Millions of Americans face the threat of federal felony charges over guns they purchased legally thanks to a new rule released by the ATF.
The agency announced plans to publish the final version of their rule reclassifying pistol braces, a popular firearm accessory, on Friday. The rule, which President Joe Biden requested as part of his efforts to unilaterally reform gun laws, would effectively ban the use of braces unless registered with the ATF. Anyone who does not comply with the rule could be subject to upwards of ten years in federal prison despite the agency previously ruling the braces were legal multiple times over the past decade.
“While firearms equipped with ‘stabilizing braces’ or other rearward attachments may be submitted to ATF for a new classification determination, a majority of the existing firearms equipped with a ‘stabilizing brace’ are likely to be classified as ‘rifles’ because they are configured for shoulder fire based on the factors described in this rule,” the ATF said in the rule. “Because many of these firearms generally have a barrel of less than 16 inches, they are likely to be classified as short-barreled rifles subject to regulation and registration under the [National Firearms Act (NFA)] and [Gun Control Act].”
The agency says that nearly everyone with a pistol-brace-equipped gun is “violating the NFA by possessing an unregistered rifle with a barrel of less than 16 inches.”
The rule has wide-ranging implications for many American gun owners as pistol braces have exploded in popularity since the ATF first determined they did not convert pistols into heavily-regulated short-barrel rifles back in 2012. The exact number of braces already in circulation is unclear, but the number is well into the millions. The ATF itself estimates three to seven million of the devices exist. The Congressional Research Service puts the number much higher at somewhere between 10 and 40 million.
The Biden Administration’s decision to move forward with the ban comes after hundreds of thousands of comments opposing the regulation were left during its public comment period. It also comes in the immediate aftermath of the Fifth Circuit ruling against the Trump-era bump stock ban. That policy was implemented through the same rulemaking process and after the ATF had also previously declared bump stocks to fall outside the NFA’s purview, which could foreshadow legal problems for the new pistol brace rule.
Attorney General Merrick Garland (D.) defended the rule change and said it was necessary to prevent crimes committed with guns he believes should be subject to NFA regulations.
“Keeping our communities safe from gun violence is among the Department’s highest priorities,” he said in a statement. “Almost a century ago, Congress determined that short-barreled rifles must be subject to heightened requirements. Today’s rule makes clear that firearm manufacturers, dealers, and individuals cannot evade these important public safety protections simply by adding accessories to pistols that transform them into short-barreled rifles.”
The NFA requires Americans to register all rifles that have barrels shorter than 16 inches and pay a tax of $200, a process that can take nearly a year, or face federal felony charges. However, the law defines “rifles” as guns that are “designed and intended” to be shouldered. The ATF initially determined firearms equipped with pistol braces, which are designed to be strapped to a shooter’s forearm instead of pressed against their shoulder, are not rifles and, therefore, not subject to NFA regulations.
For the next decade, the agency issued often vague or contradictory determinations on different versions of pistol braces that were subsequently created. At one point during the Obama Administration, the agency claimed the act of pressing a pistol brace against a shooter’s shoulder constituted a redesign of the product turning it into an illegal unregistered short-barrel rifle only to later rescind that declaration under the Trump Administration. The inconsistency led to increasing complaints the agency doesn’t use any objective measure for determining the legality of the devices.
Now, under the Biden Administration, the agency’s new rule purports to be more objective but still relies on subjective measures, including whether the agency believes “indirect marketing” of a brace shows it is meant to be shouldered. Ultimately, it classifies nearly all pistol-brace-equipped firearms as unregistered short-barrel rifles. The agency gave Americans who own pistol-braced guns a few options to avoid potential prosecution.
“Any weapons with “stabilizing braces” or similar attachments that constitute rifles under the NFA must be registered no later than 120 days after date of publication in the Federal Register,” the agency said,” or the short barrel removed and a 16-inch or longer rifle barrel attached to the firearm; or permanently remove and dispose of, or alter, the “stabilizing brace” such that it cannot be reattached; or the firearm is turned in to your local ATF office. Or the firearm is destroyed.”
The rule faces substantial political opposition. In addition to the hundreds of thousands of public comments opposing the rule, nearly every member of the Senate Republican caucus sent a letter to Attorney General Garland demanding he withdraw of the rule during the summer.
“The way the proposed rule is written makes clear that ATF intends to bring the most common uses of the most widely possessed stabilizing braces within the purview of the NFA,” the senators said in the letter. “Doing so would turn millions of law-abiding Americans into criminals overnight, and would constitute the largest executive branch-imposed gun registration and confiscation scheme in American history.”
Gun-rights groups have promised to fight the rule in court. Erich Pratt, Gun Owners of America senior vice president, said his group is already writing up a lawsuit.
“This administration continues to find new ways to attack gun owners, and this time their target is brace-equipped firearms that allow persons with disabilities to safely and effectively use pistols,” he said in a statement. “We will continue to work with our industry partners to amplify the disapproving voices in the firearms industry, and the Gun Owners Foundation, our sister legal arm, will be filing suit in the near future.”
Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation, said they will update their active case against the agency over its handling of braces.
“The Second Amendment Foundation already has a lawsuit filed against ATF over arm braces and will amend it to include their new attack,” he told The Reload.