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How Your Gun May Be Illegal And You Not Know It

gun illegalThere is no question that Gene Stoner’s masterpiece design, the AR series rifle, is the most configurable weapon on the planet. Millions of copycat versions of this rifle exist in innumerable forms.

From 10” barreled pistol versions to 22” barreled match versions and everything in between, the AR series is the Lego of firearms. It’s a weapon that many build at home with simple hand tools; most anyone with rudimentary skills can successfully assemble an AR rifle.

There are some massive legal pitfalls in putting one of these rifles together, however, if you don’t have a basic understanding of federal law, specifically, the laws and regulations relating to National Firearms Act (NFA) weapons. Building AR series rifles is a fun and rewarding hobby, but the last thing you want is a stint in federal prison because you unknowingly build an illegal rifle. Remember – ignorance of the law is never an adequate defense. So let’s get started with some basic terminology:

Pistol: A handheld firearm that is designed to be fired by holding a small stock that protrudes under the bore, usually with one hand. Barrel length can be just about anything, which challenges the popularly conceived notion of what a pistol is.

Rifle: A shoulder fired, rifled barrel firearm with an overall length of 26” or greater, even when a folding or collapsible stock is retracted. Minimum barrel length is 16” from breech face to crown.

How to hide your guns, and other off grid caches…

Okay, so the above seems pretty clear – or so you would think. But like a late night commercial – wait – there’s more! You can absolutely run afoul of federal law with the slightest of modifications to the above definitions.

Here’s how to ensure you violate NFA law on an AR series rifle:

1. Butt Stock on a Pistol: So your shiny new AR pistol with a 10” barrel is a little bit of a handful. For whatever reason, the manufacturer shipped it with a foam cover over the buffer tube. But wait — that’s a normal buffer tube there…one that would easily accept a conventional AR butt stock. Guess what? As soon as you place a butt stock on that pistol, you just created an illegal short -barreled rifle. Why? Simply put, the pistol was designed to be fired with your hand, not from the shoulder. You changed its characteristics to turn it into a shoulder fired weapon with a short barrel, which, by the way is a controlled item that you need to register with ATF and pay a $200 tax stamp on.

2. Fore Grip on a Pistol: Although not on the law books per se, the ATF has ruled that placing a fore grip on a pistol creates a new class of weapon – an AOW (Any Other Weapon), which must also be registered and a fee paid. While it might seem tempting to mount a vertical fore grip to your AR pistol, and while technically the law is silent on this addition, the ATF still takes a dim view of it and in the end, even if you are right, you will have to endure an expensive trial to prove it.

3. Short Barrel on a Rifle: Let’s say that you own both an AR pistol and an AR rifle. Modularity and ease of configuration being what they are, you decide to pop the pins on both, and put the short barrel on the rifle. Of course, as stated before, you just illegally manufactured a short barreled rifle even if the barrel you used was perfectly legal on the pistol just moments ago. This concept is pretty obvious to most people, but there are subtler ways of entrapping yourself with barrel length.

Let’s say you are building an AR and you order a 14.5” rifle barrel and affix it to the AR rifle. You want a 14.5” barrel because that’s what the Army uses, and you want an M4 clone. This is still too short to stay legal, so you add a 1.5” flash hider to stay in the clear. Now you’re at 16” length. OK – right? Possibly not! The ATF requires that all flash hiders, to be counted as part of the overall barrel length, must be pinned and welded or brazed on in a permanent fashion. No using Loc-Tite or just a wrench — the flash hider must be permanent!

Building ARs is a fun hobby, and shooting them is even more fun, but just be aware of the legal ramifications when you build. Just because it snaps together perfectly, doesn’t mean it’s legal!

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43 comments

  1. So where specifically in the Constitution would the Congress have the authority to ban the configuration of a rifle, pistol or whatever?

    • No where. So what? Comrade. The BATFE rules, and as clearly shown in “fast&furious” doesn’t even have to obey it’s own rule, laws, edicts, etc. or Congress. Liberty and Freedom are foreign concepts to the SS of the USSA.

  2. Ha! The story is about the AR-15, but the guy in the picture is shooting a AK-47.

  3. I would just like to point out to the author of the article that it is a flash SUPPRESSOR, not a flash hider. It doesn’t hide the muzzle flash but rather mutes it (suppresses it) to make it more difficult for the enemy to pick it out. There is still a muzzle flash just less of it. A flash hider would completely HIDE the flash.

