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Agents of Incompetence: ATF Dodges FOIA, Still Has Seized BB Guns (Part IV)

Customs has refused to answer questions addressed to them about the seizure, referring all claims to the ATF. As a result, Pajamas Media filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the ATF, asking in part for:

Documentation relating to the determination. ... [C]opies of written documentation and video or photographic evidence showing how ATF technicians were able to convert the lower to fire real ammunition, and information of what occurred when the converted weapon was fired. ... [C]opies of email and print communications within the ATF regarding this issue, and copies of email and print communications between ATF and CBP related to this issue.

The ATF's written response to the FOIA request was less than helpful. Instead of providing information about the WE Tech rifles seized from Airsoft Outlet Northwest at the Port of Tacoma, Washington, ATF responded with what appeared to be a clumsy bait-and-switch:

We would like to bring to your attention our oversight on the subject of your request in our letter dated April 13, 2010; Springfield, Inc instead of record pertaining to Airsoft rifles intercepted by Customs and Border Protection; as maintained by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

Perhaps an expert in FOIA law can explain this interesting redirection to those of us less versed in the finer points of the legalities, but it would seem quite bizarre that an agency subject to FOIA requests has the authority to randomly determine that the requester really wanted something entirely different ... and entirely useless. Airsoft Outlet Northwest's Ben Martin confirmed receiving apparently identical information in response to their FOIA request as well.

Instead of providing reasonable, simple answers to reasonable, simple questions (along the lines of "how did the ATF come to the determination that these Airsoft rifles were machine guns?"), the agency passed along a series of heavily redacted documents about:

  • Sigma Airsoft silencers (not WE Tech Airsoft rifles)
  • seized in Phoenix, AZ (not Tacoma, WA)
  • in 2004 (not 2009-10)

I'm sure that the three more or less complete documents they provided about Airsoft pistol silencers seized in 2004 by the Phoenix Field Division are of interest to someone. But they do not help us in the least when it comes to understanding the ATF's determination that the WE Tech Airsoft rifles still being sold openly around the country are easily converted into fully automatic machine guns, and at a fraction of the cost the U.S. military pays for the real thing.

Pajamas Media has been in contact with Averill P. Graham, chief of the ATF's Disclosure Division. We have communicated that the FOIA information they provided "about an entirely unrelated incident in the desert Southwest" did not answer the questions about Airsoft Outlet NW's WE Tech rifles, or about any of the other Airsoft toys and accessories purchased by the company being held hostage by the government.

Chief Graham has asked us to return the documentation they sent, and promises to pull their file on our original request and "see what happened." Perhaps this additional attempt will bear more fruit ... but I wouldn't suggest holding your breath.

Hope is not lost for Airsoft Outlet Northwest, however. The government recently released some of the $20,000 in inventory they'd seized, including 15 other Airsoft machine guns made by WE Tech and 20 bolt-action Airsoft guns. Perhaps with some patience -- and a bit of tenacity -- the ATF and Customs can finally be convinced to return these toys to their rightful owners.

Getting them to admit they were laughably wrong may be an entirely different matter.