Can a device turn rifles into machine guns? The debate heats up in Brooklyn court.

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By Dan Sears

Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn argued in court this week that a device that makes it easier to fire a barrage of bullets violates a federal machine gun ban and should not be sold.

But executives of Rare Breed Triggers, a company that sells a special kind of trigger that can be inserted into a rifle to make the gun shoot a series of bullets quickly, vehemently disagreed.

“If you really thought they were machine guns, arrest me,” said Lawrence DeMonico, the company’s president, in court on Wednesday. “Let’s do it.”

The company sold more than 80,000 “forced reset triggers” — known as FRT-15s — nationwide, including to residents of New York City and Long Island, according to court documents. The dispute over whether the devices turn firearms into machine guns is similar to an ongoing debate over bump stocks, another device that makes it easier to quickly fire many rounds of ammunition. Bump stocks gained notoriety when a man used them to fire more than 1,000 rounds into a crowd at a Las Vegas music festival in 2017, killing 58 people and injuring more than 800.

The U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York filed a lawsuit earlier this year to stop the company from selling the device. Prosecutors also argued in the civil suit that Rare Breed Triggers set up a “byzantine corporate structure” and used fake company names on some of their shipping labels to hide what they were doing.

Judge Nina R. Morrison imposed a temporary restraining order in February. This week’s hearing will determine whether a longer injunction could be put in place to stop sales as the case continues to wind its way through the courts. A decision is expected by early next month, though more stages of the legal dispute are likely to follow in the months ahead.

Machine guns are defined in the National Firearms Act of 1934 and the Gun Control Act of 1968 as weapons that can shoot more than one round of ammunition “by a single function of the trigger.” Those guns are illegal under federal law.

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Technically, the “forced reset triggers” sold by Rare Breed Triggers can fire multiple rounds with a single trigger pull. But several gun experts argue that that doesn’t make it automatic, because the trigger resets itself between rounds.

The case raises questions about the powers — and limitations — of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives, the agency tasked with enforcing federal gun laws.

The ATF has taken a more assertive role in recent years as firearm regulations continue to stall in Congress. The agency has issued rules on several controversial devices, including ghost guns, bump stocks, stabilizing braces and forced reset triggers, like the FRT-15. Many of those rules have sparked legal challenges, accusing the ATF of overstepping its authority. But President Joe Biden has pledged to empower the ATF as part of his efforts to curb gun violence nationwide.

In court, company executives called the civil case a “trumped-up” legal strategy to stop them from selling the triggers, which have generated an estimated $39 million in revenue since 2020.

They said they had consulted with former ATF employees and lawyers who believed the device was legal before the company started to sell the devices. The executives also defended their decision to keep selling the triggers even after the ATF classified them as illegal machine guns, because they thought the agency’s assessment was incorrect.

“I was willing to stand on the line of what’s right and what’s wrong against an agency that wants to flip-flop and change their mind and use words that aren’t in the statute in order to, like, bully and intimidate people from doing something that they’re legally entitled to do,” DeMonico said.

Diagrams and dueling expert opinions

In two days of testimony, current and former ATF employees offered dueling opinions on whether the FRT-15 meets the legal definition of a machine gun. Prosecutors and defense attorneys asked the experts to explain in meticulous detail the inner workings of the device compared to other types of triggers. They showed videos, displayed massive diagrams and even brought in real gun parts to demonstrate how the different pieces work together to discharge a bullet.

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Anthony Ciravolo, the ATF firearms enforcement officer who wrote the official report that classified the FRT-15 as a machine gun, said he came to that conclusion because the FRT-15 will keep firing rounds as long as the shooter applies “constant rearward pressure” on the trigger. In other words, the bullets will only stop flying when the shooter stops pulling the trigger backward, the firearm runs out of ammunition or there’s a malfunction.

Two former ATF employees called by the defense disputed his conclusion.

Daniel O’Kelly, a former ATF special agent and self-professed “lifelong learner” of firearm technology, said he didn’t consider the FRT-15 to be a machine gun because the trigger can’t fire more than one round without resetting. In other words, the inner mechanics of the FRT-15 force the user’s trigger finger back and forth after each shot while the different parts operating inside the gun repeatedly go through the same cycle of steps. He noted that a locking bar prevents a user from shooting more than one round with a single function of the trigger.

Another former ATF special agent, Brian Luettke, called Ciravolo’s report “biased” and “wrong.” He said the ATF officer made claims about the trigger that were mechanically “impossible.”

The case is about more than the trigger itself.

In addition to allegations of fraud, prosecutors said in court that Rare Breed Triggers continued to sell the devices even after the ATF issued a cease and desist letter — an allegation that the company did not deny.

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The ATF official who delivered the letter also testified that one of his agents received a call from a phone number connected to the owner of the company, Kevin Maxwell, about plans to come to the ATF offices with a “rocket launcher.” Maxwell said he did not place that call.

Executives from the company said they weren’t trying to cover anything up. They said their complex corporate structure was designed to limit their liability in case a device malfunctioned and harmed someone and to make it easier to sell part of the business in the future if they wanted to.

DeMonico said he had posted videos online and given interviews to the press and social media personalities about the legal challenges facing the device. He said that Rare Breed Triggers sometimes put fake company names on its shipping labels, including “Red Beard Treasures,” to lessen the chances that someone would steal packages containing costly firearm accessories.

DeMonico also admitted in court that he flew to Utah to take a stockpile of triggers from a separate company that manufactures the triggers after the ATF raided their facility. He said the devices were already paid for and that he considered them to be his property.

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