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292-Page ATF Pistol Brace Rule Compels Registration, Modification, or Destruction

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On Saturday, January 14, the ATF (The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) released a long-awaited rule on pistol braces. The 292 page Final Rule on Stabilizing Braces (ATF 2021R-08F) regulates AR pistols with braces and could potentially make millions of legal gun owners felons if they decide not to register, modify, or destroy their legally-owned AR pistols. The rule will officially be published later this week.

At issue is the definition of a “rifle” as it relates to pistol braces. Pistol braces are a popular accessory equipped on AR-style pistols that allow a user to fire with one hand. They make an otherwise unwieldy firearm more stable, accurate, and usable. What would otherwise be qualities of a well-designed firearm (and good marksmanship) are apparently something the ATF apparently dislikes. Up until just a few days ago, they were perfectly legal as well.

Estimates on the number of pistol braces owned by private citizens in the U.S. vary widely. According to a Congressional Research Service study on the subject in April of 2021, there are somewhere between 10 and 40 million braces in civilian hands. The ATF itself has estimated a wildly low 1.4 million braces in civilian hands, as cited in the new rule — an estimate that was the subject of much contention and many public comments to the contrary prior to the final rule being issued.

The ATF has long disliked the idea that such braces can also be shouldered, allowing a person to more accurately shoot a firearm that is shorter and easier to wield than a standard length 16-inch rifle. The ATF believes that doing so is an attempt to get around the Form 4999 criteria that regulate “short-barreled rifles”, another class of highly-regulated firearms. 

In fact, Form 4999 states, “The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives reserves the right to preclude classification as a pistol with a “stabilizing braces” [sic] for any firearm that achieves an apparent qualifying score but is an attempt to make a “short-barreled rifle” and circumvent the GCA or NFA.”

The ATF has thus conjured a brand new definition of a “rifle” that takes them well over a page to describe in the new rule. Here is how they sum it up:

“If a firearm with an attached “stabilizing brace” meets the definition of a “rifle” based on the factors indicated in this final rule, then that firearm could also be a short-barreled rifle depending on the length of the attached barrel, thus subjecting it to additional requirements under the NFA and GCA.”

If that sounds vague, and arbitrary, as it must have when it was written, the ATF tries to further clarify:

“However, a firearm with an attached “brace” device is not a “rifle” as defined in the relevant statutes if the weapon is not designed, made, and intended to be fired from the shoulder. The rule, as proposed and finalized, does not ban “stabilizing braces” or prohibit firearms with an attached “stabilizing brace,” regardless of the firearm’s classification.”

This attempt to clarify what is and what is not a rifle, that may or may not have a brace attached, brings up a new angle the ATF is using to define exactly what a rifle is: the intended design.

Under the new rule, the ATF will now classify a firearm using subjective criteria such as:

“(5) the manufacturer’s direct and indirect marketing and promotional materials indicating the intended use of the weapon; and (6) information demonstrating the likely use of the weapon in the general community.”

The ATF provides a number of unsavory compliance options for firearms owners who now have a regulated rifle under the new definition:

  1. Remove the short barrel and attach a 16-inch or longer rifled barrel to the firearm
  2. Submit a Form 1 to register the firearm as a regulated “short barreled rifle”
  3. Permanently remove and dispose of, or alter, the “stabilizing brace” such that it cannot be reattached
  4. Turn the firearm into your local ATF office
  5. Destroy the firearm

The new rule goes into effect 120 days from the date of publication in the Federal Register.

Pro-Second Amendment group, Gun Owners of America, vowed to challenge vowed to file a lawsuit the Biden administration’s new ATF rule.

We will continue to follow this story as it develops.

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