Prior to July 7, 2003, I would never have asked myself that question. Now I find myself reflecting back to that day when I ponder, "How in the world did this mess get started?".
I am a Federally licensed firearms manufacturer. As a responsible member of my industry I always worked closely with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). I had always encountered good people at the local Atlanta field office. Very professional, very prompt, and yes even courteous.
As a manufacturer I am not required to submit any sample to ATF for review. I submit samples to be completely open and transparent, and most of all, to verify compliance with all federal laws. I do not ever wish to make or sell an illegal product.
On July 7th, 2003 I called Sterling Nixon, Chief of the ATF Firearms Technology Branch (FTB), to ask the status of a classification of one of my company's products. To my shock, this guy acted like a hot head. He immediately told me about being too busy to deal with a "nobody" and hung up.
I had spoken with his boss on a previous occasion, and still had his number. I called him and asked, "What's with the new guy (Sterling Nixon)? Mr. Nixon called me a short time later and warned me to never ever go "over his head" again. He clearly explained that criminal cases always take precedence over submission samples at FTB, and FTB was very busy dealing with some federal cases. He went to say FTB serves every single Federal Court by classifying firearm-related evidence as firearm, machine gun, short barrel rifle, etc.
I eventually received my classification letter on the product from the FTB about a month later. However, the letter was an obvious "cut and paste" job from a previous letter that ATF had sent to my company and was full of errors (as it described a different rifle). I promptly notified the FTB of those errors. I was again told because of the high load of criminal cases that their mistake on my submission must have "fallen through the cracks." I was asked to make corrections in the margin and fax it to FTB so they could write a revised classification letter. I did so. Later I received a revised letter -- that I had essentially written myself.
I became very concerned with other errors the ATF/FTB was making on submitted samples. How many innocent people may have had their evidence in criminal cases "fall through the cracks" if FTB was under a large caseload? Would the agency take short cuts with submitted product samples or worse, with evidence in criminal trials?
I was soon to find out. The situation was worse than I -- or anyone -- could have imagined.
Among other things, I was more than a little curious as to how ATF/FTB conducted examinations on firearms used as evidence in Federal Court. Around this time, I was asked by defense attorney Monroe Whitesides, Esq. to examine a rifle the FTB had declared to be a machine gun in the case of US v Glover. Mr. Whitesides received permission to document the tests and my examination of the rifle in question, which we did using videotape. Only later would we understand how important that video was to be.
The day of the test came and it revealed that Mr. Glover, the defendant, had indeed "fallen through the cracks" at FTB. And that's describing the situation charitably. Firing tests and my examination of the rifle's mechanisms showed that the firearm was not an "illegal machine gun" at all, but a malfunctioning semiautomatic. Any expert who disassembled the rifle would have immediately discovered this. The FTB's "expert" admitted on tape that he had never examined the rifle's inner workings, and yet he and his agency were willing, even eager, to turn the rifle's owner into a felon! The video document prevented an innocent citizen from being imprisoned.
I shared my growing concerns with ATF during conference calls with both ATF management, and FTB management. I was knocked speechless one day (and brother that is HARD to do), by the revelation of both the Chief and the Assistant Chief of FTB that no documented procedures ever existed for testing firearms! They went on to tell me they design the test of a submitted "evidence" on a case by case basis. In other words, they make procedures up as they go along. (And many of those procedures, as we shall see below and as I have written elsewhere, are simply outrageous.) The lack of documented scientific procedure has been confirmed by Congressional Research Service investigation. There is no documented scientific testing procedures for firearms evidence in Federal Court!
The firearms "experts" from FTB will look official testifying in court in their three-piece suits. They will have impressive titles. They will sound technically knowledgeable. In short they will carry great influence with judges and a jury (after all they are from the government). I have seen it first hand, it IS impressive.
But it is simply an illusion. Nothing but smoke and mirrors.
With no testing standard, no use of scientific method, what is to keep ATF agents from modifying the firearm, then declaring a legal semiautomatic to be "readily restorable" to the status of "illegal machine gun"? In fact, they have done this.
I have also seen an "expert" declare -- with a straight face -- that a lump of steel that is incapable of firing anything is a machinegun because of unspecified "machinegun features and characteristics."
FTB "experts" have even added external and internal conversion devices to legal semi-auto rifles during testing, then claimed that that the firearm was -- because of these ATF additions -- an "illegal machine gun." (The ATF-added devices are by law machineguns in and of themselves, because they when installed, allow a host firearm to fire full auto as a machinegun.) ATF "experts" have done this in full view of the entire court! In the case of US v Wrenn, for instance (another case in which I acted as an expert for the defense) FTB personnel did not take their conversion devices off prior to coming to trial.
Apparently I had enraged the ATF so greatly by the time of the Wrenn case that a few months later the agency declared one of my company's products to be "illegal contraband" and a "machinegun." The ATF had classified this device as a "non firearm" nine months earlier. I had been in production for months after receiving the "non-firearm" classification. Now suddenly -- for no reason other than spite -- my product was illegal. My investment was wasted. I was in jeopardy of becoming a criminal. Had I sold the device to any customers, they also would have been in danger of being declared felons.
The re-classification was obviously done to teach me a lesson for showing up at court cases
With my living and my freedom in jeopardy, I felt compelled to notify the United States Federal District Court of ATF malfeasance and to notify the Department of Justice, as well. This harassment of me and my livelihood is unacceptable behavior on the part of ANY federal agency.
Unfortunately, the result of my protest was predictable: The Department of Justice (of which the ATF is a subsidiary) claimed to have investigated itself. It found itself faultless.
Years after I first began asking questions, the FTB still does not have a documented firearms testing procedure. Today, defense attorneys use the Congressional Research Service report to demonstrate the ATF's lack of credibility. And -- no surprise -- prosecution of "mystery machinegun" crimes have dropped drastically. This is a good thing for justice. For years, too many innocent people were railroaded into prison.
Unfortunately my own circumstances are less bright. The ATF has forbidden me to contact it in any way other that written correspondence. This puts me at a disadvantage to all my competitors, who may still freely call the agency to ask questions. But that's not the worst. The agency has managed to "lose" many of my letters. They have not seen fit to answer some of my correspondence for 14 months. I am for all purposes shut down by the US Government. They have done this by bureaucratic fiat and bad faith. They have shut down my business and destroyed my livelihood without cause or court order, without the due process allegedly guaranteed by that same government.
Am I now an enemy of United States Government?
Historic Arms LLC