There is No Such Thing as an “80% Gun” Unless There Is

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The anonymous post on the 80 percent gun—a partially finished firearm that you can complete and NOT register with the feds—inspired a lot of comments and controversy. And no wonder. The federal regulations are as clear as mud. A firearm is a firearm if the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (and Really Big Fires) says it is. So manufacturers send their partially completed bits to the Firearms Technology Branch (FTB). The ATF’s FTB examines the work and says yes it is a firearm—and confiscates it. And won’t tell the gunmaker exactly why. Or they say no it isn’t. And won’t tell the non-gunmaker exactly why. Unless they do. And what they say doesn’t necessarily apply to anyone else. And I’m just getting warmed-up . . .

Keep in mind that an “80% gun” is a marketing term—not a legal standard. It’s got nothing to do with the amount of work done. It’s more about which part of the firearm/non-firearm has been brought to life. If an aspiring non-gunmaker creates the wrong section first they may have a “firearm” on their hands when it’s only 10 to 20 percent complete (as a proportion of the finished part).

Drilling down to the actual reg, the GCA (18 USC § 921(a)(3)) says that a firearm is “(A) any weapon (including a starter gun) which will or is designed to or may readily be converted to expel a projectile by the action of an explosive; (B) the frame or receiver of any such weapon . . .

To create a non-gun gun, you could argue a couple of things (that are likely stretching it a bit):

(1) If it is not a “weapon” in the first place, it is irrelevant if some piece of metal can be readily converted to shoot bullets since according to the GCA only “weapons” which may be readily converted are firearms.

(2) It does not matter if some piece of metal can be readily converted into a frame or receiver since the “readily converted” standard applies only to a weapon’s ability to shoot bullets and it does not apply to the distinctly listed “frames or receivers of any such weapon.”

Warning: these arguments aren’t likely to get much traction with the ATF. The blowback for a tractionless application could be severe. Pressing on . . .

ATF regs (27 CFR § 478.11) say a frame or receiver is “That part of a firearm which provides housing for the hammer, bolt or breechblock and firing mechanism…” So, if your part provides—or if it can be “readily converted” to provide— housing for the fire control group, the part is a frame or receiver and therefore a firearm.

If you look to the definition of “readily converted” in court cases (as ATF directed) the rulings are all over the map. Some courts have said that “readily” means four to eight hours with special equipment/machine shop. Another judge ruled that it’s two to three hours with hand tools. A third case said “readily” required an expert gunsmith with tools costing up to $65,000 working between “four and perhaps in excess of thirty hours.”

When it comes to machining a non-firearm, the ATF does not publish any written guidelines on exactly when a part becomes federal fodder. As stated at the beginning of this Kafkaesque critique, the ATF wants individual samples that it can approve or deny.

The point is – be careful. Don’t rely on what you or someone else thinks is “80 percent.” I would not rely on any 80 percent receiver that came from a company which does not have written ATF approval that the item is in fact not a firearm. Ask to see a copy of the document.

And if you make your own firearm from an non-firearm part, note that the ATF wants you to serialize it and mark it properly before transferring it.

Bottom line: beware the ATF. They hold all the cards on this one and you have to play by their rules. Which they won’t tell you. And they can change at will. Good luck with that.

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About Robert Farago

Robert Farago is the Publisher of The Truth About Guns (TTAG). He started the site to explore the ethics, morality, business, politics, culture, technology, practice, strategy, dangers and fun of guns.

21 Responses to There is No Such Thing as an “8021 Gun” Unless There Is

  1. avatarDyspeptic Gunsmith says:

    I was going to mention this the other day on that thread.

    Remember that the ATF started as an arm of the Treasury, and their rules on things like this are deliberately vague, just as you get 12 different interpretations of the Internal Revenue Code when you ask 7 different IRS examiners a tax question.

    The upshot is that some of these “80% lower” outfits are begging to be slapped. The casting or forging is clearly already in the shape of a lower, the pin holes are in, the mag well has been EDM’ed, etc. Some are even anodized already. The amount of work required is pretty trivial by gunsmithing standards…

    • avatarAK says:

      So? That’s what makes them 80% receivers and not 20% receivers.

      • avatarDyspeptic Gunsmith says:

        From the perspective of a gunsmith, they’re more like 90 or 95% receivers, not “80% receivers.” The work left to be done is trivial.

