If an AR-15 Lower Isn’t a Firearm Under the Law, Why is a Semi-Auto Pistol Frame a Gun?

Palmetto state armory no beto ar-15

Courtesy Palmetto State Armory

There has been much notice taken lately that judges are having a bit of trouble with the ATF’s interpretation of the law by which AR lower receivers are firearms in and of themselves. By itself, without an upper, the lower can’t discharge a round. You can insert a loaded magazine and pull the trigger all day to no effect.

Personally, I always thought the lower-is-a-firearm rule to be legally and logically wrong, so I’m glad to see judges are now noticing and deciding the same. But this raises another question, one which I haven’t seen anyone else address.

Per the ATF’s current exercise in whimsy, this is a firearm.

As judges are now saying, though, it isn’t a firearm after all.

Under the ATF’s own definition, which is written into federal law, one of the definitions of a firearm is a frame or receiver. And defines a frame or receiver as . . .

That part of a firearm which provides housing for the hammer, bolt or breechblock, and firing mechanism, and which is usually threaded at its forward portion to receive the barrel.

An AR lower clearly doesn’t meet that definition. While it houses the hammer, it doesn’t provide or housing for the bolt or breechblock and it isn’t threaded to receive the barrel.

But . . .

Photo by Carl Bussjaeger

Per the ATF, this is also a firearm. But without a slide, that thing above no more meets the legal definition of a firearm than an AR lower does.

So the question is, if an AR lower isn’t a firearm under current law, why is this thing a firearm?

Just an idle question. Discuss it amongst yourselves.

comments

  1. avatar Biatec says:

    All that is going to happen is that the upper, slide, or what ever part that includes the rest will be labeled firearms or the lower and the upper are the firearm just even if separated.

    I have a feeling we won’t be able to buy uppers through the mail anymore. Hopefully it does not go as far as Europe though.

    Europeanization is happening though. Both political parties are completely complicit as they degrade the correct and legal functions of our government and ignore, tradition, law, Constitution and rights. The Republicans are turning into old school democrats and the the left is just turning into socialists.

    Maybe I am wrong. I hope I am.

    1. avatar Matthew the Oilman says:

      It all depends on what Rush thinks, he runs the country , we just live here.

      1. avatar Will Wilkinson says:

        Grow up you whining moron

    2. avatar Mercury says:

      https://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/27/479.11

      “Frame or receiver: That part of a firearm which provides housing for the hammer, bolt or breechblock and firing mechanism, and which is usually threaded at its forward portion to receive the barrel.”

      If they want to “rule” that they can strike out words of nearly hundred year old acts of Congress and replace them at will, their entire charter is invalid under the doctrine of judicial review. No, I’m not talking about waiting for years for the Supreme Court to decide to ignore it completely, all the while anyone who dared challenge it rots in prison, I’m talking about lobbying your state government to block all ATF activity on the grounds that they’ve declared themselves autocrats, and therfore the law that grants them the power to do so is ALREADY invalid per the Marbury v. Madison decision. If that doesn’t work, which it certainly won’t for the likes of New York and California, your state has chosen to recognize a blatantly illegal act based on an already invalid law, and you need to organize against them at a lower level, politically or otherwise.

      Everyone has been talking about the line in the sand being confiscation of semiautomatics, but this is the first step in that: you can’t just build one if all the parts are registered too (and if you have the machinery to produce one from scratch, rest assured they’ll be showing up for random unannounced inspections.) Make no mistake, BATFE(aRBF) WILL declare upper recievers, slides and possibly bolts by changing every “and” and comma to “or” and defining “usually” as “‘can be’ but that only applies if we want to prosecute.” The moment they do, they’ve invalidated their own charter. The documents surrounding the founding of this nation are very clear in what you do about tyrants operating beyond their legal authority.

      If any of this comes off as inflammatory, take another read. Except for my expectation that BATFE will not even attempt to have Congress pass a revision to the law before they declare it deeply and dramatically changed, everything I’ve stated here is fact or a matter of legal precedent. It has gotten that bad. If that upsets you, well, it upsets me too. But you can’t put your head in the sand and pretend this is okay just because you’re scared of what an appropriate response means. If a president declared him (ahem, or “her”) self dictator for life and Congress and Scotus said “okay fine whatever” you’d follow every step on that list (perhaps skipping a few) and any state which respects the Constitution would be refusing to recognize federal authority at all in any capacity, and/or voting to secede. Anyone with views anything less than absolutely authoritarian (and there would be a number) whose state didn’t would flee or fight. This is different only by degree, not kind. Every one of those responses are just as appropriate in the first scenario as the second.

