A declaration from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives could leave millions of American gun owners in serious legal jeopardy.
In a letter made public on Tuesday, the agency informed a New Hampshire gun company that its AR-15 pistol model equipped with a specialized brace is actually an illegal short-barreled rifle and anyone who owns one could be subject to up to 10 years in prison or $100,000 in fines. Industry insiders put the number of AR-15 pistols equipped with similar specialized braces at about 3 million.
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The decision appears to conflict with several similar determinations made by the ATF dating back to 2012, when the agency told Sig Sauer that the braces, designed to strap to a shooter's forearm instead of being pressed against their shoulder, could be legally combined with guns that have barrels shorter than the 16-inch federal limit for rifles. The new letter calls into question the basic legality of the devices and leaves gun owners in flux just three weeks before the presidential election.
Carolyn Gwathmey, the public affairs officer for the ATF, said the letter only directly applies to the New Hampshire gun company's pistol, but neither she nor the letter offered an explanation for why that model differs from other weapons equipped with the braces. She said the agency would not offer a standard of review of the devices as a whole, but only on a case-by-case basis.
"Regarding other firearms or manufacturers, ATF cannot comment until we see the platform and what accessories may be attached to said platform," Gwathmey told the Washington Free Beacon.
White House deputy press secretary Brian Morgenstern said the Trump administration is reviewing the ATF's letter.
"The White House and leadership at the Department of Justice are reviewing this matter to ensure there is no interference with the ability of law-abiding citizens—including lawful firearms manufacturers—to exercise their constitutionally guaranteed liberties," he told the Free Beacon.
Gun-rights groups are pressuring the administration to rein in the ATF.
The National Rifle Association attacked the agency's move as "arbitrary, inequitable, and incorrect." The group said it was also in contact with DOJ and Trump administration officials and trying to work through how the change could be made. Amy Hunter, a spokeswoman for the NRA, told the Free Beacon the group is "exhausting all options to overturn this unjust and rogue action by ATF."
The NRA, which has committed to spending "tens of millions" on President Donald Trump's behalf in 2020 after spending big to help elect him in 2016, said the ATF's new position is a threat to the Second Amendment.
"By blurring the lines on legal definitions that carry serious criminal consequences, ATF is putting law-abiding gun owners, the firearm industry, and law enforcement in the impossible position of attempting to read the minds of ATF bureaucrats when complying with or applying federal law," the group told its members in a letter.
Mark Oliva of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the firearms industry's trade group, told the Free Beacon he was concerned the decision wasn't "fairly and objectively applied." He said the group, which often works with the ATF on regulatory issues, has been talking to the agency—as well as the White House—about the potential reversal.
"This is inconsistent with the standards that they've put forth before," Oliva said. "So, we're trying to understand why this inconsistency is there and come to a resolution on it."
The Firearms Policy Coalition went further and threatened to sue over the ATF's letter, saying it "embodies the very essence of ‘arbitrary and capricious.'"