        Now, the question is “what does the BATFE use as criteria for the call?” Given their past decisions, they appear to take into account how much work a professional gunsmith has to do. A job that might take Bubba or Cleatus 8 hours might take a professional gunsmith… oh… 30 minutes.

        • avatarMike DeArmond says:

          So will the ATF now regulate 3d printers because with one of those I can “print out” a fully functional 100% AR lower

  2. avatarAharon says:

    I wonder how many ATF agents go to TTAG daily to monitor a pro RKBA site and I wonder how many ATF employees go to TTAG because they secretly support this site? BTW, I don’t spend much time wondering.

  3. avatarSkyler says:

    The potential for huge legal trouble and criminal legal trouble is too great for the benefit.

    And if they ever start confiscating weapons or even registering them, I doubt such rule tweaking will deter the local constabulary anyway.

    If you want a rifle or pistol that the government doesn’t know you have then buy from a private party.

    • avatarST says:

      ‘Fraid that’s not gonna work either in some cases.Look up the BATFE’s Etrace system sometime.Between the methods available to the Feds for data collection on gun purchases its almost moot to try to buy a gun that is truly ‘off the grid’.

      • avatarSkyler says:

        How are the ATF going to know the serial number of a gun that I got as a gift from my father, or bought for $100 and a favor from a friend in another city? So far as I know, there is no tracking of such purchases.

        And there are plenty of rifles and shotguns from not that long ago that don’t have serial numbers.

        • avatarST says:

          Etrace is a database which collects information from different sources.The ATF can pull data from old 4473 documents past 20 years of age, annual FFL inspections with a simple copy of the on file 4473s, out of business FFLs, import records, and state registry data that is handed over to the AF. Some states like New York & Connecticut share gun registry and purchase info with the ATF as policy.

          Thus, while you buying the gun from your dad or friend may not involve paperwork, that is not to say that at some point the weapon hasn’t been put in the system before you bought it. Unless your father or friend bought it in a non-registration state and never had it cross the table of an FFL or repair gunsmith at any point during the life of the weapon, it cannot be assumed that the feds do not know about it. If said weapon was imported in the last 20 years, its a foregone conclusion the BATFE knows about it.

        • avatarSkyler says:

          “Knowing about it” isn’t very useful if they don’t know who has it, and if there’s no way to trace it to you, then who cares if it has a serial number.

          And it’s not that hard to have weapons that were made back in the 60′s and 50′s without serial numbers.

  4. avatarAharon says:

    The ATF (now under the UN-Justice Department) is an offshoot of the US Treasury which is closely partnered with the Federal Reserve an International Banking and Financial Cartel whose membership list is kept secret from even the USG. We know what the intents are of the UN and the International Bankers are for civilian ownership and control of firearms in America and around the world. What is really interesting is the rollback in some places ie America and now Canada with the loosening of gun control laws and increased interest in ownership by civilians the past few years. I guess the global elites are not quite as powerful, manipulative, and cunning as many conspiracy theorists once thought.

    • avatarIman Azol says:

      Or maybe they’ve been sneaking chemtrail chemicals into your air conditioner and you’re nuts.

  5. avatarGS650G says:

    Rule number 1: ATFE is right
    Rule number 2: See rule number 1.

  6. avatarMartin Albright says:

    I have to agree with Skyler here. The thing about a database is that a database with too much information is just as useless as a database with too little information.

    I had a job once where I had to sit at a desk for hours while nothing happened. So, to pass the time, one night I tried to make a list of every firearm that had ever passed through my hands (try it some time!) It was an eye opener – I think my number was close to 100 (which is way, way more than I own now.) And even with that, I’ll bet a missed a couple.

    Most of those guns I bought from dealers, and filled out a 4473. Many of those dealers are out of business now, and they’re scattered all over the country since I lived in a number of different states when I was in the Army. A number of others I bought from private parties with no paperwork at all.

    If I understand correctly, once a dealer goes out of business, he is required to send his old 4473′s to the BATF. (I’m picturing one of those Indiana-Jones-Ark-0f-the-Covenant type warehouses somewhere, filled with thousands and thousands of old, dusty boxes full of yellowing 4473′s.)

