Airsoft: An Industry Without Standard. Print
Written by: Benjamin Martin
I would be stating the obvious if I said that Airsoft is a competitive sport, it's part of the game to out-maneuver, out-gun, and outperform your competition. From what I can tell, this competitive spirit doesn't end at the field, it extends all the way up the distribution channel to the manufacturers and extends out horizontally to Airsoft forums and teams with their inter-community rivalries. This is what makes this industry and sport so fantastic to work and play in; it allows the natural competitive spirit that is in all of us to come out and get a breath of fresh air.
I began working for Airsoft Outlet Northwest in April of 2006 back when the store was nothing more than a small wall of AEG's with a few spare parts. At the time Airsoft seemed to be an extremely niche market of players that more or less had been accustomed to dealing with online retailers. As the ad hoc manager I wasn't quite sure what direction to take the store, and it seemed that the obvious answer was just to let it grow with the sport as a whole. As the word of mouth spread so did our sales and soon enough Airsoft Outlet Northwest was operating two retail storefronts.
With the absence of U.S. Airsoft manufacturers, we turned to purchasing product straight from overseas factories which allowed us to spread our margins while we dropped our prices, in turn we could offer competitive stateside retail prices to our customers. Nearly everyone that is involved in the sport has or will purchase Airsoft overseas; Hong Kong or Taiwanese prices are very lucrative when compared against U.S. retailers and distributors, the only thing to watch out for is the shipping.
If you're just a regular player looking for that unique Western Arms M4 with COLT trademarks then you'll probably purchase that gun overseas and hope it gets through customs without hindrance, and more often than not you're going to get it through. If you're a big name U.S. distributor or a large retailer and your order of several dozen AEG's hits port, than more often than not you're going to raise some eyebrows and likely face an intensive inspection, but this is just the nature of the beast. A single customer ordering one Airsoft replica with all kinds of infringed trademarks will easily slip through Customs and Border Protection's (CBP) fragmented system while dozens of trademark free AEG's with permanent orange tips will sound more alarms than NORAD on 9/11.
Why is this?
Well the simplest explanation is that the odds are in favor of the consumers package not being inspected since it's usually just one box; the average CBP agent doesn't want to waste their time meddling in small orders when they could be looking for real terrorist threats.
Airsoft Outlet Northwest has learned the hard way about all the unpredictable rules that come along with importing Airsoft replicas. When we started importing AEG's from G&P late 2006 we only knew of one obvious rule to importing, the replicas had to have blaze orange tips to indicate that they were in fact nothing more than toys. The more product we brought in the more we discovered that the rules were very malleable and arbitrary. We had one shipment from G&P come in and the inspecting CBP Agent held them because the AEG's had trademark infringed bodies, but he allowed us to come in and deface the trademarks so that we could bring in the replicas legally. The agent was kind, understanding, and a former Marine who was genuinely interested in our product. We learned from our mistakes and ensured that all future overseas orders wouldn't include trademark infringed AEG's. Our faith in the importation process and working with CBP was solid, we figured as long as we imported replicas with orange tips and that were free of illegal trademarks then we wouldn't have anything to worry about.
To our amazement we were dead wrong.
That CBP agent who was so willing to work with us disappeared and we began to have a different CBP agent in the Port of Portland forcefully remove orange tips and then consider the product illegal. I'm not entirely sure what caused these change of events, but I can only speculate that this replacement had some sort of negative opinion against firearms or the military because according to their predecessor we were doing everything right.
We decided that the Port of Portland wasn't friendly to the industry so we began to take our business through the Port of Seattle, and the Port of Tacoma. We kept our noses clean and made sure that all orange flash hiders were glued on, if the flash hider was removed by a CBP agent then they would find that the barrel underneath would be painted orange as well, and every Airsoft replica was 100% clean of trademark infringements. For a short period importation ran smoothly.
Slowly over time the ports of Seattle and Tacoma began to take interest in what we were bringing in, which was primarily WE brand Airsoft gas pistols and Airsoft plastic bb's. The pistols came completely clean of trademarks, maintained orange plugs glued into the barrel, and were nowhere near being readily convertible to fire a real round. Still, CBP agents across the board started intensively looking into everything we brought in, whether it was bb's, cheap optics, or high end Airsoft replicas.