      Sorry this got so long winded, but it’s a topic we now need to address in public spaces. We can’t be afraid of accusations of “inciting violence” anymore, flippantly calling it “the boog” (though if you think about it that actually is a call to violent action, whereas I have only advocated for civil opposition and then made an observation on the laws and history of our country regarding the same’s failure.) And don’t get me wrong, I really hope they don’t ring that bell and we can all go back to happy, comfortable lives. But I very much expect they will.

      tl;dr: Most of the expansion of federal authority in the last century has come from faulty and usually biased supreme court decisions in response to illegal federal activity. This is bad enough, but it could be passed off as “interpretation” however faulty the logic. This, however, would be a direct assault on the separation of powers, with BATFE declaring they have all the powers of Congress and may rewrite laws to any degree at will with only a “comment period” they are not obliged to even pay attention to. The law permitting this, any by extension BATFE itself and any body of government, state or federal, which recognizes this invalid law or any of the now invalid bodies’ authorities, is attempting to burn both the Constitution and one of our earliest legal precedents about it. This cannot be allowed to stand. Not even for an instant.

      1. avatar Erik in AZ says:

        Good points.

        Here is the ideal solution:
        Let’s just get SCOTUS to finally declare the NFA and GCA unconstitutional, and do away with the F in BATF!

        Once SCOTUS clarifies the 2nd, all the gun laws are toast. As is enforcement. The 2nd putS firearms, knives, knuckles, swords, and any other bearable arms outside the reach of legislation. Completely.

        It is the only enumerated right that specifically “shall not be infringed”. No “except for” allowed.

    3. avatar Stuck in NJ says:

      Yes, soon the gubbermint is going to treat every gun part as a firearm that requires an FFL and background check, just like Commiefornia, NY, and NJ have started to do.
      Buy a barrel? Need to go through an FFL.
      Buy a trigger? Need an FFL
      Buy a muzzle brake? Need an FFL
      Buy a magazine? FFL
      Buy scope rings or a scope rail? FFL.

      It’s the same Commiefornia logic that eBay (a Commiefornia company) uses when they declare Nikon scopes to be “assault weapons parts” because Nikon is fond of labeling scopes (and the boxes that they come in) “precision AR optic,” and eBay is under the delusion that AR stand for “assault rifle.”
      Ebay once put me in eBay time-out for a month for selling such a Nikon scope, and then six months in eBay timeout for selling a magazine for a Remington 700 bolt-action rifle (eBay insisted that the magazine was an “assault weapon” magazine, even though I argued until I was blue in the face that a Remington 700 is not an “assault weapon” even under Commiefornia rules!)

      That reminds me, Commiefornia bans the Taurus Judge two different ways, as an illegal “short-barreled shotgun” and as an illegal “shotgun with a revolving cylinder”, so the Judge is double-plus-ultra-banned! Ditto for the S&W Governor.

  2. avatar Aaron says:

    That’s it game over, disband the ATFE and really big fires. drop all gun controll and go home.

  3. avatar tsbhoa.p.jr says:

    if that was a pic of a p250 or 320 it wouldn’t be a firearm. since numbers were required it’s the numbered part. which is why guns built without serial numbers aren’t really guns and you can just give them away to each other.

    1. avatar Rusty - Molon Labe - Chains says:

      Which you can do with any firearm in any free state. Only a slave state tries to interfere with individuals exercising their God given and 2nd Amendment protected rights.

    2. avatar CWS FAN says:

      Nonsense.

  4. avatar Ron Beason says:

    This is just one example of the ATF arbitrary rules. One other is the arbitrary rule that says if you have a pistol lenght upper, and a complete ar that it “might” fit on, you have an SBR. I have always wanted to have a 10.5″ barrelled ar upper to keep in the safe for “end of the world,” zombie apocalypse, scenarios, with no intent to try it out otherwise, but don’t want to mess with SBR registration, just not worth it for “maybe” situations. On the other hand, firing a 10″ barreled .223, or .308 is indescribably LOUD!

    1. avatar Rando says:

      Why not just get a pistol lower? Then it’s completely kosher. Just move it to the rifle lower when the zombie apocalypse hits.

