Roh continued his black market operation despite being personally warned by agents of the Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Department that he was breaking the law.
But five years after raiding his business and indicting him, federal authorities quietly struck a deal with Roh earlier this year and agreed to drop the charges.
The judge in the case issued a provisional order that, in the eyes of prosecutors, threatened to violate the gun control law of decades and "seriously undermine ATF's ability to track and regulate firearms across the country."
A case presented by prosecutors as a crackdown on an illegal firearms factory was suddenly seen as having the potential to pave the way for unrestricted access to one of America's most demonized weapons.
Federal authorities have preferred to let Roh go free rather than make the decision final and potentially create jurisprudence that could have a detrimental effect on enforcement of gun laws, several sources familiar with the matter told CNN. Each requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the case and its possible implications.
Under US District Court Judge James V. Selna's interpretation of the US District Court, convicted criminals and others prohibited from owning firearms could legally acquire all the parts required to mount an AR-15 style rifle and other weapons. agreement with federal prosecutors.
ATF prosecutors and officials declined to comment on this story, noting that the case against Roh is technically an open issue because it remains subject to a deferred trial settlement.
Adam Winkler, a UCLA constitutional law professor and Second Amendment expert, predicted that Selna's provisional order would have "broad implications" and would encourage others to challenge existing law.
"This case could open a huge breach in federal law," he said. "This could lead to an explosion in the AR-15 number on the streets."
AR-15 style weapons are among the most popular in America and have been used in numerous mass shootings in recent years, including those of a primary school in Connecticut, an outdoor music festival in Las vegasa church in Texasand a high school in Florida.
Sometimes weapons are assembled from separately purchased parts. Under federal law, the individually regulated part of a firearm is what we call the frame or receiver – a part that, among other things, provides housing for the hammer and the firing mechanism of a weapon.
Although unable to fire a round, the piece is considered a weapon in its own right and is subject to the same restrictions as a fully intact firearm. Manufacturers must stamp it with a serial number and licensed dealers are required to perform background checks on potential buyers. The restrictions are intended in part to prevent criminals and other persons prohibited from owning firearms from acquiring them piece by piece.
AR-15s, however, do not have a single receiver that meets this definition. They have an upper and a lower receiver – two parts as opposed to the single part described in the law.
What was in question in Roh's case was whether the law could be interpreted fairly to apply only to the lower AR-15 receptor, as ATF has been doing for decades.
To decide otherwise "would set aside more than 50 years of ATF regulation on AR-15 weapons and other semi-automatic firearms," prosecutors wrote before the judge's order.
Federal law enforcement officials – and members of Congress – are warning of a possible language problem in the federal AR-15 arms law since at least 2016.
In July of that year, prosecutors in Northern California dropped a case against a convicted felon named Alejandro Jimenez after a judge found that the inferior AR-15 receiver he was accused of buying at a secret ATF sting did not meet the definition of receiver under the law.
The decision and subsequent dismissal attracted little attention, but led to a letter to Congress from then-US Attorney General Loretta Lynch. She advised lawmakers that the judge's decision was not appropriate for appeal and that if ATF officials believed that the definition should be changed, they should take regulatory or administrative measures.
& # 39; Not Firearms & # 39;
Roh, who called his company ROHG Industries, had been on ATF radar since at least 2012, according to court records.
He met that summer with representatives of agencies about selling unfinished lower receivers, often referred to in the gun world as "80% lower" because they are about 80% complete.
The part, which surrounds the drive area of an AR-15, requires some additional machining and drilling before being considered a law-regulated firearm.
Roh sent the ATF a sample of one of its unfinished lower receivers, trying to determine if it constituted a firearm. He was warned not to.
The devices are controversial among advocates of gun control and control because they can be bought and sold without restriction, but can be converted into finished lower receivers and then into a fully functional weapon with relative ease.
