ATF Pistol Stabilizing Brace Notice, SBR, short-barreled rifle
(Photo by SB Tactical)

I have myself once been subject to an earthquake. What was so weird about it was that things moved that you’d never expect to be moving. It was simply unnatural. Something similar happened Friday with the ATF and the pistol stabilizing brace (PSB). A recent notice of proposed rulemaking strongly implies that many, if not all, brace-equipped pistols might soon be considered NFA items requiring federal registration. However, it also seems we might actually be facing the prospect of a partial NFA amnesty.

Let’s get one thing clear. I believe every blasphemous syllable of the 1934 National Firearms Act to be an unconstitutional affront to both the Founders and every great American who subsequently died for that hallowed document. The sundry dicta establishing length limits, caliber restrictions, and what sort of firearm actions we can possess are the very embodiment of infringement upon the right to keep and bear arms. However, it really doesn’t matter what I believe. For my natural lifetime at least, we’re stuck with this stuff.

ATF Publishes Notice on the Pistol Stabilizing Brace

On Dec. 18, the ATF published a notice of official rulemaking in the Federal Register concerning “The Objective Factors for Classifying Weapons with Stabilizing Braces.” We have been screaming for years for some concrete guidance from the ATF on just what is and isn’t legal when it comes to pistol stabilizing braces. I guess we should be careful what we scream for.

This public notice portends some momentous changes in the way the ATF regulates PSBs. Pronouncements of such profound gravitas are typically published in advance to allow for a public comment period. However, I doubt our comments really matter a great deal.

I have a friend with a daughter who is not terribly durable. When she was small and got sideways over something, he would frequently put her someplace safe and just let her scream herself out; that is likely what the ATF is doing with us. We only have two weeks to respond anyway, and one of those is Christmas. Given the character of the incoming presidential administration, I seriously doubt it matters one whit what we say in response. However, the nuance of this thing is indeed frankly fascinating.

The Meat of the Matter

This notice is 16 pages long. I’ve studied it in detail several times so you don’t have to. I am, however, not a lawyer. I’m just some guy with a laptop who really likes guns. Time will tell how things play out, but here’s what it looks like to me.

Firstly, we all saw this coming. I personally wrote about it a couple of weeks ago on this very website. The ATF only reluctantly approved the addition of a pistol stabilizing brace to big-boned pistols as an aid to allow disabled shooters to run their guns one-handed. This was an undeniably noble pursuit. The rub was that all of us succumbed to the inevitable temptation to fire brace-equipped pistols from the shoulder. We saw PSBs as deliverance from the onerous unconstitutional barrel length restrictions codified within the NFA. Alas, that was never going to last. Here’s some of the ATF’s direct wording:

The same manufacturers will then advertise their products as devices that permit customers to fire their “pistols” from the shoulder—that is, making a “short-barreled rifle”—without complying with the requirements of the NFA. This is far from the “incidental” use of an arm brace as a shouldering device as described in ATF’s 2017 guidance (see footnote 8), but is instead marketing material that directly contradicts the purpose or intent that the manufacturer conveyed to ATF. 

What Does It All Mean?

Distilled down to its essence, this document strives to codify the sorts of characteristics the ATF will use to approve brace-equipped pistols outside the draconian restrictions of the NFA. A conventional Title 1 pistol needs a driver’s license, a Form 4473, an instant background check, and you go home with the gun. That same weapon as a short-barreled rifle needs fingerprints, paperwork, a $200 tribute, and a months-long wait. The category into which a firearm falls is therefore a really big deal.

The notice includes non-specific references to a gun’s size, weight, general geometry, accessories, sights, and similar gestalt. The bottom line is that if the weapon feels like it should be fired from the shoulder rather than with one hand, it will likely be classified as a short-barreled rifle. The notice emphasizes that each gun/brace combination must be analyzed on its merits on a case-by-case basis.

Forget that the only time I would ever fire a handgun one-handed for real is if my other hand had been shot off. One-handed operation was indeed the defining factor for establishing handgun status back in 1934. Literally nobody does that nowadays. However, these tragically dated definitions still drive the train today.

As such, it looks like many to most PSB-equipped pistols are likely about to be reclassified as short-barreled rifles with all the associated registration baggage. Now take a deep breath and digest that for a moment. There are an estimated four million of these delightful devices currently in circulation; that’s an awful lot of law-abiding citizens currently teetering on the brink of owning unregistered NFA weapons.

But There’s More …

It looks like the Attorney General, through the ATF, is proposing a tax-free amnesty of sorts. The phrase used in the document is, “An expedited application process and the retroactive exemption of such firearms from the collection of NFA taxes.”

Try to look at this half full rather than half empty. Governments regulate stuff. Having American shooters in possession of short-barreled guns of this sort without having endured the pain and suffering of federal registration is the kind of thing regulatory bodies like the ATF simply can’t long abide. However, by proposing an amnesty, the government offers us a bit of a carrot. It allows us to transform our PSB-equipped pistols into registered SBRs without all the associated heartache.

The keyword here is “registered,” which hits a nerve with a lot of people. Take a look at the pistol brace extraordinaire SB Tactical. In a recent statement regarding the ATF’s new position, SB Tactical said: “Instead, the document is a thinly veiled blueprint for the largest firearm registration—and ultimately potentially confiscation—scheme in U.S. history.”

Ruminating On the ATF and the Pistol Stabilizing Brace

Biden’s ATF would likely have just declared PSB-equipped guns universally contraband. The bump stock debacle represents a precedent for such a draconian move. However, by proposing an amnesty, the outgoing Trump administration gives us a mechanism by which we can retain our toys without unnecessarily criminalizing literally millions of law-abiding gun owners.

Having to register your guns with the government is a clear infringement that is both unconstitutional and wrong. However, this is the world in which we live. That unfortunately being so, it seems to me that the outgoing Attorney General might have actually just thrown us a bone.

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