been completed to make it operational. But that creates a loophole for do-it-yourself gun owners, since they can purchase nearly-completed lower receivers for their AR-15 firearms and manufacture the rest of the firearm themselves. Not only does this get around needing to have a background check to buy the firearm, but it also keeps them from having a paper trail of any kind that the ATF can come snooping down should they want to confiscate the guns. In theory, anyway.
EP Armory has been working with Ares Armor for ages. The owners of the two companies are buddies, and Ares Armor buys and distributes EP Armory’s other products through its website and stores. Somewhat recently EP Armory started building a polymer 80% lower receiver that used two different color plastics to differentiate where the end user (manufacturer) needs to mill out in order to make the gun functional. It’s a pretty slick design, since it makes the manufacturing process a whole lot easier for people to follow.
The ATF wasn’t pleased with this development.
According to Karras, the ATF had one day decided that EP Armory’s polymer lower receiver was an illegally manufactured firearm. Specifically, they believed that the lower receiver was being manufactured as a complete firearm, and then later had the relevant sections of the lower filled in to take it “back” to an 80% state. Since the ATF believes that once something is a firearm it is always a firearm, simply filling in the lower would not render it an 80% hunk of plastic once more. The ATF was of the opinion that the lower was in fact a complete firearm, and EP Armory and Ares Armor were both selling and shipping these illegal guns.
Karras literally laughed at this. According to him, the lowers are “impossible” to assemble in the manner the ATF describes. He says that the “plug” is manufactured first (the part that needs to be milled out by the end user), with a series of ridges that lock it into the rest of the lower receiver as it is molded around the plug. That way, at no point is a complete firearm manufactured and the 80% status is preserved.
I’ve tried to find out the truth behind that claim as to the method of manufacture, but so far I’ve come up short. Dimitrios says that this is the way the lowers have always been made, but there are no supporting documents that I can find. It does look like those documents may become available shortly as the case progresses, though.
The ATF contacted Karras a few weeks ago when they were starting to do their full investigation into these supposed illegal firearms that were being sold and asked him to turn over the lowers he had in stock as well as the customer list. He agreed to turn over his current stock of lowers for inspection, but refused to turn over the customer list. The ATF threatened him with a search warrant, and instead of folding to their request he applied for and was granted a temporary restraining order against the ATF keeping them out of his store.
Up to this point, everything Karras says is backed up by a statement by Paul Ware, the ATF’s attorney. But that’s is where things get complicated.
Last week, the ATF asked for some clarification on that restraining order. According to the court, the order could not prohibit them from carrying out a lawful investigation. In order to do so, they would need an approved search warrant based on a finding of probable cause by the courts. When Ares Armor applied for the restraining order, they submitted a ton of documentation about the manufacturing process of the lower receivers and showing that the manufacturing process was not consistent with the method described by the ATF’s letter in which they determined the lower was an illegal firearm. So in essence, they gave the ATF all the information required to determine that the lower receiver is, in fact, legal. This information will be made publicly available at some point in the future, and should be interesting to read.
Following that clarification, the ATF raided Ares Armor and took all their product and sales records. Karras was not able to see the search warrant, so he has no idea what evidence it was based on. Some people started speculating that the ATF was using Ares Armor’s proposed “build parties” as an end-run around the restraining order, which I found credible and used as a basis for my previous articles. But with Karras’s assertion that there’s no doubt whatsoever about the polymer 80% lowers being the target of the investigation (which he in turn based off the ATF lawyer’s own statements to that effect), it looks like that theory can be safely blown out of the water.
At this point, there are two roads that this story can take. And it all hinges on how the ATF received their search warrant.
The ATF apparently has been issued a search warrant for Ares Armor. The catch here is that in order to get the search warrant, they need probable cause that (A) the lower receivers are in fact illegally made and (B) Ares Armor’s batch are made the illegal way. If they didn’t obtain the search warrant using “proper” evidence, then not only was the raid illegal but it was in violation of the restraining order. So, like I said, two paths here.
Path #1 is that the ATF re-defines the point at which a firearm becomes a firearm,, and that even when assembled the “legal” way EP Armory’s lower receiver is still an illegal firearm. This is the most likely course of action if the ATF doesn’t find (or fabricate) any evidence that the lowers are manufactured the “illegal” way, as the ATF would want to cover their ass and protect themselves from a lawsuit from Ares Armor for violating the restraining order. If this happens it will kick off a rather massive shitstorm as this would mean the ATF has moved the goalposts and re-defined what makes a firearm “complete.” This is especially concerning for traditional manufacturers, who buy forged lower receivers (technically also 80% lowers) from non-FFL holding metalworking shops and finish them in-house much the same way that Ares Armor’s products are designed to be used. If the companies doing the forging now need an FFL and a serial number on each forging, that will make things massively complex and make firearms manufacturing much harder to accomplish. So, expect a massive backlash in this case from both the industry and the gun owning public. I give this a low probability rating mainly due to the ensuing shitstorm.
Path #2 is that the ATF still truly believed (or at least claimed to believe) that EP Armory’s lower receivers are manufactured the “illegal” way, as described in their original letter declaring the products illegal firearms. The catch is that they would need probable cause for the search warrant, and depending on the validity of the evidence they presented the search may or may not have been “legal.” If the ATF pressured the judge into signing off on the search without any real evidence, or fabricated evidence of their own, then Ares Armor will have a field day suing the ATF for violating the restraining order as well as the illegal search and seizure. However, if the ATF did have real evidence that EP Armory and Ares Armor were in the wrong and the lowers really were being manufactured the illegal way, then Ares Armor is in a world of hurt. This is the most likely path forward, and the most entertaining for those of us watching on the sidelines and hoping for a smack-down on the ATF for their thug-like way of conducting themselves.
There are tons of questions as to what the ATF’s case really consists of, and we won’t know until the courts publish the ATF’s affidavit for the search warrant or bring charges against some of the players. We don’t know which of these opinions the ATF holds, and until there are more facts on the table all we can do is speculate. But for my part, it’s fantastic to get the actual facts straight from the horse’s mouth about what has happened so far.