    2. avatar Erik in AZ says:

      Build a PISTOL lower with an sb tactical brace, or better yet, a tailhook mod 1 from gear head works. It is an aluminum hinged stock, that unfolds to become a brace. Think () when closed, and (___. when open, and the lower ___ rests under your wrist or forearm, supporting the weight of the weapon. I love them, as they work exceedingly well in both forms.

      1. avatar Erik in AZ says:

        And as for noise, put a blast Or flash can (also called sound forwarder) on the front. KAK makes a number of them. It directs the sound, fire and concussive force straight ahead. Works great for all of mine.

  5. avatar Imayeti says:

    All ATF agents will be armed with AR stripped lowers from now on. No other weapons allowed.

  6. avatar Timothy Toroian says:

    Because it has the serial number on it and could build a functioning weapon a semi-auto pistol frame but it would MUCH more difficult on an AR lower. And I don’t mean using premanufactured firearm parts, just stuff you could find a semi-decent work shop.

    1. avatar Southern Cross says:

      With the Para-Ordinance conversion kits for M1911 pistols, which included a replacement frame, what is considered legally the “firearm”?

  7. avatar Marcus (Aurelius) Payne says:

    I love dominoes.

  8. avatar Lawbob says:

    Yes it does.

    Read the definition.

    “housing for the hammer, bolt or breechblock,

    and firing mechanism, “

    That pistol lower houses the hammer and firing mechanism.

    1. avatar uncommon_sense says:

      Lawbob,

      “housing for the hammer, bolt or breechblock, and firing mechanism, “
      That pistol lower houses the hammer and firing mechanism.

      First of all, the list in that definition is all inclusive. Thus a firearm must include all three elements. However, a pistol lower most certainly does NOT contain a bolt or breechblock. That alone disqualifies a pistol lower frame from the legal firearm definition.

      Second of all, striker-fired pistol frames do NOT contain a hammer NOR a firing mechanism. The firing mechanism — the striker — is inside the slide which is NOT part of the pistol frame.

      It seems crystal clear to me that striker-fired pistol frames do not qualify for the ATF’s definition of a firearm. For that matter, neither do the slide assemblies of striker-fired pistols. Rather, only a complete pistol would satisfy the ATF’s definition.

      1. avatar Erik in AZ says:

        Uncommon is correct. And only a complete upper and lower meets the definition for AR’s. Congress needs to redefine firearm. And we certainly don’t want it to require all component parts! The best solution would be to match current practice, and make the law describe what is now enforced.

  9. avatar d says:

    None of this matters. The AFT will just change definitions as they see fit. Remember that shoe laces where defined as machine guns? Also, see bumpstocks

  10. avatar uncommon_sense says:

    Let’s be honest. The only accurate definition of a firearm is a COMPLETE firearm which is capable of expelling a projectile if someone actuates it.

    A barrel is NOT a firearm.

    A stock is NOT a firearm.

    A trigger is NOT a firearm.

    A hammer is NOT a firearm.

    A bolt is NOT a firearm.

    A slide is NOT a firearm.

    A receiver is NOT a firearm.

    A frame is NOT a firearm.

    The ACTUAL definition of a firearm (an actual firearm, not some component) is inconvenient to governments so they simply make $hit up to suit their agendas. This should not be a surprise to anyone.

    What does surprise is me is that a few judges are actually acting with integrity and refusing to call an AR-15 lower receiver a “firearm”.

    1. avatar Erik in AZ says:

      But as firearms are currently regulated under the law, that would result in all component parts being regulated, in the backwards thinking of the gov, to prevent anyone from assembling a firearm from all the little pieces. Better for the law to say “a firearm is the complete functioning weapon, while the serialized component is what is regulated- a lower receiver for an AR, the firing mechanism for a P320, the frame for most handguns…

      1. avatar Reathe says:

        How long until the damn leftists start pushing to ban AR-15s on the basis that is not a firearm, therefore its not protected by the second amendment?

        1. avatar Anthony says:

          Wow. Shut up. Don’t give em any ideas.

        2. avatar Sam I Am says:

          “Wow. Shut up. Don’t give em any ideas.”

          Too late. Court cases have already been decided: ATF lost. Results reported and advertised. BATFARBF are aware of the rulings.

          If ATF decides they are losing too many court cases, they can use the next conviction appeal to declare that ATF is the sole agency to determine what their regulations mean, and the current definition means whatever they say it means.

