ATF Reverses Controversial Stance on Shouldering AR-15 Pistols

Agency reinterprets federal firearms law

ATF Headquarters in Washington, DC / Getty Images



The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) clarified its opinion Tuesday on whether putting an arm brace designed to stabilize certain pistols against one's shoulder constitutes "redesigning" them into highly regulated short-barrel rifles, effectively reversing its previous position from a 2015 official letter.

"To the extent the January 2015 Open Letter implied or has been construed to hold that incidental, sporadic, or situational ‘use’ of an arm-brace (in its original approved configuration) equipped firearm from a firing position at or near the shoulder was sufficient to constitute ‘redesign,' such interpretations are incorrect and not consistent with the ATF's interpretation of the statute or the manner in which it has historically been enforced," ATF assistant director Marvin Richardson wrote in an official letter.

The ATF's opinion deals with a complicated part of the National Firearms Act of 1934. That federal law sets standards for which firearms are subject to a special tax and registration with the federal government. One type of firearm regulated under the act are short-barrel rifles, which have rifled barrels under 16 inches in length and are designed to be fired with the stock of the firearm pressed against the shooter's shoulder.

Firearms with rifled barrels under 16 inches that are otherwise functionally or aesthetically similar to short barrel rifles but lack a stock designed to be pressed against the shoulder while firing are classified as pistols under the law. In recent years, however, the ATF has approved stocks for these pistols, generally made from AR-15 components, which are designed to be strapped to a shooter’s forearm to better stabilize the firearm during shooting. The ATF then ruled in its official 2015 Open Letter that if a shooter pressed one of these braces to their shoulder, that would constitute a "redesign" of the gun and turn it into an unregistered short-barrel rifle—a federal felony.

The new ATF letter clarifies that merely pressing a brace that was otherwise approved by the agency for use on pistols would not "redesign" the firearm. Instead, the shooter would need to make modifications to the brace designed to turn it into a shoulder stock.

"In simple terms, merely shouldering the brace, provided you did not modify it, does not constitute the manufacture of a short-barrel rifle," Adam Kraut, a firearms lawyer, said in a video explaining the ATF letter. "Now you can all rejoice and buy all the braces you want without fear of being prosecuted incidentally, sporadically, or situationally shouldering an arm brace-equipped firearm, provided you didn't modify that brace. At least, according to this letter."

There have been signs that the ATF is becoming more accommodating of the shooting industry since the election of President Donald Trump. In February, an internal memo authored by a top ATF official and advocating for reworking or reducing a number of regulations that gun owners have long contested was leaked to the Washington Post. Elucidation of the ATF's opinion on stabilizing braces was among the courses of action recommended in the internal memo.

Gun rights advocates hope for further clarification from the ATF. "While we are pleased ATF has finally tacitly admitted it was wrong, we will be urging ATF to issue an open letter to industry rather than just a private letter to one company that has only just now come to light. We applaud SB Tactical for making the letter public.  We look forward to continuing to work with ATF under the Trump administration to revisit other rulings, letters and unnecessary regulations," said Lawrence G. Keane, National Shooting Sports Foundation senior vice president for government and public affairs and general counsel.

Stephen Gutowski   Email Stephen | Full Bio | RSS
Stephen Gutowski is a staff writer for the Washington Free Beacon. He founded his own site as a junior in college and has been writing about news and politics since that time. He spent 4 years with the Media Research Center and was most recently with the Capitol City Project. His email address is His twitter handle is @StephenGutowski.

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