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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 The letter was later rescinded.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 is and what isn’t “allowable”, 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 the ATF rules one illegal.

No, as far as the ATF is concerned it’s much more advantageous to keep the poor 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 ever-expanding bureaucracy.

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  1. So lets put a crank on say a semi-auto 1919. Then lets make the crank wheel one that will use a belt like on your car’s alternator. Then place a gerbel cage/wheel below and connect the two.

    Now fill out the form 1 for the gerbal and lets see what they say. My money is that the Gerbal has to be registered. . .

  2. Maybe I don’t understand, but I am surprised that the industry has not tried to sue.

    There are many instances where courts have ruled that if the laws cannot be properly described, that they cannot otherwise be enforced either.

  3. Had trouble with post editor. Here’s the corrected post:

    This epitomizes The Leviathan: tyrrany is whimsical. You never know if you’ve broken the law or not–and you probably have–and never know if penalties or even jail will be enforced. Just keep your head down and try not to catch the regulator’s eye.

    80,000 pages of federal regulation were published last year. No one, not even the entity responsible for publishing them, can say how many will result in penalties or even jail time if broken. It is capricious.

    Further, only large companies can afford teams of attorneys to wade through this week’s 1,247 pages to determine their impact on next week’s rules. Thus, small businesses can be vorized with the smallest flick of a bureacrat’s displeasure.

    Plan on risking that? Fat chance. The Leviathan government must have entire departments shut down and all the desk jockeys sent home. At least that’ll cost a mere 99 weeks of unemployment compared to the forever cost we bear now–until the entire choked and sclerotic apparatus collapses, tearing through the countryside mechanically unaware that it is consuming what will formerly be known as The United States of America.

    • Cheers.

      One of my Marxist aunts can’t seem to grasp the concept that adding/changing regulations raises costs and kills jobs. I love her, but jesus christ, hold on tight to your pocket book, because she wants to put her hand in it.

  4. In a world where a shoestring can be a machine gun, then I guess that a government agency can be a terrorist organization.

  5. “But a similar product, the Slide Fire stock is perfectly legal. Go figure.”
    They’re made by the same person and were not similar, the Accelerator stock had a spring in it, the spring was ruled to be a NFA component, but not the stock, owners had to send the springs in to the ATF.

    “All of which means more work – and more control – for the bureaucracy.”
    By participating in the electoral process, you provide them with credibility. Simple solution to the bureaucracy problem, stop participating and providing them with legitimacy.

  6. “particularly on the point in the manufacturing process when a piece of metal becomes a firearm subject to federal law”

    Ahh, when does the life of a firearm begin, conception of the idea or once machining has begun?

  7. Has anyone assumed that the ATF is merely incompetent, rather than malicious? The scenario that no one at the ATF has really thought about a comprehensive policy regarding firearms laws, let alone enacted such a thing makes much more sense than the ATF making deliberately contradictory rulings.

    More than likely, there’s some head honcho that tells his department something like this:
    ATF HEAD HONCHO: “Make sure that if there’s something that enables a gun to fire on full auto that it’s not legal.”
    ATF UNDERLINGS: “Can you clarify that?”
    ATF HEAD HONCHO: “It’s pretty obvious duh, anything where you can fire more than one bullet per trigger pull.”
    ATF UNDERLINGS: “So what do we tell John Q. Public when they come up with something that’s somewhere in-between the lines on that?”
    ATF HEAD HONCHO: “Use you best judgment.”
    ATF UNDERLINGS: “So no department-wide policy or anything?”
    ATF HEAD HONCHO: (feeling far too lazy to write up anything that might be complicated) “I’m sure there’s no need, you’re all intelligent ATF agents aren’t you?”
    ATF UNDERLINGS: “Yes. Yes we are.”
    ATF HEAD HONCHO: “Good then. Back to work.”

    • Let’s just replace the entire ATF with gun manufacturers and hopefully see if everything falls into the favor of law abiding gun owners.

  8. Not to necro this article but we are now facing this BS in Canada. The vaunted RCMP has taken 11 rifles and a handgun and discovered this trick and are now, rather than the shoestring, planning on banning those firearms!


    Oh and the lab refuses to tell the public that it is this trick. Only referring to it as “widely known on the internet”.

    And the truly stupidest part?

    It is already illegal for anyone in Canada to cause a firearm to fire in a fully automatic fashion.


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