    Even assuming that some diligent ATF employee (ha!) has dutifully entered all those records into a computer file, so what? What does that prove? If I bought an SKS from a gun dealer in Fayette-nam in 1993, and the ATF puts that record into a file, does it prove I have the gun now? Maybe I do, maybe I don’t. Maybe I sold it to a private party. Maybe it fell into a lake while I was paddling to my summer cabin. Maybe I don’t even remember that gun because I only owned it for a few weeks before trading it for something better.

    Some guns I own I bought from people whose names I couldn’t recall if I was waterboarded by Jack Bauer. And I’m not even sure of how many “papered” guns I bought years ago that I sold to private parties whose names are long, long forgotten.

    And all of the above info is assuming that the data that is fat-fingered into the big magic computer is even correct in the first place.

    How many times do you think the weary GS2 or temp hire or intern who was typing records put a “O” instead of a Zero, a 1 instead of an I, transposed a 3 and a 5, put an 8 instead of a 3, entered “mossburg” instead of “mossberg”, etc, etc etc. And that’s just the guns. If your name is Smith, it’s easy to get that in the database, but if your name is Olszewski, or Fujimori, or Tadeusz Kolczynski, do you think every instance of that was typed correctly into the database? Do you know any low level government employees?

    I can understand the desire to be “off the grid” or to not have your name on any “list” anywhere. But the reality is that if we get to the point where the Jack Booted Thugs are printing up lists of suspected gun owners so they can kick in their doors and fly the hapless citizens away to secret UN prison camps in black helicopters, we’ve already lost and keeping yourself “off the list” isn’t going to help you.

    • avatarMichael says:

      So simply put at the point it gets that bad its like saying dang! I fell and hit my knee when your trying to get out of your house….THATS ON FIRE! LOL

  7. avatarPT says:

    Lol. I love how this is some sort of grey area where know one knows what they are talking about. Home builds are 100% federally legal, and the “80%” receivers have been available for a long time. AK flats are $20 on brownells.com

    weaponeer.net and weaponsguild.com have been documenting 0% all the way up to 80% firearms for years.

    Go check out those sites and you will learn about building firearms from scratch.

  8. avatarTrucker says:

    Don’t forget; the ATF has been caught on videotape (and proven periodically in court) that the NFTR (registration database, physical and electronic for class 3 weapons like machine guns, short barreled rifles, etc.) is only 80% accurate at best. Their SOP is to swear to 100% accuracy in court ALWAYS. This is for a database with only ~ 14K items at most, with amnesties and other opportunities to correct it, and has existed since 1934.

  9. avatartim says:

    Like what PT says. You can buy a block of metal and make it into a gun as long as the operating gun is never sold or ownership is traded. The argument above would apply to a gun being sold which would put the manufactures in deep doo doo and they flat out wouldn’t be able to sell it. Which is the big point. You have to register a gun and add serial numbers if you are going to sell it and if there are plenty of company selling these parts the ATF is obviously not considering the 80 or what ever % receivers guns being sold.

    • avatarlateToTheParty says:

      “Firearms may be lawfully made by persons who do not hold a manufacturer’s license under the GCA provided they are not for sale or distribution and the maker is not prohibited from receiving or
      possessing firearms.”

      http://www.atf.gov/files/firearms/industry/0501-firearms-top-10-qas.pdf

      “A person may sell or transfer a firearm to a licensee in any State. However, a firearm other than a curio or relic may not be transferred interstate to a licensed collector.”

      http://www.atf.gov/content/firearms-frequently-asked-questions-unlicensed-persons#gca-unlicensed-transfer

      No serialization listed on ATF site. According to what we find on the web, the ATF appears to interpret “sale” as to meaning: from the beginning – you get commissioned or plan to sell the gun. If you made if for yourself and later sold it, that’s different (seemingly a year is a safe time to hold it before transferring.)

      It’s probably best to serialize it IF you transfer it, but it’s not in black and white.

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  11. avatarAndrew says:

    You should really do some research before you post something on the internet you have some pretty irregular points in there but the most horrible uninformed opinion in this piece, “And if you make your own firearm from an non-firearm part, note that the ATF wants you to serialize it and mark it properly before transferring it.” If you make a firearm from an 80% receiver which at least you got correct in the fact that it is a parting term for a paper weight, that has some interesting characteristics in some specific places. According to the feds you need to make a distinguishing mark your newly built firearm as to determine its ownership if the need arises. But, I digress if you build a firearm from an 80% receiver then that receiver is yours until the end of time because you CANNOT transfer ownership……..

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