Robert E. Sanders, a former ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) official for 24 years and now a board member of the National Rifle Association, complained that the ATF’s practice of issuing “private letter rulings” on what constitutes a “weapon” are not only confusing but often arbitrary and even contradictory.
The main reason is that the regulations under which the ATF operates aren’t defined and therefore are subject to interpretation and modification:
It is hard to tell what ATF wants you do to without submitting your product and asking for a letter ruling. 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?
Len Savage, the owner of Historic Arms in Georgia, found out the hard way about the ATF’s capriciousness, and it cost him $500,000. Savage is a firearms designer and manufacturer and was told by the ATF in July 2005 that he could convert machine guns legally owned by collectors into belt-fed weapons. After investing in the tools and machinery to make the conversions, he received another letter from the ATF in April 2006 saying that “upon reconsideration” it was rescinding its previous approval. Savage said the ATF “follows no rhyme or reason” calling it “enforcement by ambush.”
The ATF said it was just following the rules in its National Firearms Act Handbook, to wit: “classifications are subject to change if later determined to be erroneous or impacted by subsequent changes in the law or regulations.” Since those regulations are written by the ATF, their explanation is