This continued to escalate until nearly four months ago when Airsoft Outlet Northwest brought in a batch of WE TTI Gas Blowback M4's through the Port of Tacoma. We had previously brought these Gas Blowback M4's through the Port of Seattle without incident and had been stocking them since WE TTI's first generational release of the replica back in early 2009. We figured that since Tacoma is closer to our store, and that CBP in Seattle was allowing these in, that we'd be ok.
Again, we were dead wrong.
Although these WE M4 replicas were free of trademarks, the WE TTI factory in Taiwan completely failed to put orange tips onto the replicas. We didn't know this until I called the inpsecting agent in Tacoma to find out why our shipment had been delayed for two months. I didn't get the inspecting agent in charge, but got his partner who was more than willing to talk and help me figure out what was going on. When the CBP agent told me they didn't have orange tips I just about hung up in realization that these replicas were gone, but he said that he went to our website and saw that we only sold to 18 and over, or under 18 with parental consent. He then divulged that because this was our business policy that he would consider them "bb guns" which wouldn't require an orange tip.
I thought to myself that we couldn't have landed a more up front and honest CBP Agent in the country, and oddly enough he was a former military man as well.
But he also told me that he wasn't used to Airsoft products and brought in the CPSC (Consumer Product Safety Commission) and the ATF (now BATFE). Apparently the CPSC gave them one look and then said they were O.K. to sell, but ATF wanted a closer look and whisked them away to an office in Maryland so they could "have them thoroughly examined".
Hold this thought...
At the same time all of this was happening, a second order of ours hit the Port of Seattle which was full of WE gas pistols, KJW M700's, and WE TTI SCAR's: all gas blowback replicas. Without hesitation the inspecting agent held this shipment indefinitely without cause or reason. When I called this CBP Agent in Seattle to inquire what the problem was he more or less gave me the cold shoulder and wouldn't (or couldn't) give me any reason as to why he was holding our product. I had stated that it was my right to know what laws Airsoft Outlet Northwest had broken and he more or less told me:
After this conversation my faith in Customs and Border Protection completely fell apart. I realized that we (Airsoft Outlet NW) were dealing with bigoted individuals whose personal agendas were more important than holding the Airsoft industry to any sort of standard.
I now assume that this agent in Seattle, like many oblivious officials do, based his judgments purely on hearsay and without any circumstantial evidence seized our product for his own self gratification and/or self promotion. He has yet to provide any sort of proof that he, or anyone else, has been able to convert any of the WE gas pistols, KJW M700's, or WE TTI SCAR's to shoot live ammo. I would even go as far as to call him a liar if he said he did test them because of the fact that the civilian or military version of the SCAR is still extremely limited in number, and I doubt this CBP Agent would be able to get one to potentially destroy. The simple fact of the matter is that these three Airsoft replicas are nowhere close to having the ability to shoot live ammunition. The inspecting agent is basing his judgments on speculation and not fact, he cannot provide any evidence to support his argument, and refuses to open any lines of communication about our product being illegal.
Now, Back in Tacoma there has been a recent press release by Port Director Rolando Suliveras, Jr that essentially states the CBP Agents in the Port of Tacoma made a "good interception" because "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"
Sure Airsoft replicas look and feel like a firearm, the realism is what makes Airsoft so much fun, but we all know that they are nothing more than toys used by hobbyists for gaming and by Law Enforcement for training. But an Airsoft replica to the ignorant individual, who is supposedly the first line of defense on what's right and wrong, may interpret Airsoft as some sort of malicious tool out to destroy society. If these Airsoft replicas have such potentially "devastating ramifications" then why are they so readily available for purchase from multiple Airsoft vendors across America? If these are so dangerous and illegal then why isn't the ATF seizing them nation wide? did the Port of Tacoma jump to conclusions on the matter and is now needing the ATF to cover their mistakes? It's evident that the realism of Airsoft is too overwhelming for these simple minds whose only goal is to make themselves look good in lieu of facing massive problems with immigration and real threats posed to the American public.
In proper CBP fashion Suliveras has also failed to provide any sort of evidence to prove his point that these Airsoft replicas could be converted to shoot a real round. According to this article on the CBP website Suliveras and his boys found that:
"[replacing the] internal components with original machinegun components could be accomplished within a short period of time, thus rendering the rifles capable of firing live ammunition."