    Those of us who know better don’t recognize the government’s regulations on idiotic things like whether a flash suppressor has to be welded on or not, I’ve never seen the assholes on my ranch or at the firing range.

    • The original intent was not to hide the flash, but rather disperse it in a manner that it doesn’t blind the shooter.

  4. This article is completely incorrect. Please do your research before posting this information.

    “This is in response to your communication dated January 24, 2014, to the Bureau of Alcohol, tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Your e-mail was forwarded to the ATF Firearms technology Branch (FTB), Martinsburg, West Virginia, for reply. In your note, you ask about firing an AR-15 type pistol from the shoulder; specifically, if doing so would cause the pistol to be reclassified as a Short Barreled Rifle (SBR).

    For the following reasons, we have determined that firing a pistol from the shoulder would not cause the pistol to be reclassified as an SBR:

    FTB classifies weapons based on their physical design characteristics. While the usage/functionality of the weapon does influence the intended design, it is not the sole criteria for determining the classification of a weapon. Generally speaking, we do not classify weapons based on how an individual uses a weapon.

    FTB has previously determined (see FTB #99146) that the firing of a weapon from a particular position, such as placing the receiver extention of an AR-15 type pistol on the user’s shoulder, does not change the classification of a weapon. Further, certain firearm accessories such as the SIG stability brace have not been classified by the FTB as shoulder stocks and, therefore, using the brace improperly does not constitute a design change. Using an accessory improperly would not change the classification of a weapon under Federal law. However, the FTB cannot recommend using a weapon (or weapon accessory) in a manner not intended by the manufacturer.

    We thank you for your inquiry and trust the foregoing has been responsive.”

    • They didn’t say anything about using a brace held against your shoulder, they were writing about putting a shoulder stock on a pistol. These are, conceivably, legally distinct things.

    • Joshua Cappuccilli

      No – you are not correct – this article talks about adding a stock to a pistol and firing it from the shoulder. The ruling letter you quoted is if a pistol (without a stock) with a sig brace (or presumably a blade) that has been ruled acceptable for a PISTOL to have on it – the ruling letter addresses that if you place that sig brace or blade on your shoulder have you violated the law.

      Adding a stock to a pistol is still 100% no go… well you go but directly to jail. Check the original context of the article.

  5. The idea of the law was that people wouldn’t be making handguns out of easier to obtain long guns. However, it has taken on a life of it’s own. If I own a legal pistol, why not put on a stock? (yes, I know , it’s illegal, I am arguing the concept of the law). I just took a easily concealed pistol and made it bigger! Certainly no harm to society there.
    This started as a common sense law and ATF made it a mess. I can not put a stock on a pistol without all of Armageddon raining down on society. Unless I send them two hundred bucks, then, clouds parting, sunshine on all of us…. One could argue the need for the extensive background check, which was done when I acquired the pistol…..I suspect it is about the $200….

    • Your last comment is absolutely correct, but it is not quite as shallow as that. Now I forget exactly when the $200 tax limit was set, so I will provide a quote for both years. According to http://www.usinflationcalculator.com, in 1934–when the National Firearm Act was passed–$200 would have been equivalent to $3,549.33 in 2015. That is more than the cost of almost every AR-15 on the market, and equivalent to the cost of the average high end AR-10 I have ever priced. According to the same website, in 1968–when the Gun Control Act was passed–$200 would have been equivalent to $1,366.70 which is the going MSRP of a quality forged receiver AR-15 from a reputable gun maker.

      This is important to take into consideration because the tax was set so high for the average person interested in such a weapon as to discourage all but the most determined to buy one. It effectively removed, at whichever time, the possibility of legal NFA weapons. Meaning that only criminals would be in possession of them. I will admit with absolute certainty that if the tax had inflated with the economy I had not own any such firearms.

      Another important factor to take into consideration is that the ATF did not originate in the DOJ. It originally was a part of the Treasury as a type of tax enforcement agency. It did serve a short stint under FBI oversight from 1930 until the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 (before the NFA in 34) when it returned to the Treasury. Over the next several decades they took on additional responsibilities, changed their name with each new task, but overall remained a tax enforcement agency. The most important change for us comes after 9/11 with G.W. Bush reorganized them again under the DOJ where they have remained. There have actually been a number of articles written about the folly of this move and how it has caused the ATF to develop a lack of guidance, purpose, and overall inflated sense of the significance of themselves as law enforcement agents rather than tax collectors with guns.