"A wave of violent fire & # 39;
This is exactly how the authorities suspect John Zawahri obtained the AR-15 rifle he used in a fatal shooting in Santa Monica, California, in 2013, according to confidential ATF documents obtained by CNN.
The documents say the non-serialized matte black rifle Zawahri used to carry out the attack "appears to have been made with an 80% smaller receiver."
The documents note that investigators recovered an invoice from ROHG Industries to an 80% smaller receiver at Zawahri's residence after he was killed by police.
Agents suspect Zawahri has just finished machining the device on his own and bought the remaining unregulated parts to assemble a full rifle.
"The ease with which the lowest 80% can be purchased and manufactured in a complete firearm, as well as anonymity in the manufacture and possession of a gun, makes it an option for people prohibited from purchasing a firearm through legal channels. normal ", the ATF state of the documents.
According to Santa Monica police, investigators found a letter from the Justice Department in Zawahri's room that was drafted two years before the attack, stating that he was not eligible to buy a firearm. A police department press release did not specify whether the letter was from the US Department of Justice or from California. Nor did it provide a reason why Zawahri was prohibited from buying a gun.
CNN could not determine if ATF agents interviewed Roh about the Zawahri purchase.
Roh declined comments through his lawyer, Gregory Nicolaysen.
Nicolaysen said any suggestion of linking Roh's business to the Santa Monica shooting was based on "innuendo, not evidence."
"There is no reliable evidence linking my client to any mass shootings," he said.
About four months after the Santa Monica shooting, ROHG Industries appeared again in an ATF investigation – this time half a dozen non-serialized AR-15 rifles were seized as part of a drug investigation near San Bernardino, California. . An informant in the case said the weapons came from Roh's factory, according to court records.
& # 39; Build parties & # 39;
At the same time, Roh sent a letter to the ATF. He had just sold simply unfinished inferior receivers and embarked on a new venture.
"We at ROHG Industries have been having parties for some time," he wrote in a short paragraph letter.
"The customer installs the part on our machine and presses the Start button," Roh explained.
"This is cool?" he asked.
In November, ATF's head of firearms technology responded to Roh by letter. He told him that if the "built parts" he was referring to resulted in the production of anything that the ATF classified as a firearm, he would need to obtain a manufacturing license.
Roh did not heed this advice. When an ATF undercover agent visited his factory on two occasions in December, he "observed parts and machines used to make AR-15 firearms," court documents said.
Two days before Christmas, the ATF gave Roh a warning in the form of a "cease and give up" letter. He informed him that he was involved in the manufacture of unlicensed firearms and was at risk of criminal prosecution.
This time, Roh seemed to pay attention.
When undercover agents visited his factory in early January, he was not there. But officials told agents they were no longer machining weapon parts.
"The ATF closed them," officials said, according to a report reporting the conversation.
They promised to call the alleged customers back when they received the "green light" to resume operations.
& # 39; Hit the green button & # 39;
Less than a week later, they got the call. His visit to the factory the next day was captured on secretly recorded video obtained by CNN.
Roh, wearing a New York Yankees T-shirt and baseball cap, looked nice and knowledgeable about guns. He did not hide his business model.
"Are you here to … become a rifle now?" he asked agents during the meeting in January 2014.
"Am I not going to have problems or anything?" one of the agents asked.
"No," Roh reassured him. "We're cool, man."
Roh told secret agents that he had enacted a new policy after it was closed by the ATF: Anyone who wanted to perform machining services had to pay a $ 25 fee to join his "arms club". That way he was no longer serving the general public, he explained.
He told one of the agents that he was already considered a member because he had bought a gun before. Roh said he would have to certify the newcomer before he could enter the weapons club as well.
After collecting $ 25 from the new customer and agreeing on the price of $ 1,000 each for a pair of rifles he wanted to buy, Roh directed an employee to begin the machining process.
Moments later, he stood next to the agent in front of a large computer-coded device to precisely machine the parts for …