Ryan Cleckner of rocketffl.com writes:
During an industry meeting with the ATF at SHOT Show 2015, I argued with the ATF over their absurd determination that shouldering the an AR pistol with a shoulder brace made it a short-barreled rifle.
Outside the meeting room I was told by two very senior members of the ATF that this was a determination based on a request they received from someone who had rolled a towel and inserted it into the arm cuff of the brace and then wrapped the thing in duct tape thereby making a shoulder stock.
This person apparently sent in pictures and asked the ATF if it was a brace. To this day I don’t know if it was a foolish gun owner or an anti-gunner looking to make a stink.
I told them that I agreed with their determination of the sample that was submitted. That person clearly used parts (a pistol stabilizing brace, a towel, and duct tape) to make a shoulder stock.
However, their letter didn’t mention any of that and it went so far to say as “use as a shoulder stock constitutes a ‘redesign’ of the device.”
They insisted to me, in person, that merely shooting a pistol from the shoulder didn’t make a rifle. They agreed with my arguments that the law focused on “designed and intended” and that subsequent use didn’t redesign something.
They clarified that only if someone went through the effort to make something new or truly redesign the pistol brace was it an issue. I told them that they should have written that in their letter because as it stands, use = redesign.
I appreciate these relationships I have in the ATF – I have respect for both of these guys and, believe it or not, I understand the position they were in. I also think the letter was either worded poorly or the ATF wanted the result.
AR-15 pistols have long been a thorn in the side of ATF. After all, they are what started the whole problem with ammunition that was normally considered to be rifle ammunition being treated as handgun ammunition for purposes of banning armor-piercing handgun ammo (this is a story for another day).
I even asked them if I used my pistol to keep my papers from blowing off my desk, is it no longer a pistol? Clearly I’ve redesigned it through use into a paperweight.
To be fair, “redesign” is in the law. The NFA defines both rifle and shotgun to include any “weapon designed or redesigned, made or remade, and intended to be fired from the shoulder.” Presumably this was to cover people sawing off a shotgun barrel at home. They would have then redesigned a shotgun into a Short Barreled Shotgun (SBS).
The industry was then stuck with this guidance from ATF:
The pistol stabilizing brace was neither ‘designed’ nor approved to be used as a shoulder stock, and therefore use as a shoulder stock constitutes a ‘redesign’ of the device because a possessor has changed the very function of the item. Any individual letters stating otherwise are contrary to the plain language of the NFA, misapply Federal law, and are hereby revoked.
Any person who intends to use a handgun stabilizing brace as a shoulder stock on a pistol (having a rifled barrel under 16 inches in length or a smooth bore firearm with a barrel under 18 inches in length) must first file an ATF Form 1 and pay the applicable tax because the resulting firearm will be subject to all provisions of the NFA.
In a March 21, 2017 letter from the ATF to the inventor of the pistol stabilizing brace, the ATF reversed its opinion. The ATF says they just clarified a misunderstanding, but the industry was stuck with what they put in black and white on paper, not what they may have meant.
The ATF finally acknowledged that their concern was about people who took actual steps to re-design something into something new. For example, the letter explains that if the Pistol Stabilizing Brace was mounted long enough down a buffer tube to prevent its use as an arm brace and instead was at a length that was only useful as a shoulder stock, then they have redesigned it into a shoulder stock.
The ATF also clearly acknowledged that merely shouldering a pistol stabilizing brace while firing it does NOT turn an AR-15 pistol into an SBR. They wrote, “…an NFA firearm has not necessarily been made when the device has not been reconfigured for use as a shoulder stock – even if the attached firearm happens to be fired from the shoulder.”
This is all good news – although some of it is questionable. For example, what is this new mystery length that can only be suitable for use as a shoulder stock? Exactly where is the line drawn when determining what is a redesign?
Simply, “taking affirmative steps to configure [a pistol stabilizing brace] for use as a shoulder stock.” The ATF adds that “making” an NFA firearm “includes the altering of an existing firearm such that, after alteration, the firearm meets one of the enumerated descriptions [of an NFA firearm].”
Therefore, if you install a pistol stabilizing brace on an AR-15 pistol as it was intended to be installed (on the buffer tube and up against, or at least close to, the rear of the receiver), then you have not “redesigned” anything. If you then fire that pistol from your shoulder, you haven’t changed the original designer’s intent and you haven’t redesigned it. Be careful.
While this applies to all pistol braces, you must ensure that what you have is actually a pistol brace and the firearm you are dealing with is a pistol in the first place! Just because a manufacturer calls their product a pistol brace doesn’t necessarily mean that the ATF agrees.
Also, you may not have a non-NFA pistol – for just one example, if the pistol has a smooth barrel and is designed and intended to shoot shotgun shells, it might be an Any Other Weapon (AOW).
This is good news. An SB-Tactical pistol stabilizing brace may be fired from the shoulder as long as other affirmative steps have not been taken to alter, modify, nor configure the pistol stabilizing brace as a shoulder stock.
Ryan Cleckner was a special operations sniper team leader in the US Army’s 1st Ranger Bn (75th) with multiple combat deployments and a sniper instructor. He has a series of basic online instructional videos. His book, Long Range Shooting Handbook, is available at Amazon.
Mr. Cleckner now offers an online program on how to become an FFL. Click here for more details.