Wednesday, March 22, 2006

How not to have your life ruined by the ATFU

A reader on the NoR forums asks:
"What is the deal with these AR 15 pistols made by Armalite and others? Are they classified as a pistol because there is no butt stock? I do not know how it could be legal with a 7 inch barrel."
Which is a pretty good question if you'd like to avoid being shot by JBTs; and wouldn't we all like to avoid that?

First things first, I am not spouting internet BS, or third hand knowledge. I am a former armorer and instructor for a Class III dealer, and have dealt with the ATF extensively for years. This is, whether it's blackletter law or not (sadly, the ATF tends to ignore or mangle the law whenever it feels like it) how the ATF interprets its rules.

There's a few legalistic definitions we need to get into here. First, there are four different classifications we need to deal with:

1. Pistols
2. Short Barreled Rifles (SBR)
3. Short Rifles (SR)
4. Any Other Weapon (AOW)

The "Any Other Weapon" classification is the ATFU catchall classification for anything they want to regulate more stringently than normal firearms, but can't really come up with a justification for. For example, pen guns, some smooth bore pistols, and even wallet holsters (so long as the weapon can be fired from inside the holster without drawing first) are all AOWs. AOW's require the standard NFA paperwork, fingerprints, signatures, background check etc... but the tax is only $5, unlike the $200 tax applied to machine guns and short barreled weapons.

A pistol is a weapon originally designed and manufactured to be no longer than 26” in it’s longest operable configuration, having no provision for fitting a butt stock, and having a no more than 18” rifled barrel. Barrels in between 12” and 18” are however special cases, and MAY be classified as an AOW. Generally speaking the ATFU will look funny at any pistol barrel over 14" in length (the ATF classifies a Thompson without a buttstock, which has a 14.5" barrel and a foregrip - not just the vertical foregrip, but also the stock forend - as an AOW)

A short barreled rifle (SBR) in comparison is any weapon with a rifled barrel shorter than 16” AS MEASURED FROM THE BREECH FACE, with a fixed, folding, telescoping or detachable butt stock as part of it’s designed and manufactured configuration.

Additionally, the ATF has gone back and forth about vertical foregrips on pistols as to whether they constitute a short barreled rifle, an AOW or not. The current advice is that they do, so leave them off, HOWEVER if the weapon was not originally designed and manufactured with a foregrip but one is added as an accessory, then the federal courts have decreed it is NOT an AOW, but in fact a pistol.

Also, the ATF has decided in the past than any semiautomatic weapon with a rifled barrel and a manufactured weight of over 50oz is automatically not a pistol. Unfortunately, this ruling has not been consistently applied; and is pretty much a throwaway at this point, because the 14” barrelled desert eagle almost doubles this weight restriction (the 14" barrel is no longer manufactured). In fact even the 6" barrled version is over the limit at 76oz. There has been another ruling from the ATF that the weight restriction only applies to weapons where the magazine well is outside the grip frame, but that hasn't been tested in court yet; if it does end up there it will almost certainly be tossed out. I have also heard that since the AWB sunset this ruling is no longer in effect. In any case there are several models of rifle actioned pistols that exceed this weight and have no problem currently.

A short rfile, as distinct from an SBR, is any shoulder weapon (having a fixed, folding, telescoping, or detachable buttstock) with any length rifled barrel, having an overall length of less than 26” in it’s shortest FIREABLE configuration (that includes stocks folded or collapsed, if the weapon is fireable in that configuration).

This is not a separate classification under NFA '34; but the ATF interprets any weapon modified from a rifle, (rather than originally manufactured as a pistol) which meets the criteria for short rifle or short barreled rifle, as a short barreled rifle OR as an AOW (with seemingly no logic or justification between them), even if the barrel to breech face length is over 16".

SBR and SR are usually classed together; because in order to be a short rifle, you generally need to have a short barrel, though this is not always the case as some receivers are quite short. The ATF has over the years sometimes classified rifles under 26" as short barreled rifles (even though their barrels are longer than 16"), and sometimes as AOWs.

For example, the krinkov pistol is the shortest AK variant I know of, and it’s just under 20” with an 8.5” barrel (including flash suppressor). Bringing it to 26” would give it a 14.5” barrel, still well in SBR territory.

Similarly, there is an equally inconsistent issue about the phrases used in weapon classification "designed to be fired in one hand",  and "designed to be fired with two hands" (that I address in other posts); where the ATF sometimes classifies weapons with vertical foregrips as AOWs and sometimes does not.

There were at one time various takedown and folding rifles that had legal length barrels, but could be fired while folded and had a folded length of under 26", so most of them have been classified as short rifles and thus are subject to a tax stamp. This of course halted their manufacture, as very few were willing to go through a background check and pay $200 for the privilige of owning a $100 rifle.

The new KelTec SU16c is a folding design that CAN be fired while folded (though it is not recommended), and has a folded length of 26.5" with a flash suppressor attached to it's threaded barrel. They may run into problems because without the flash suppressor, the rifle is .5" too short when folded.

Oh and various bullpup designs can be considered short rifles, even with well over legal length barrels; because the minimum length of action and stock behind the breech face for a .22 for example is only about 2”. The Walther G22 bullpup for example has a 20” barrel in order to maintain minimum legal length (it has a detachable butt pad and spacers up to 2” to reach it’s overall length of 29.5” but detachable spacers don’t count towards legal length). If the weapon had a 16" minimum length barrel, it would only be 25.5" long WITH the spacers, which don't count towards it's legal length.

One should note, as Randy Weaver found out much to his detriment, shotguns can also easily have legal length barrels and still be a short shotgun. Many shotguns have quite short actions, and an 18” barreled side by side with a 9” length of pull (a standard youth length) can get your family killed by overzealous law enforcement.