The BATFE issued an open letter on January 16, 2015, which could affect many shooters who have purchased long-barrel handguns with “stabilizing braces.”
The letter, signed by Max M. Kingery, acting chief of the Firearms Technology Criminal Branch in the Firearms and Ammunition Technology Division, says in part, “Any person who intends to use a handgun stabilizing brace as a shoulder stock on a pistol (having a rifled barrel under 16 inches in length or a smooth bore firearm with a barrel under 18 inches in length) must first file an ATF Form 1 and pay the applicable tax because the resulting firearm will be subject to all provisions of the NFA.”
In CTD Suzanne’s May 6, 2014 Shooter’s Log post, “SIG’s SB15 Legal Pistol Stabilizing Device,” she noted, “The ATF went on record saying the SB15 and SB47 pistol-stabilizing device classifies as a ‘forearm brace’ and since intentionally designed to aid in shooting the AR-15 pistol one-handed, putting the device on your pistol and shouldering it does not constitute turning your pistol into an SBR… Since the ATF classifies firearms strictly based on its ‘physical design characteristics,’ using the device against your shoulder does not make the pistol illegal. The ATF and [Alex] Bosco want you to know, however, that shouldering the pistol with the use of the SB15 or SB47 is not the manufacturer’s intended purpose and therefore constitutes ‘improper’ use of the product.”
Now the ATF has “clarified” the use of such braces. The Jan. 16 letter says in its entirety:
The Firearms and Ammunition Technology Division (FATD), Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) has received inquiries from the public concerning the proper use of devices recently marketed as “stabilizing braces.” These devices are described as “a shooter’s aid that is designed to improve the single-handed shooting performance of buffer tube equipped pistols.” The device claims to enhance accuracy and reduce felt recoil when using an AR-style pistol.
These items are intended to improve accuracy by using the operator’s forearm to provide stable support for the AR-type pistol. ATF has previously determined that attaching the brace to a firearm does not alter the classification of the firearm or subject the firearm to National Firearms Act (NFA) control. However, this classification is based upon the use of the device as designed. When the device is redesigned for use as a shoulder stock on a handgun with a rifled barrel under 16 inches in length, the firearm is properly classified as a firearm under the NFA.
The NFA, 26 USCS § 5845, defines “firearm,” in relevant part, as “a shotgun having a barrel or barrels of less than 18 inches in length” and “a rifle having a barrel or barrels of less than 16 inches in length.” That section defines both “rifle” and “shotgun” as “a weapon designed or redesigned, made or remade, and intended to be fired from the shoulder….” (Emphasis added).
Pursuant to the plain language of the statute, ATF and its predecessor agency have long held that a pistol with a barrel less than 16 inches in length and an attached shoulder stock is a NFA “firearm.” For example, inRevenue Ruling 61-45, Luger and Mauser pistols “having a barrel of less than 16 inches in length with an attachable shoulder stock affixed” were each classified as a “short barrel rifle…within the purview of the National Firearms Act.”
In classifying the originally submitted design, ATF considered the objective design of the item as well as the stated purpose of the item. In submitting this device for classification, the designer noted that
The intent of the buffer tube forearm brace is to facilitate one handed firing of the AR15 pistol for those with limited strength or mobility due to a handicap. It also performs the function of sufficiently padding the buffer tube in order to reduce bruising to the forearm while firing with one hand. Sliding and securing the brace onto one’s forearm and latching the Velcro straps, distributes the weight of the weapon evenly and assures a snug fit. Therefore, it is no longer necessary to dangerously “muscle” this large pistol during the one-handed aiming process, and recoil is dispersed significantly, resulting in more accurate shooting without compromising safety or comfort.
In the classification letter of November 26, 2012, ATF noted that a “shooter would insert his or her forearm into the device while gripping the pistol’s handgrip-then tighten the Velcro straps for additional support and retention. Thus configured, the device provides the shooter with additional support of a firearm while it is still held and operated with one hand.” When strapped to the wrist and used as designed, it is clear the device does not allow the firearm to be fired from the shoulder. Therefore, ATF concluded that, pursuant to the information provided, “the device is not designed or intended to fire a weapon from the shoulder.” In making the classification, ATF determined that the objective design characteristics of the stabilizing brace supported the stated intent.