    1. avatar Felix says:

      The Democrats of the time were more enthralled by Mussolini than Stalin. Though both were marvels of modern government.

  11. avatar Jim from LI says:

    The definition was probably written when most rifles were bolt or lever action and most pistols were revolvers or the “state of the art” 1911. Published and forgotten about.

  12. avatar Sam I Am says:

    “So the question is, if an AR lower isn’t a firearm under current law, why is this thing a firearm?”

    Some guns are more equal than other guns.

    1. avatar I Haz A Question says:

      Unless they’re “ghost” guns the guv can’t even see or find, in which case they’re even more equal-er.

      1. avatar Sam I Am says:

        “Unless they’re “ghost” guns the guv can’t even see or find, in which case they’re even more equal-er.”

        If I can’t see a (ghost) gun, it can’t see me. Therefore, it cannot harm me. What a wonderful turn of events.

  13. avatar bob says:

    Lets add more questioning.

    Why is a 10″ barrel AR an SBR but take the stock off and its a pistol.
    Why classify something as super dangerous that requires regulation based on it having a stock or not?
    If the excuse is “because it makes it more stable and therefore accurate” then the pistol brace would be dangerous because that is its intent.

    In all reality, the AR may have broken the ATF, we just need a super strong push for resolution, real common sense resolution.

    1. avatar Erik in AZ says:

      Let’s just get SCOTUS to state the NFA and GCA are both unconstitutional, and do away with the F in BATF! Once SCOTUS clarifies the 2nd all the gun laws are toast. The 2nd put firearms, knives and any bearable arms outside the reach of legislation. Completely.

      It is the only right that specifically “shall not be infringed”. No “except for” allowed.

      1. avatar Sam I Am says:

        “It is the only right that specifically “shall not be infringed”. No “except for” allowed.”

        Yeah, well….history, tradition, precedent.

  14. avatar Mayor McCheese says:

    Can gas tube regulation be next?

  15. avatar M1Lou says:

    Just wait until they say that the upper is also a firearm and make it harder to buy a new upper in the mail, because reasons.

    Does this mean my FN FAL is also not a firearm unless I attach the lower? It’s almost as easy to separate as an AR-15.

  16. avatar possum and the Coons of Doom says:

    Hearing Cactus “Restrictions” in my head),,,,,,. So the second amendment should say, You have the right to own any firearmn thatt a government bureau permits you to have. Uppers , lowers, partial plates, arguing is missing the big picture.

    1. avatar Sam I Am says:

      “So the second amendment should say, You have the right to own any firearmn thatt a government bureau permits you to have.”

      I think you nailed the widespread, common, understanding of the constitution….it’s all about what government allows people to do.

  17. avatar Mike says:

    I would much rather it stay the way it is. For things to get better is a big ask, it’s far more likely that more parts will require serialization if we let the antis and other uneducated politicians answer the question which SHOULD be answered by us. The fire control group, or the component which houses it should be the the serialized “gun”. This way the AR lower is the gun, or in the case of a pistol like the P320, the fire control module, and things remain the way they are, the question is answered, and we don’t get our lives made MORE inconvenient.
    We can all dream of a 2nd Amendment that stands on its own as written, but since I spend more time awake than asleep, I’d settle for things simply not getting worse.

  18. avatar Reason says:

    So let me get this straight. A AR lower is not a firearm but a Plastic Bump Stock is. Got it!

    This is what you get when Gov’t bureaucrats create regulations.

  19. avatar Jeremy says:

    Dangerous discussion. If this goes back to Congress for a legislative fix, they are likely to require upper receivers and barrels to have matched serial numbers, as is the case in much of Europe. Keeping the lower reciever, housing the trigger mechanism, defined as the “firearm” is in our best interests.

  20. avatar Gsmithy says:

    Your all playing with fire

  21. avatar witchdoktah says:

    It’s a trap. Bringing attention to this is only going to be used to make the parts we can get legally, illegal. This is not about lowers that need to go through an FFL. It is apparent folks have been been buying 80% lowers. They can’t account for this. They need a way to limit or follow the trail of the parts needed to complete all these lowers. just my 2 cents.

    1. avatar Sam I Am says:

      “Bringing attention to this is only going to be used to make the parts we can get legally, illegal.”

