The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, usually just called the ATF, isn’t a popular agency in gun circles. Then again, no regulatory body is particularly popular with those it regulates. However, with the ATF, it’s different. Homebrew groups don’t have the animosity toward the ATF that gun owners do despite alcohol also being regulated by the agency, for example.
Of course, the key difference is that the rules on brewing your own beer are relatively fixed. Making your own wine or mead isn’t something that changes very much at the ATF’s discretion.
But with guns, it does.
You see, that’s because the ATF can simply create a legion of felons with a stroke of the pen.
What if government agents could, by declaration, make you into a criminal? What if, without legislative change, bureaucrats could decide that what was legal yesterday is a felony today? What if we were governed not by law, but by arbitrary statements telling us what we may or may not do?
Unfortunately, those questions are not merely hypothetical—thanks to recent abuses of power by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), millions of American gun owners are facing them head-on. Even if you hate guns, you should be deeply concerned by the arbitrary power wielded by the ATF against your fellow Americans. If an unchecked executive agency can run roughshod over any of our rights with impunity, all of our rights are in danger.
Felons by Fiat
Recently, the firearms manufacturer Q, LLC shared disturbing news with its customers: the ATF had declared the delightfully-named and popular “Honey Badger” pistol to be a “short-barreled rifle” (SBR). This determination subjects the firearm to special restrictions under the National Firearms Act (NFA). As a consequence of the ATF’s decision, customers who had purchased the Honey Badger have suddenly found themselves in felonious possession of a now-illegal firearm that they had legally acquired and legally owned.
The ATF’s determination is arbitrary. It is inconsistent with both federal law and prior ATF statements. Substantially similar firearms continue to be sold legally, as they have been for years. Instead of explaining what makes the Honey Badger different from those firearms, the ATF vaguely alluded to “objective design features,” offering no further explanation as to what those features are or why they lead the ATF to determine that the Honey Badger is an SBR.
This is far from the first time that the ATF has issued a declaration that turns innocent people into criminals — other examples abound. As I explained in Felony by Fiat:
In 2015, the ATF decided that the physical action of holding a pistol equipped with an ATF-approved brace to one’s shoulder was equivalent to creating an illegal short-barreled firearm. That is to say, you could pick up your perfectly legal pistol (which is not otherwise subject to the NFA’s minimum barrel length restrictions) and unwittingly commit a felony by virtue of the way you held it. That guidance directly contradicted a 2014 ATF letter that said just the opposite. In 2017, new guidance was issued which appears to sanction the shouldering of a braced pistol so long as such use is ‘incidental, sporadic, or situational’ — whatever that means.
Just last year, the ATF issued new measurement guidelines that transformed some conventionally legal pistols into presumptively illegal firearms under the NFA’s ‘any other weapon’ (AOW) classification, depending on how those pistols had been configured and accessorized.
This, of course, follows the agency doing as President Trump wanted and reversing their decision on bump stocks. Prior to Las Vegas, bump stocks were little-known outside of the gun world. Most gun owners thought of them as little more than a good way to burn through a lot of ammo pretty quickly. It replicated full-auto fire, but it wasn’t really a machinegun.
Then, suddenly, it was.
With a stroke of the pen, people suddenly had an automatic weapon in their possession. At least with the bump stocks, there was a grace period for either destroying them or turning them in. Few were handed over, though. Some were destroyed and some are likely sitting in the proverbial case marked “In case of tyranny, break glass.”
Yet with the Honey Badger AR, it’s different. They simply decreed that these particular pistol braces weren’t pistol braces and that owning such a weapon means you had an illegal rifle.
There are ways to deal with it, of course, but none of those should be necessary. After all, the ATF should not be creating law, especially since that law runs counter to the United States Constitution.
Unfortunately, if Biden is, indeed, president-elect, we can expect to see the ATF broaden their authority and possibly reverse many decisions they reached previously. That possibly includes pistol braces as a whole and who knows what else.
With a stroke of the pen, the ATF can decide you deserve to rot in prison for years and give up your right to own firearms forever because of something that wasn’t illegal when you did it.
Tell me, how in the hell is that right?