One glance at the headlines would have convinced you that a major tragedy was averted by the keen eyes of U.S. Customs inspectors at the Port of Tacoma recently. KOMO blared: “Customs agents nab shipment of machine guns in Tacoma.” Other news outlets pointed out the dastardly nature of the shipment. KIRO in Seattle claimed: “Automatic Rifles Labeled As Toys Seized In Tacoma.” The Seattle Post-Intelligencer went with: “Customs seizes gun shipment labeled ‘toys.'”
Working from a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) press release entitled “Tacoma Seaport U.S. Customs and Border Protection Officers Seize Shipment of Machineguns,” these news organizations had every reason to feel that they were just reporting the news, especially when Customs and Border Protection Area Port Director Rolando Suliveras Jr. claimed:
These rifles could have had far-reaching and potentially devastating ramifications if they had gotten into the hands of individuals who wanted to do harm in the American population. This was a good interception by our officers.
But there was much, much more to the story that Suliveras and the CBP failed to mention, starting with the fact that the 30 “machine guns” seized in the raid really were toys.
For those unfamiliar with these toys, Airsoft offers a less messy and more realistic looking alternative to paintball for both gamers and tactical training. The lightweight BBs can sting and leave welts at close distances on bare skin, but they don’t pose the same threat of shooting your eye out we’ve come to associate with more traditional BB guns and their copper-coated steel payload. Because Airsoft guns can be made to look like existing firearms and can mimic their controls, they are sometimes used for military and police training scenarios where real firearms using live ammunition would be unsafe, and at a per-round cost far cheaper than alternatives.
Of course, Airsoft guns are not real firearms, even the most realistic looking ones.
While the exact materials used in Airsoft guns vary from manufacturer to manufacturer and model to model, even nicer models such as those captured by U.S. Customs in Tacoma are typically made of a mix of inexpensive plastics and cheaply cast pot metals. Some small critical components — typically parts of the trigger pack or gas system — are made of more durable metals, such as brass and steel. While not designed to handle high temperatures or pressures, the materials used in Airsoft are sufficient to reliably propel plastic pellets to a range of a couple hundred feet with a charge of compressed gas.
So when Brad and Ben Martin of Airsoft Outlet Northwest had their latest shipment of 30 WE Airsoft rifles confiscated by Customs inspectors, they expected to get them back in a reasonable amount of time. The guns are, after all, rather plainly toys once you have a close look at them and how they operate. The Martins have shipped these and similar Airsoft guns through the ports of Portland, Seattle, and Tacoma many times before, and while some Customs inspectors were more likely than others to let the toys pass through without undue delays, they were always eventually released.
But for reasons still inadequately explained, Customs provided the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) one or more of the Airsoft rifles from the shipment they seized from the Martins, and the ATF declared that these Airsoft guns could be converted into real, fully-automatic machine guns.
Those who know these particular Airsoft guns the best uniformly describe the ATF claim as preposterous.
Stephen Pringle of Airsoft World Ltd. in Great Britain sells the exact same WE Tech Airsoft products, with the handicap of selling them in a country where real firearms have been regulated almost out of existence, and where even Airsoft toys require permits from the government. Asked about the possibility of converting WE M4 gas blowback systems into functional firearms, Pringle was unconvinced:
It is certainly our understanding that any attempt to install real AR-15 parts would fail, either at the installation stage or at the point that the firer pulls the trigger, probably with disastrous consequences for the shooter. Although they feature a higher proportion of steel parts than many other Airsoft guns, they are still a long way from the build quality required of a real firearm, especially as regards the receiver.
The receiver on the M4/M16 family of weapons can be broken down into two main component groups commonly referred to as the “upper” and the “lower.” The lower receiver contains the serial-numbered lower frame of the firearm that is legally recognized as the part that is the firearm under U.S. law, along with the trigger pack, the grip, the stock, and other components in the lower half of the gun. The upper receiver is comprised of the barrel, bolt, handguards, and sights. Pringle notes that these Airsoft guns have suffered catastrophic failures even at their much lower operating pressures, and that it simply wouldn’t make sense to try to convert a toy into a real firearm that would more than likely explode in the user’s hands with the first shot.
We have seen an AWSS rifle break at the junction between the upper receiver and the barrel, an area subjected to some of the greatest stresses in a real AR-15 as that is where the chamber would be located. The machining required to create a gas-operated rifle from one of these rifles would be extensive and expensive, requiring the replacement or fabrication of several key components — barrel, gas block, gas tube, receiver, bolt carrier, bolt, firing pin, associated springs, etc. Anything less would pose as real a danger to the shooter as to any potential victims. There is also the long-running argument that if someone with criminal intentions has the skills to actually convert an Airsoft gun, they probably have the ability to fabricate a basic firearm from scratch.
In other words, it would be difficult if not impossible to convert an Airsoft rifle into a real firearm without replacing the upper receiver entirely.
I struggle to see why anyone would spend the time and money to convert a toy when it is so much easier to obtain a genuine firearm in the U.S. and if required do the work to convert it from semi auto only to full auto.
Indeed, a full upper receiver can be bought online and delivered to your door in the United States without the background check required of the lower receiver (the serialized part recognized under the law in the U.S. as the gun). So can the upper receiver of a real U.S. rifle be mated to the lower receiver of an Airsoft gun as the BATF is trying to claim, turning the Frankentoy into a a real and untraceable machine gun? Or are U.S. Customs inspectors and their allies at the BATF way in over their heads, and perhaps trying to cover up serial incompetency?
We’ll address these questions and hear from other professionals in “Agents of Incompetence, Part II.”