ATF hereby confirms that if used as designed—to assist shooters in stabilizing a handgun while shooting with a single hand—the device is not considered a shoulder stock and therefore may be attached to a handgun without making a NFA firearm. However, ATF has received numerous inquiries regarding alternate uses for this device, including use as a shoulder stock. Because the NFA defines both rifle and shotgun to include any “weapon designed or redesigned, made or remade, and intended to be fired from the shoulder,” any person who redesigns a stabilizing brace for use as a shoulder stock makes a NFA firearm when attached to a pistol with a rifled barrel under 16 inches in length or a handgun with a smooth bore under 18 inches in length.
The GCA does not define the term “redesign” and therefore ATF applies the common meaning. “Redesign” is defined as “to alter the appearance or function of.” See e.g. Webster’s II New College Dictionary, Third Ed. (2005). This is not a novel interpretation. For example ATF has previously advised that an individual possesses a destructive device when possessing anti-personnel ammunition with an otherwise unregulated 37/38mm flare launcher. See ATF Ruling 95-3. Further, ATF has advised that even use of an unregulated flare and flare launcher as a weapon results in the making of a NFA weapon. Similarly, ATF has advised that, although otherwise unregulated, the use of certain nail guns as weapons may result in classification as an ‘any other weapon.’”
The pistol stabilizing brace was neither “designed” nor approved to be used as a shoulder stock, and therefore use as a shoulder stock constitutes a “redesign” of the device because a possessor has changed the very function of the item. Any individual letters stating otherwise are contrary to the plain language of the NFA, misapply Federal law, and are hereby revoked.
Any person who intends to use a handgun stabilizing brace as a shoulder stock on a pistol (having a rifled barrel under 16 inches in length or a smooth bore firearm with a barrel under 18 inches in length) must first file an ATF Form 1 and pay the applicable tax because the resulting firearm will be subject to all provisions of the NFA.
If you have any questions about the issues addressed in this letter, you may contact the Firearms and Ammunition Technology Division at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (304) 616-4300.
Max M. Kingery
Firearms Technology Criminal Branch
Firearms and Ammunition Technology Division
[The original story above was updated on January 22 to include the following statement from SIG Sauer. — Woody]
On January 21, SIG Sauer, Inc., issued the following statement about ATF’s open letter regarding the SB15 and SBX pistol stabilizing braces.
“As reaffirmed in an Open Letter by ATF’s Firearms and Ammunition Technology Division dated January 16, 2015, the Pistol Stabilizing Brace (SB15 and SBX) is legal to own, legal to purchase, and legal to install on a pistol. SIG Sauer believes that the Pistol Stabilizing Brace improves the single-handed shooting performance of buffer-tube-equipped pistols, and offers the product both as an accessory and pre-installed on a number of pistols.
“The [ATF] Open Letter goes further to rescind a previous private letter regarding the ‘intent’ of the user of the pistol stabilizing brace. In the letter of January 16, 2015, ATF opines that a person’s actual use of the product as a shoulder stock can change the legal classification of the product. However, the Open Letter explicitly states: “ATF hereby confirms that if used as designed—to assist shooters in stabilizing a handgun while shooting with a single hand—the device is not considered a shoulder stock and therefore may be attached to a handgun without making a NFA firearm.”
“We question ATF’s reversal in position that the classification of the brace may be altered by its use. We are reviewing the legal precedents and justification for this position, and will address our concerns with ATF in the near future.
“We will vigorously defend the classification of all of our products and our consumers’ right to use them in accordance with the law. If we find that the open-letter opinion is outside the scope of the law, we will seek further review.”
[The original story was updated on January 22 to include the following statement from SB Tactical. SB Tactical LLC developed and manufacturers the Stabilizing Brace for the AR-15 and AK-47 weapons platforms, the SB15 and SB47, respectively.— Woody]
From Alex Bosco, founder, CEO and inventor of the SB Tactical Stabilizing Brace:
“The Stabilizing Brace was conceptualized to assist a disabled war veteran in shooting the AR pistol the way that it was intended; safely and accurately. The finalized design is for people with limited mobility due to a handicap or the lack of strength to fire AR pistols in compliance with the Gun Control Act.
“Thousands of individuals have been physically empowered by the Stabilizing Brace to better control and safely handle shooting a pistol, including law enforcement officers, border patrol agents and veterans.
“The ATF has been inconsistent in its approach to this accessory. As the inventor of the Stabilizing Brace, the product has never been ‘designed or redesigned, made or remade, or intended to be fired from the shoulder.’ The latest opinion issued prohibits people from freely using a legal product, restricting how shooters position the pistol, and is contrary to the intent and statutory language enacted by the U.S. Congress.
“SB Tactical continues to consult with industry leaders and other critical stakeholders on next steps in this process.”