West Virginia AG wants answers from ATF on pistol braces

(AP Photo/Raymond Thompson)

Unless we see court intervention in the next two weeks, the ATFs new rules on pistol stabilizing braces will take effect on May 31st and millions of lawful gun owners are at risk of becoming criminals overnight if they don’t comply. Some of those gun owners have no plans to do so under any circumstances, of course, but even those who are willing to comply with the rule have been left scratching their head about how to do so after ATF Director Steve Dettelbach recently told a House committee that simply removing the brace from the pistol will suffice; advice that appears to directly contradict the ATF rule.

Several members of Congress have asked Dettelbach to elaborate on his position, and now West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey is demanding answers as well. Morrisey is already part of a 25-state coalition of attorneys general challenging the new rule in court, but the AG wants assurances that Dettelbach’s statement to Congress isn’t going end up leading to criminal charges for gun owners who follow his advice.

ATF Director Steven Dettelbach testified that those who own pistols with stabilizing braces can simply detach the brace from the pistol and retain possession of both the brace and the pistol to adhere to the agency’s requirements in the final rule called Factoring Criteria for Firearms with Attached Stabilizing Braces.

But this conflicts with ATF guidance on the rule stating that an individual must “[p]ermanently remove and dispose of, or alter, the ‘stabilizing brace’ such that it cannot be reattached.” Owners of firearms with stabilizing brazes must register them by May 31, 2023, or they will violate the rule.

“This is a serious and time sensitive matter,” Attorney General Morrisey wrote. “Possession of an unregistered short-barreled rifle following May 31, 2023, will be a felony offense, carrying serious criminal penalties. Yet the public has conflicting statements from ATF regarding how to comply with the rule. This must be addressed right away.”

Stabilizing braces were designed to help people with disabilities use pistols. Since then, many others, including older persons, people with limited mobility and those with smaller stature have come to use the braces. For more than a decade, these braces have been sold as firearms attachments not subject to regulation.

The rule, however, affects most all owners of combinations of stabilizing braces and pistols and handgun owners—many lawful gun owners use stabilizers to prevent some recoil when using firearms and to help with accuracy.

In his letter, Morrisey asked Dettelbach for his “immediate response” confirming that his testimony before the House Judiciary Committee was accurate, and that no gun owner need fear federal prosecution if they remove any stabilizing braces from their pistols.  Those comments have been widely reported in Second Amendment-specific news outlets like Bearing Arms, but most mainstream media organizations didn’t even bother to report on Dettelbach’s guidance to gun owners… or if they did, they completely missed the contradiction between his statement and the text of the ATF rule. USA Today, for example, noted in its coverage of Dettelbach’s appearance before the House Judiciary Committee last month that “[a]fter the June 1 deadline, millions of braces, which effectively allows a pistol to operate as a short-barreled rifle, will need to be detached, registered or destroyed”; seemingly adopting Dettelbach’s own guidance without acknowledging the difference between his testimony and the written language of the new rule.

My guess is that shortly before May 31st Dettelbach will “clarify” that his testimony to the House Judiciary Committee was inaccurate (through no fault of his own, of course) and that all owners of brace-equipped pistols will need to either register their pistols or destroy their braces if they want to be in compliance. It’s been nearly a week since Rep. Thomas Massie and Rep. Jim Jordan sent their own request for clarification to Dettelbach’s office and he’s been mum in the meantime, which suggests that he wants gun owners to twist in the wind for as long as possible before he walks back his comments. If Dettelbach was truly planning on using his own interpretation of the ATF rules we probably would have seen something to that effect by now, even internally, but there’s no indication that the director’s comments to Congress has led to any changes in how the ATF plans on enforcing the new rules if and when they go into effect. Given that the Biden administration has turned the ATF into a gun control group with federal law enforcement powers the lack of clarity shouldn’t come as a shock to gun owners, but more of a warning of further abuses to come.