Gun makers baffled by ATF criteria

Models OK’d on case-by-case basis

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The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is in charge of determining whether a gun model is legal, but the agency won’t say much about its criteria.

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 can submit 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.

That process, known as “letter rulings,” results in various findings about what makes a weapon. Program critics, including the ATF’s former assistant director of criminal investigations, said one determination contended that a shoestring was a machine gun.

The letters are sent only to the person submitting the weapon, making it hard for other gun manufacturers, designers and dealers looking for guidance to make judgments about the agency’s evolving interpretations of the federal code. That lack of publication also means that no one knows when the agency issues rulings at odds with similar cases.

‘Definitely contradictory’

Robert E. Sanders, an ATF official for 24 years who is now a North Carolina lawyer specializing in firearms matters, said letter rulings are often “definitely contradictory and inconsistent,” but are necessary because the regulations being applied are ill-defined.

“It is hard to tell what ATF wants you to do without submitting your product and asking for a letter ruling,” he said. “You can’t tell what the agency has said in the past to others, because those letter rulings are generally secret. How could somebody know how to comply with the law?”

Mr. Sanders also serves as one of 75 members of the National Rifle Association’s board of directors.

The letters come from the agency’s Firearms Technology Branch, which tests weapons and related equipment that are submitted voluntarily for compliance rulings.

Mr. Sanders said that submitting a weapon for testing is a “costly and lengthy process” that would not be necessary if the ATF wrote detailed regulations. For example, he said, there are no written regulations on how to modify a machine gun made before a ban went into effect in 1986.

He 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.

In other cases, the ATF has rescinded letter rulings and caused problems for those who had begun production or sales based on approvals. Contradictory rulings have cost gun manufacturers and dealers hundreds of thousands of dollars in spent and anticipated revenue.

Changes can be costly

Len Savage, a Georgia firearms designer and manufacturer, said what ATF allows and disallows “follows no rhyme or reason” and described the regulatory technique as “enforcement by ambush.”

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