It was only a month ago that a bizarre story broke in the Pacific Northwest, as Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers trumpeted their seizure of what they claimed were more than two dozen machine guns disguised as toys.
They really were toys.
But instead of admitting they can’t tell a toy gun from a real one, CBP turned these Airsoft rifles over to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), and the agency agreed that these pot-metal made, plastic BB-shooting plinkers were honest-to-God firearms.
To put it mildly, things got interesting.
An Airsoft expert from England dismissed the claim as absurd. In the U.S., AirSplat expert Jon Dibblee — who was once Sgt. Jon Dibblee, a U.S. Army infantryman — categorically denied that the WE Tech M4s could be made into machine guns, an expert opinion supported by a gunsmith specializing in the AR rifle who examined another WE Tech in great detail. The gunsmith determined:
- The WE TTI M4s lack any sort of functional gas tube, which is integral to an AR15’s operation.
- The upper receiver of an AR15 fits onto the lower of the WE TTI M4.
- The stock trigger pack in the WE TTI cannot strike the firing pin of a AR15 bolt.
- The body of the WE TTI lower is several mils thinner than an AR15 lower, and shims would be needed for any AR trigger pack to work.
- The trigger pack of an AR15 appears to be able to fit onto the lower receiver of a WE TTI M4, one of the AR15 trigger pack retaining pins is impossible to insert without major modification, and the hammer isn’t operable with the WE TTI lower.
In short, multiple experts examined the dubious ATF claim and found that the WE Tech rifles confiscated by the CBP and slated for destruction by the ATF cannot be converted to machine guns, or any other kind of working firearm.
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.