      We, commenters at TTAG, are not the nation. Likely, we are not even in the majority of gun owner politics. Nothing we say will guide policy for government. The cat is out of the bag; court cases have been won over application of the actual law. The feds have all the motivation they need (even if no gun owner said anything at all) to find a way to legitimize their intent. NY already decided every part of a gun must have a serial number.

      1. avatar Alan says:

        New York, where I grew up, and lived for a number of years, always was, and remains, a haven for anti constitutional rights double-talk.

    2. avatar Southern Cross says:

      When government and law making is involved, I find it safe to assume the worst-case scenario. More so on technical matters such as technology and firearms. Rarely do things go our way.

  22. avatar Alan says:

    I suspect that about all that will come out of this discussion is more double-talk, something that the BATFE is famous or infamous for. It is interesting to note, if that is truly the case, that judges seem to be calling a halt to ATF, more completely BATFE double-talk.

  23. avatar Anymouse says:

    There are 3 conditions in the law:
    1) “hammer, bolt, or breachblock”
    A breakfast that comes with “bacon, ham, or sausage” means only one from the list. Logically, an “or” statement is true if one or more conditions is met. An HK will fire is the selector is on semi, burst, or auto.
    An AR lower has the hammer, so 1) is met. Bolt and breachblock are optional. For Ruger MK, upper is firearm, and it contains the bolt. For Glock, none is obviously true. Glocks have breachblocks machines into the slide. Does a frame “house” the slide? Perhaps, or maybe the slide should have been the serialized part.
    2) “and firing mechanism”
    Firing mechanism is ambiguous. For AR, sear, trigger, selector are there. For MK, just the firing pin in the bolt. For Glock, striker is in slide, rest is in frame. Could go either way if striker and springs is a firing mechanism.
    3) “and which is usually threaded at its forward portion to receive the barrel.”
    “Usually” makes this requirement completely optional. Logically, if I say “usually I have eggs for breakfast,” it gives no information about what I had for breakfast this morning. There’s a probability that I did, be I may not have. “I usually arrive home by 6” doesn’t mean I’ll be there to answer the door tonight at 6, 7, or any other time.

    Like most gun cases, the whole thing is mistakes made by a judge who knows nothing about guns. An AR lower meets the 1 and 2, but not the optional 3. Since 1 and 2 are met, the sentence is true and the lowe is a frame or receiver. There is no requirement in the law about being able to fire a projectile.

    1. avatar Steven says:

      Kudos for a clear and well-reasoned explanation of why this whole “a lower is not a firearm” argument is just ridiculous.

      Not that it will matter one whit to the “shall not be infringed” rabblerousers or those who believe everything the anti-gun press tell them.

  24. avatar Steven says:

    Finally, someone asks the $64,000 question. I have wondered for months why no one in the industry press has pointed out this issue. These judges are making weighty decisions on a subject about which they know less than nothing, having the wool pulled over their eyes by unscrupulous lawyers (yes, that is redundant). This is the perfect illustration of why word order and comma placement in lists matter, particularly in the law.

  25. avatar Arandom Dude says:

    This is stupid. The definition of a lower was written when most long guns had a one part receiver. For weapons with a two part receiver, one of the two, or both, must be declared the firearm, and there will naturally be some amount of arbitrariness. The ATF has consistently decided that the lower is the firearm. If we try to say it’s not, the best case scenario is that they say lowers aren’t firearms, uppers are (and how is that an improvement?) and the more likely scenario is that they say both parts are firearms.

    1. avatar Arandom Dude says:

      *The second sentence is supposed to say “The definition of a receiver…”

  26. avatar JAS says:

    When you read the ATF laws, rules and definitions, the general idea is to regulate firearms that use, or can be easily converted to use, a metallic cartridge. Hence, the difference between firearms and muzzle loaders.

    From that point of view the definition of a firearm should state “that part that houses the firing pin or striker. In other words, the part that strikes the primer and causes ignition of the cartridge.

  27. avatar Josh says:

    The whole discussion of which parts of an assembly hold the magic talisman that makes the assembly “complete” and thus brings along regulation by the government is stupid. A firearm isn’t a firearm until it includes a chamber, breechface, firing pin, and some mechanism to drive the pin into the primer. If you can unlatch those parts, which is true of almost all guns, you can make a firearm stop being a firearm at will. This demonstrates how laws regulating the possession of inanimate objects are stupid and futile. Just make murder, assault, rape, robbery, and other violent ACTIONS illegal. That will provide all the legal framework you need.

    Oh wait, they already are.

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