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The owner of Historic Arms LLC, which makes and designs semi-automatic replicas of famous firearms, called the letters “worthless” because agency officials “can change their mind on a whim.”

Mr. Savage said it is impossible to know what is compliant and that the ATF can spontaneously rescind approvals for any project.

He said the ATF told him in a July 2005 letter that he could convert machine guns legally owned by collectors into belt-fed weapons, but said in April 2006 that it was overturning its decision “upon reconsideration.”

“It cost me $500,000 in orders,” he said, adding that he was forced to destroy several weapons he had built because ATF would not grandfather them.

He said he had seen letters showing that two different companies submitted weapons for testing, with one declared legal and the other ruled illegal even though they were “dimensionally and operationally identical.”

In its National Firearms Act Handbook, the ATF says manufacturers are not required to submit prototypes for testing, but they are “well advised” to do so “before going to the trouble and expense of producing it.” The handbook says that asking for a letter ruling “is a good business practice to avoid an unintended classification and violations of the law.”

The handbook also notes that “classifications are subject to change if later determined to be erroneous or impacted by subsequent changes in the law or regulations.”

ATF spokesman Drew Wade declined to answer specific questions about letter rulings, citing ongoing litigation such as an Arizona criminal case in which the legality of modified weapons is at issue.

In a statement, he said only that the Firearms Technology Branch is the “federal technical authority” on weapons and their classification and that it provides assistance to the firearms industry and public by “responding to technical inquiries, and the testing and classification of products submitted.”

Video documentation

Rep. Phil Gingrey, Georgia Republican, said the ATF’s lack of “clear and straightforward guidelines” for firearm testing is a “serious problem.”

“When the rules are subjective and continue to change, we cannot expect these business owners to comply with moving target regulations,” he said in an email. “These inconsistent rulings from the bureau are confusing and result in a waste of time and resources.”

On four occasions, Mr. Gingrey has unsuccessfully introduced the Fairness in Firearms Testing Act to require the ATF to make video recordings of its firearms tests. The bill is now before a House Judiciary subcommittee and the House Ways and Means Committee.

“Requiring the ATF to make video recordings of the testing and examination of firearms and ammunition — and allowing manufacturers access to the video documentation — will make it easier for manufacturers to contest and review testing decisions, bring consistency to the testing process, and leveling the playing field for the ATF and gun manufacturers, many of whom have been driven out of business by inconsistent and unfair testing procedures,” Mr. Gingrey said.

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.

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