The Biden Administration’s attempt to ban most stabilizing pistol braces is facing swift backlash.
In only five days, the rule change has received nearly 37,000 comments. That’s tens of thousands more comments than most proposals ever get, and the two other proposals in the Federal Register’s “popular documents” section have just 143 and 8 comments, respectively. The comments on the brace ban were also overwhelmingly negative, with people accusing the administration of overstepping its authority and putting millions of Americans in legal jeopardy. The Reload reviewed dozens of comments and couldn’t find any in support of the rule change.
“This is the most arbitrary set of rules I’ve ever heard of,” said Jack Ort, “and you’ll just make millions of normal Americans into felons despite a complete lack of evidence that these braces are a problem.”
The backlash could jeopardize the proposal if it grows big enough. The Trump Administration withdrew a similar proposal in 2020 after an outcry from gun makers and gun owners. The Obama Administration pulled a proposal to ban a kind of ammunition commonly used in AR-15s after it received more than 300,000 public comments opposing it.
Gun-rights groups have been organizing their members to submit comments opposing the rule since it was published in the Federal Register. Aidan Johnston, director of federal affairs for Gun Owners of Americans, said the group has created an “action center” with tools to help members craft effective comments and an FAQ on what is required to submit a comment. He told The Reload the group is “going all-in on mobilizing gun owners to comment against the ATF’s actions” and is mobilizing members through email blasts, social media messaging, and online advertising.
Adam Kraut, senior director of legal operations at the Firearms Policy Coalition (FPC), said the take-action pages and email campaigns created by his group have been viewed by hundreds of thousands of people.
“There’s a massive grassroots effort to oppose these proposed regulations and we know our tools are being used aggressively to help spread information and awareness,” Kraut told The Reload.
Tens of thousands of Americans appear to have been mobilized by the groups so far.
“As a law abiding American citizen who is an active member of FPC and the NRA it comes as no surprise that this proposed ruling would retroactively result in making millions of other law abiding citizens felons,” Matthew Wanamaker said. “There is zero threat posed from stabilizing braces.”
Gun-control groups are not engaging in a similar comment campaign to support the proposed change. Neither Brady United nor Everytown responded to requests for statements, nor do those groups appear to have sent emails to their members encouraging them to comment on the proposal.
Biden’s proposal is aimed at people who own firearms made using popular designs, such as the AR-15, but that have a barrel shorter than 16 inches. Under the National Firearms Act of 1934, guns that are designed to be pressed against the shoulder while firing but which have a barrel shorter than 16 inches must be registered with the ATF, and owners must pay a $200 tax. The ATF has approved a number of braces in recent years that replace shoulder stocks and are instead designed to strap to a user’s forearm, but the new proposal would reclassify most guns with the braces as short-barrel rifles and require owners to register, dismantle, or forfeit them in order to avoid federal felony charges carrying up to 10 years in prison per gun.
The exact number of braces already in circulation is unclear, but the rule change would likely impact millions of gun owners. The ATF estimates three to seven million of the devices out there. The Congressional Research Service puts the number much higher: between 10 and 40 million.
Public comments on the rule ranged from detailed critiques of the specifics of the proposal to impassioned pleas not to effectively outlaw guns owned by millions of Americans to anger at the ATF for allegedly overstepping their bounds. Some, such as Nathan Barnes, delved into the point system the ATF created to judge whether a gun with a brace needs to be registered. He said the system is “broken” because it is “nearly impossible” for a braced gun not to require registration. James MacKenzie, another commenter, called the system too subjective.
“The ATF’s attempt to provide clarity around what does and does not constitute a pistol brace is vague,” he said. “Using words like ‘intent’ (which is near impossible to prove in a court of law) in the points scoring system essentially renders it unenforceable.”
Others accused the agency of trying to legislate instead of interpreting existing law. Peter Fittante said the ATF is “trying to make laws by rule making” and bypassing Congress. An anonymous commenter took it a step further.
“The change of this law, which has precedent established, without legislation or judicial oversight is not only unconstitutional, but abjectly immoral,” the person said.
A number of commenters told the ATF to simply leave them and other brace owners alone. They accused the agency of focusing its efforts on the wrong people. One anonymous commenter told the agency to “Worry about the criminals” instead of “trying to lock away people who mind their own business.” Laurence Prentice said the proposal will only harm those who follow the law.
“Once again, [the ATF is] attempting to create work for itself by placing a terrible burden on law abiding citizens through a modification of rules to millions of legally owned firearms,” Prentice said. “The ATF would be better suited to pursuing actual criminal activity, instead of stepping outside of their legal authority and creating new criminals out of thin air because a brace now bends the wrong way or what someone says are ‘fins’ someone else says are not.”
Some were more succinct with their criticism. “Unconstitutional,” one anonymous commenter said. “SHALL NOT BE INFRINGED,” another said.
Disabled gun owners also argued the braces, which were designed to help the disabled shoot certain guns more easily, were vital to them.
“The newly proposed arbitrary and confusing rules on braces directly affects me and tens of thousands of other disabled Americans,” James Miller said. “Because of a combination of spinal stenosis and lupus, I have trouble holding a full sized rifle. Using an arm brace on what is termed a pistol but is the exact same firearm as one with a full sized stock makes it possible for me to continue to exercise my Constitutionally protected right to hunt and compete in shooting sports.”
“As a 100% service connected disabled veteran AR pistols with stabilizing braces gave me back the ability to recreational shoot and hunt with a handgun that I reckoned I had lost forever,” Paul Raczkowski said. “As a man of limited income living on disability, this ATF proposal discriminates against the millions of owners who obtained these weapons legally over the many years they have been available for purchase.”
Miller asked the ATF to drop the proposal.
“Please reconsider implementing these proposed rules,” he said. “Overnight, many many disabled Americans will be denied the use of anfiveassistive device by either confiscation of their firearms or else must pay a tax on their legally purchased and owned firearms.”
Public comment on the proposed rule change will remain open until Sep. 8, 2021.