This statement that these replicas could shoot live ammo with a few internal changes alone is absolutely ludicrous! I doubt these CBP agents, let alone ATF agents, bothered to notice that these Airsoft replicas lack feed ramps to load real ammunition; so it would be physically impossible if someone wanted to use the WE TTI M4 as a whole unit to shoot live ammo. I'm not a machinist, but I can assume that it takes a little longer than "a short period of time" to mill a precise feed ramp for an aluminum barrel that doubtingly could withstand the 62,366 psi that a 5.56mm NATO round can put off. As a side note, the average velocity of a 5.56mm NATO round is 940 meters/sec, the average velocity of one of these Airsoft replicas is 137 meters/sec. To me that doesn't sound like the Airsoft M4 could handle firing any sort of real ammunition.
Now we at Airsoft Outlet Northwest, being the rational individuals we are, went out and had a gunsmith check the true compatibility of these replicas and found the following information:
* The WE TTI M4's 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.
So essentially these Airsoft replicas cannot even operate an AR15 trigger pack without heavy modification with a precise tooling system operated by someone who knows the specific measurements to drill and tap the WE TTI lower receiver.
To me this doesn't sound like it's feasible within "a short period of time".
All of these compounded issues have made it clear that Customs and Border Protection lacks any consistency, cohesiveness, or competent Agents. One can do a simple Google search for these WE TTI M4 Gas Blowback Airsoft Replicas and find that there are retailers across the country carrying them, some of them with infringed trademarks! I don't even want to state how many U.S. retailers are carrying the WE TTI SCAR since there is a massive distributor selling them out of California. As for the WE gas pistols and KJW M700's, well, those aren't even close to being illegal but according to our friendly CBP Agent in Seattle, Agent Bianchi, we don't have any rights to even find out how to import these Airsoft replicas.
These Agents that are assigned to protect America have gone out of their way to make Airsoft Outlet Northwest look like a faceless entity with dark ulterior motives behind a guise of a friendly retail establishment. Internet rumors are now running rampant because of this, and susceptible citizens are speculating that these "machine guns" were destined to Mexico, Canada, or some sort of sleeper terrorist cell in the States. The fact of the matter is that Airsoft Outlet Northwest is a true "mom and pop" store that is owned and operated by a husband, wife, their son, and a handful of faithful employees who all believe in the American way of life. Before this incident we had sold numerous WE TTI M4 Airsoft replicas to Law Enforcement agents and Military men who use them for training; we have also sold these replicas to the local Oregon based manufacturer Crimson Trace who demonstrate their product with Airsoft.
If anything CBP is destroying local economy with their ignorance.
It's obvious to me there there is a massive polarity how Customs and Border Protection handles importation. The first agent I had talked to in Tacoma decided that the WE TTI M4's weren't even Airsoft, but instead were bb guns since they didn't have orange tips. CBP Agents in California allow the WE TTI SCAR to come through their ports en masse while one biased Agent in Seattle can stop a shipment based on inconclusive evidence. Talking to the distributors in California I found out that they are allowed a grace period to come in and rectify any problems with their shipments before they're seized; I wish Airsoft Outlet NW had that luxury here in Oregon and Washington.
All of this has made me wonder if there is any sort of standard at all, or are legal judgments with Airsoft left up to the arbitrary decision of the agent that inspects a shipment? Oddly enough the only CBP agents that have been forthcoming with our supposed rights, and have let us rectify any problems, have been former military men. As for the other agents that have, for lack of a better word, stolen our product, none of them have divulged any sort of information to help us let alone open any lines of communication to come to a common ground.
As an importer of replica guns, we should be allowed to know what is illegal to import without facing bigoted scrutiny. If we, or the factory, makes any sort of mistake that CBP doesn't like, then we should be allowed to rectify the situation and come to a mutual agreement with the inspecting Agent. Customs and Border Protection's lack of any sort of national regularity is alarming to see first hand, and their complete ineptitude of how firearms operate is absurd. We should be able to prove our case without oppression or denial.
Customs and Border Protection seems to be on a witch hunt, and we're at the stake.