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.