      And that, my friend, is what it boils down to. Yes, they want their $200, it is called a tax stamp for a reason. Yes, some of them are genuinely interested in keeping lethal firepower out of the hands of dangerous criminals. And yes, they sometimes overstep their bounds (there are actually instances where courts have ruled in favor of private owners and manufacturers standing against the ATF). The irony is that since most laws target the lowest common denominators in society, they typically have the greatest negative effect on law-abiding citizens. As much as the law sucks, I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.

    • Is it a one time tax stamp on the individual gun or on the person owning the gun annualy or other time frame? And or is it per gun. Anyone have the actual law paragraph to post?

  6. I just want to know how to put a stock on my AR without getting in trouble. I bought it with the sig stabilizer and fire it from my shoulder and hand so what’s the big deal with the atf?

  7. “Although not on the law books per se, the ATF”…….
    This is a problem! The”laws” that are not laws!!!

  8. So what if I had a stamp for sbr and pistol. Then say I removed the upper receiver on an ar15 rifle and swapped the buffer assembly with one designed for use on a ar15 pistol as well as swapped in a pistol length upper receiver does that make the ar15 illegal or legal?

    • John: I am a gun buff and retired attorney, including 6 years asa prosecutor (I know how they think), and years as a local cop, military policeman, park ranger and federal investigator….and yes I am older than you are…let me simplify this issue the way I read it…First, if a rifle lower reciever, is sold as a rifle then it can never legally be converted to a pistol—unless BATF gives their permission to chop it up and rebuild…..because the instant you put a barrel less than 16 inches on it, the crime of manufacturing short barrel rifle is complete….a prosecutor is done at that point and there is no defense…..like being pregant, the instant you are, you are. The way around that is to apply in advance for permission to manufacture that rifle into a new one called and SBR..//…

      Second, you can never put a butt stock on a pistol….if that lower has ever been a pistol…that is what it is, only the serial numbered part matters and that is the lower reciever….the instant you put that but stock on the pistol, the crime of manufacturering an illegal SBR is complete…prosecutors look to prove the elements or steps necessary to prove the crime is complete, not just talked about or planned but every step is done….you push those pins together with a rifle buttstock on a pistol the crime is complete.

      Now, the third issue are the pistol stabilizing devises….it looks like the ATF had changed their position which means if hillary gets elected she can ban them by executive order…..

      Lastly, several people commented about where in the Constitution the BATF got the authority to regulate all this stuff….well I taught college classes on the subject about 5 years, and it is not something I can explain in a short blog……but basically the Congress is established by the Constitution which gives them directly the power to make all laws and regulations to run the nation……they can set the speed limits on Interstate Highways, they can regulate the sale of dynamite and nuclear weapons, and even whether heroine is legal to sell out in front of your local high school….they have that power…and the Supreme Court who decides how much power Congress can give the government, has always found the Constition allows such regulation.

      So we can bitch and moan, but some stuff like having to work for a living, pay taxes, and live under the laws are just things we have to do. Hope this helps. it is dumb to pick a fight with a giant unless you can win, you can’t violate federal gun laws and win…..don’t do dumb stuff….be well and shoot often.

      • So if I understand the constitutionality of law making, each state must have a representative. Congress is the ONLY body in government that can create and pass laws. Just because the ATF is given certain powers, nowhere in the USC does it grant any other body to make laws without congressional approval of the law. Executive orders can be cast aside by congress at anytime as well as by the meeting of states…forgot what that is called. And sure, congress can set the national speed limits, but states have the actual final determination whether they will allow it to be used or enforced since there are no federal police that patrol the interstates. Just like state cops cannot stop military vehicles while on the interstates but can stop, ticket, and detain them on any rural road in the state. Same as a local cop or citizen can.

      • Michael. E. Stora, Ph.D.

        The laws and regulations are so complicated that even someone as experienced as you can make errors.

        “Second, you can never put a butt stock on a pistol….if that lower has ever been a pistol…that is what it is, only the serial numbered part matters and that is the lower reciever….the instant you put that but stock on the pistol, the crime of manufacturering an illegal SBR is complete” This is not true, the addition of a buttstock is only illegal if accompanied by a barrel less than 16 inches. To simplify, the rule is “First a rifle, always a rifle” not “Once a rifle, always a rifle”.

        The author makes a big mistake as well. “Rifle: A shoulder fired, rifled barrel firearm with an overall length of 26” or greater, even when a folding or collapsible stock is retracted.” Overall length counts the stock in it’s longest configuration to the end of the the barrel or end of the gun if it sticks out past the barrel (not including removable muzzle devices). The ATF has actually gone back and forth on whether to include muzzle devices in OAL but the most recent opinion letters say “no”. They have always been consistent about not counting it in barrel length however.

