When federal authorities did a sweep of a Littleton gun emporium earlier this year, they found many dealers were using a sales tactic to help customers obtain weapons that would otherwise be illegal to sell in Massachusetts, newly obtained records show.
The tactic exploits a loophole in state law that dates to 1998, when the Legislature’s landmark Gun Control Act defined a “firearm” as a weapon “from which a shot or bullet can be discharged.”
Many guns restricted by the state easily separate into two parts — upper and lower receivers for AR-15 rifles, and slides and frames for many pistols — that can’t fire a bullet without the other part. Thus, some dealers simply sell the parts in separate transactions, themselves or by teaming up with another dealer.
The tactic — referred to as the “frame game” — is a statewide phenomenon. But an old mill building in Littleton, which at one point housed more than 80 gun vendors, is particularly notorious for the practice. The Globe found it described in at least 10 inspection reports from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ sweep of the building in January. None of the dealers were issued a violation for the practice, demonstrating just how readily federal authorities accept it.
One ATF report says a prospective dealer told inspectors his services would include “acquiring handguns that are not listed on the Massachusetts approved roster, which will be disassembled and transferred to [customers,] as firearms frames are not registered under Massachusetts law.”
The ATF subsequently issued him a license to manufacture firearms, which is also required to disassemble them for sale.
Inspectors reported that two other so-called firearms manufacturers at the mill — KAG Arms LLC and KAS Arms LLC — are run by the same two people, in the same room, and that one entity’s primary function is to sell parts from guns that the other entity disassembled.
Gary Klein, a former assistant attorney general under now-governor Maura Healey, called the tactic “a ridiculous subterfuge.”
He said such blatant coordination between two entities with overlapping ownership could be considered “civil or criminal conspiracy to violate state law,” adding, “I would hope that the Commonwealth would investigate and pull both companies’ licenses.”
State legislative leaders have vowed to pass a gun-control package this session that could close the loophole employed by the dealers by changing the definition of a firearm to include frames and receivers, which would make selling those parts from banned guns illegal.
But until then, the “frame game” is generally, though sometimes begrudgingly, considered legal.
James Ferguson, the ATF special agent in charge of the Boston Field Division, told the Globe that the bureau’s inspectors are focused on enforcing federal laws, and don’t deny licenses or issue violations to vendors over potential violations of state laws.
“The act of one [licensee] selling the customer a frame and a different [licensee] selling the same customer a slide does not violate federal law,” he said.
While the ATF sometimes refers potential state violations to state authorities, Ferguson said the ATF didn’t do so for the three Littleton vendors, noting that the bureau “has frequent conversations with state and local partners and believes that they were already aware of these business practices.”
The Globe obtained the ATF’s inspection results for 83 vendors at the Littleton mill through a public records request. Most inspections took place during the bureau’s mill-wide sweep, which followed a Globe investigation on the building and one dealer’s arrest for allegedly selling Glock handgun parts to a straw buyer that were later recovered in a Boston shooting investigation.
The dealer, Cory Daigle, also involved two other mill vendors in the transactions, court records show.
As a result of its inspections, the ATF revoked the licenses for Daigle and two other vendors: Hye Tech Armament LLC, which was owned by a man who passed away around the time of the revocation proceedings; and Jeffrey Steinbrecher, an attorney who touched off controversy this year when he tried to move his gun shop Legal Arms Co to Westford.
Ferguson described Steinbrecher’s issues as “numerous.”
”There were willful violations — repeated, willful violations — for transferring [firearms] and misidentifying what he had transferred,” he said.
He said the ATF shared its findings on Steinbrecher with the US attorney for Massachusetts and the state’s attorney general. The agencies, and Steinbrecher, declined to comment.
Of the remaining Littleton vendors, two are still in revocation proceedings, five relinquished their licenses before their inspections concluded, 22 received violations or warning letters, primarily over record-keeping issues, and 51 received no violations, ATF records show.
Ferguson said the ATF prioritizes its limited inspection resources on dealers with high rates of crime gun recoveries, which hasn’t been the case among the Littleton dealers. In fact, he said, many reported few or no transactions, “appearing to be hobbyists, quite frankly.”
When the ATF does refer dealer activity to state authorities, Ferguson said “it’s the state’s responsibility to follow up,” adding that dealers are also subject to annual inspections by local police.
Federal law regulates the sale of frames and receivers — which contain the serial number on many pistols and rifles — and doesn’t restrict many of the guns that are banned or restricted under state law, including assault weapons, Glock handguns, and pistols that haven’t passed a rigorous state review.
Dealers must still run a federal background check to sell the frames and receivers and record the transactions in their federal records.
But, they aren’t required to report the sales to the state’s firearms transaction database, which is used to solve crimes and monitor for compliance with state laws. The onus is on consumers to register guns they assemble.
Earlier this year, House leaders introduced a package that would amend the definition of a “firearm” to more closely match the federal definition. The Senate hasn’t submitted its version of a gun reform package, but at least two pending bills contain similar modifications.
“This is exactly the kind of loophole or gap that, absolutely, should be closed,” said one bill sponsor, Senator Jamie Eldridge, a Democrat whose district includes Littleton.