Is it a toy or a dangerous weapon?
The KING 5 Investigators have obtained government documents in which federal agents declare that a popular type of toy, an airsoft rifle, is a “firearm”.
Even though agents have reached this conclusion, we’ve found that there is a strange secrecy in the air when it comes to informing the public about this potential threat.
It all stems from the public outcry that started when agents seized a shipment of these airsoft “toys” at the Port of Tacoma last year. The “toys” are airsoft guns, known as airsoft, which are wildly popular with kids. They shoot plastic airsoft BB’s using air or gas.
“The way you tell it's not real is the orange tip,” said 11-year-old Peter Crites, as he played an airsoft game with friends recently at a Seattle park. “It's illegal not to have an orange tip on it."
But now, orange tip or not, federal agents say some airsoft gun replicas have crossed the line from make believe to the real thing.
Internal ATF memo
KING 5 obtained a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms internal memo and other documents under the Freedom of Information Act.
ATF said it "evaluated several of these airsoft guns" and determined they are "firearms", and some even "machine guns," in the eyes of the law.
ATF said thousands of air guns meeting that definition have been imported into the United States.
There was an outcry early last year on the Internet and talk radio when ATF took its first public shots at airsoft guns.
Critics demanded to know why the government was targeting "toys." Records we obtained show that even three United States senators wanted explanations from ATF after agents at the Port of Tacoma seized an incoming shipment of airsoft guns.
The high-end, all metal guns cost about $400 each. Air guns like those seized in Tacoma are produced by a variety of foreign and domestic manufacturers who emphasize the realism of their products.
But could these airsoft rifles actually fire bullets?
Testing the guns
“That looks like a real firearm. If someone pointed that at me I would shoot them," said Wade Gaughran, the owner of Wade’s Eastside Guns in Bellevue. He has a staff of gunsmiths who service AR-15 rifles, which are what the replica guns seized by the ATF are modeled after.
Gaughran agreed to analyze an airsoft manufactured by the same company that produced those air guns.
"I can see where the problem is,” Gaughran said as he looked at the airsoft that KING 5 purchased on the Internet. “They have gone to a level of realism that I have not seen before."
It's what inside that Gaughran found most disturbing.
"This actually looks like an auto sear out of a machine gun," he said. He found internal parts that could allow someone to make a fully functioning lower receiver, the only part of the gun that requires a background check to buy.
"In all firearms, the receiver is the registered or controlled part," said Gaughran. “We could set in the trigger parts with very little alteration and you would get a weapon that would fire."
A converted airsoft receiver could be mounted onto many powerful real guns.
Even worse, it would be untraceable. On a real AR-15 lower receiver, there is a serial number and markings that help law enforcement trace its history if used in a crime. Investigators often use these numbers to link a gun to a suspect. The airsoft receiver is unmarked and untraceable.
While ATF sources and documents cannot point to one incident where an airsoft receiver was used in a crime, documents received from KING 5’s public records requests do list a half-dozen cases in which criminals paid top dollar for untraceable firearm receivers.
At Wade’s Gunshop, we asked the gunsmith to try to fire live rounds from our airsoft. Gaughran said he believes the average person couldn’t do it.
"What we were trying to do is find out how easy it would be for a kid with a drill or a criminal with some common tools and that wasn't the case,” said Gaughran, explaining that his gunsmith could not make the airsoft toy fire with a minimal amount of tinkering.
In its labs, ATF said it did fire rounds from several converted airsoft guns including one of the Tacoma guns.
“If the ATF was able to make this fire, I wouldn't dispute that," said Gaughran.
While ATF has ruled that guns like this are firearms, it appears to still be stinging from the criticism.
ATF refused to explain on camera what its ruling means to people who buy or possess these guns. The public records we received are heavily censored. Even those marked "media plan" are blacked-out.
When it comes to airsoft, America's gun police are decidedly gun-shy.
ATF did issue a written statement to KING 5, however, in which the bureau said it has been working with manufacturers to make sure their airsoft guns are legal.
The Taiwanese manufacturer of the guns seized in Tacoma has not been charged, and did not respond to the KING 5 Investigators repeated emails seeking comment.