ATF Potentially Rethinking AR-, AK-Based Pistols

For people interested in short-barreled rifles but who don’t want the hassle of NFA paperwork, there’s long been a legal solution. You could simply get a pistol based on the AR or AK platform and call it a day. They’re essentially short-barreled rifles in many ways, but because they don’t have a stock, they’re not classified as a rifle.

Throw on a pistol brace and you’ve got an SBR in all but name, at least as some people see it.

Unfortunately, there’s reason to believe the ATF may be rethinking this to some degree, at least as it relates to importing firearms.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) has recently changed the manner in which it interprets the statutory and regulatory definition of “handgun,” thereby further limiting the types of firearms eligible for importation. These determinations are not public, so it is difficult for the regulated community to assess and track shifting agency positions.

The Gun Control Act at 18 U.S.C. § 922(l) broadly prohibits the importation of all firearms into the United States. However, so long as a firearm is not military surplus nor subject to the National Firearms Act, section 925(d)(3) provides a limited exception for those firearms considered by ATF to be “generally recognized as particularly suitable for or readily adaptable to sporting purposes.” Over the past half century, ATF has issued several studies and criteria on how it evaluates whether shotguns, rifles, or handguns qualify as “sporting” under the law. The handgun factoring test is the most straightforward of these, with a point tally system that rewards larger and bulkier handguns. If a handgun receives 75 or more points, it is considered “sporting” and approved for importation. However, there is no ATF-issued “sporting purpose” test for a firearm that fails to fit within the definition of handgun, rifle, or shotgun. Accordingly, ATF has long held that such a firearm is not importable.

Despite ATF previously stating that there is no limit to how long or heavy a handgun should be to qualify as “sporting” under section 925(d)(3), ATF private classification letters issued within the past few months indicate that the agency has shifted course by reinterpreting what constitutes a “handgun.” In company-specific letters, ATF takes the position that if a submitted firearm is too long or too heavy, it fails to meet the definition of “handgun” under the Gun Control Act, as it is not “designed to be held and fired by the use of a single hand.” The Firearms and Ammunition Technology Division (FATD) of ATF—which conducts importability evaluations—says that it is taking a subjective approach to the statute by allowing individual examiners to determine if he or she can fire the weapon with one hand without difficulty.

Unfortunately, this has made some wonder if the ATF is going to start classifying these pistols as NFA items. That doesn’t appear to be the case.

However, what it does mean is that certain firearms may not be imported. While this won’t really hurt the AR market, it’s bad news for people wanting AK-pattern pistols.

Unfortunately, though, this reintroduces one of the big problems we currently see with regard to the firearm industry, namely that a single regulatory body has such broad powers that they can suddenly decide something that’s been legal for decades is now suddenly illegal. Especially when there’s zero evidence as to why they’d change that determination.

Then again, it’s just our constitutionally-protected rights we’re talking about here.