      • You are looking at this wrong. A rifle cannot legally be converted to a pistol and likewise a pistol is always a pistol. A SBR is made from a rifle and never a pistol. A pistol does not have length restrictions so how could you make it illegal by making is longer? You cannot.

  9. Q U E S T I O N S: I have an AR pistol in 300 AAC Blackout. I will be building 2 SBR’s in 5.56MM.

    1. Can I put my SBR 5.56 Upper onto my AR pistol or will I lose my pistol designation?

    2. If I put my 300 Blackout Pistol Upper onto my SBR then back onto my pistol, will it lose its pistol designation?

    3. Does that fact that a short barrel even being on a SB “Rifle” makes it having been on a Rifle, make my pistol into an illegal SBR and also lose it’s pistol designation?

  10. What is the reason for banning vertical fore grips on a pistol? I have messed around target shooting a couple times with a vertical fore grip on my PT99, it makes it a million times more controllable and accurate when rapid firing (shooting as fast as you can with a semi auto trigger) because you can control both ends of the firearm during it’s recoil. I believe this law or ordinance, whatever it is classified as needs to be lifted. Especially with how stupid this country is getting by the day. Both Law Enforcement and responsibly armed citizens should be allowed to do such under their own discretion. Obviously it would be impossible to holster such a configuration, however I’m not saying keep it permanently fixed. If needed you should be allowed to fix one if you can safely manage, shall not be infringed means just that. Translates to “owners/possessors choice”. I’d like to see Student of the Gun or another pro 2am show touch light on this to show people what its all about. Change the law BATFE!

  11. Great article . Too bad, so sad. Only the honest folks suffer from the gun control that our government is intent on handing down to the common people.

  12. ALL GUN LAWS ARE UNCONSTITUTIONAL!

    The courts the congress and federal agency have no power to INFRINGE on a INALIENABLE RIGHT! To quote a Founding father , it’s as if such law was never written! Read what the Founders thought of our right to defend against tyranny not only of an Executive but of Congress and The Courts!

  13. If I were to replace the 16″ 5.56 barrel that came with the rifle with a 16″ 300aac; do I need to do anything other than swap out the barrel?
    All the info that I found online only applied to making it an SBR.

    • You can totally do that. You aren’t changing the designation of it; It would still just be a rifle as long as the length of the barrel and overall length of the gun doesn’t change.

  14. If you purchase a stripped lower and isn’t designated pistol or rifle but other. You can switch between the 2. You just can’t rebuild a rifle into a pistol.

  15. What about having a folding stock with approved atf brace for a pistol? Is the legal?

  16. so…buy an 80% lower and build what you want

  17. Adding a stock to a pistol does not change it into a rifle. It is a pistol with a stock. A short barreled rifle is made from a rifle not a pistol. You are correct however because this rule does not apply to some semi autos and that is what you are talking about here.

  18. Color of law insanity in government; overreaching of the constitution article 1, sub-section 10.
    The innocent become the victim, and the government, the criminal. Don’t try to argue your constitutional rights if you do get caught, cause article 1, sub-section 10, again and again has been ruled upon to allow such nonsense as what the ATF does–its all contract and anything goes under contract, because we keep quiet about it, we take it like the good victims we have learned to become.
    As long as good men do nothing and allow all this unrighteous, illegal activity (and yes, I do mean illegal), government thugs are going to continue this insanity, until the funny money from the Fed runs dry. Your lawyer won’t challenge this in court, cause he’s got this victim mentality too and forgot that the bible comes from the
    Your rights come from God; nature–not the constitution. Law is based on precedent, which is based on English law, which is based on the King James bible, so none of these laws should be enforceable, and yet, they are enforced by thugs hyped up on power and the belief they are doing right, no different than any other evildoer throughout history.
    This is common law and common sense. The bible would never punish any good man and yet this government does, citing its own criminal, and illegal statutes and codes. At least half of the statutes on the books are estimated to be illegal if brought up against the constitution. But imagine, against the bible! Usary is a major criminal act according the bible and yet its legal to allow banks to bankrupt us again and again. The founding fathers never could of imagined that they had inadvertently created a anti-biblical, illegal government.
    Specialization has made modern man stupid and weak, because he know longer sees these truths which were obvious to his forefathers.

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