The ATF Pistol Brace Ruling: What We Know and Where it Might Go

If there is one certainty in the firearms industry, and as a firearms owner, your rights are always fragile and always up for debate. Well, you and I may not think they are, but the powers that be would undoubtedly like nothing better than curtailing them; we have seen it repeatedly. 

The worst part, from our perspective, is that the data always indicates that further gun control measures do nothing to curtail crime. One only needs to look at Chicago to understand this. For example, pistol braces are the latest item to draw the ire of the anti-gun lobby and regulatory bodies. These are most common to AR-pattern pistols but are used on carbine-based pistols to add stability to a heavy handgun while shooting. 

Let’s look at what’s happening and where it could be headed.

The Current Pistol Brace Regulatory Framework

The whole issue of pistol braces is stuck in a regulatory quagmire. So a little history lesson is in order. 

AR-pistols are where the brace debate stemmed from. Other carbine-based pistols, like the Draco AK derivative, have been on the market. However, the buffer tube makes an AR-pistol odd. It got designers thinking about how to use the tube as an aid. Since the pistol ends up being very large, hanging something on the buffer tube came into play. 

And while AR-pistols are nothing new (the first known model was in the 1970s), they could have been better received for many years. But, unfortunately, it wasn’t until the past decade when they became something more than a novelty, and the Sig-Brace turned the tide. But, unfortunately, the Sig-Brace would also become the battleground for the entire debate. 

Here’s the thing: there aren’t any “new regulations” involving pistol braces. It is the only interpretation of the NFA, the origin of which was 1934! So the question was this: does adding a pistol brace constitute the rifle now becoming a pistol? Of course, the reason was that people recognized the pistol could be shouldered using the brace as a buttstock. But legally speaking, this didn’t change the intent or purpose of the brace. It is still designed and manufactured to brace the pistol to the shooter’s forearms. 

The ATF first offered a formal analysis through an Open Letter in January 2015. In this letter, the ATF stated: 

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.” 

However, this was not the first time the ATF addressed pistol braces. They initially addressed it in 2014, stating that firearms are designated based on their design characteristics, not on how they are used. Using a pistol brace as a butt stock simply misuses a part and does not change the design. 

The problem is that the ATF has a history of flip-flopping on this one very specific issue; in 2017, they reversed course on their definition of an SBR based on how you would use it rather than how it was built. 

What Is the New ATF Proposal?

Unfortunately, in the 52-page brief, it appears that the ATF is backtracking on its 2017 backtracking. However, their tack is more direct this time. 

“One of the reasons ATF is considering the proposed rule is the failure of the market to compensate for negative externalities caused by commercial activity. A negative externality can be the by-product of a transaction between two parties that is not accounted for in the transaction. A negative externality addressed by this rule is that individuals and affected entities may try to use purported “stabilizing braces” and affix them to firearms to circumvent the requirements of the NFA, which requires registration and taxes to be paid on the making and transfer of NFA weapons. Further, Congress chose to regulate these items more stringently, finding them to be especially dangerous to the community if not regulated since they are used for violence and criminal activity.”

They have moved on from it simply being a device that you could use to make the weapon fit a different category, to these weapons (braced pistol AR-15s) are especially dangerous to the community. 

“Therefore, if persons can circumvent the NFA by effectively making unregistered short-barreled rifles by using an accessory, such as a “stabilizing brace,” these weapons can continue to proliferate and could pose an increased public safety problem given that they are easily concealable.”

What Would/Will The New Ruling Do?

According to the brief, “This proposed rule would not affect “stabilizing braces” that are objectively designed and intended as a “stabilizing brace” for use by individuals with disabilities, and not for shouldering the weapon as a rifle. Such stabilizing braces are designed to conform to the arm and not as a buttstock and would be given a low score under the proposed factoring criteria.” 

Now hear me when I say that this is not coming from anyone in the industry; this following quote is straight from the source document: “This proposed rule would affect the retail purchases that individuals have already made on currently owned firearms with attached “stabilizing braces” and future sales of them.”

They are coming after braces that have already been sold. The ATF anticipates somewhere in the ballpark of 3 million braces on pistols, and these will have to be corrected. 

How Can Current Pistol Owners Maneuver the New Ruling?

What do we mean by ‘corrected?’ 

If your pistol with a brace is deemed as applicable according to their matrix, you will have four ways of complying with the proposed ruling: 

  1. First, turn in the noncompliant pistol to the ATF.
  2. Second, convert the firearm into a long-barreled rifle.
  3. Third, apply to register under the NFA. 
  4. Fourth, permanently remove or alter the brace so you can no longer reattach it. 

The proposed rule has already changed and could easily continue to change until the proposal is finalized. For one thing, one of the original compliance measures was to destroy the weapon, which has since been removed from the current proposal. But how can you come in compliance with the new ruling?

Option #1

You can always turn in any weapon to the ATF if you want. You will be granted amnesty if you bring in your AR pistol with a brace and hand it over. Of course, you will want to run through the matrix in the ATF Worksheet 4999 to make sure it is, in fact, in violation of the ruling. 

Option #2

You can always convert an AR pistol into a full-length rifle. It is as easy as pulling the barrel and replacing it. Now, AR-pattern rifles are easy to alter; you could pull the upper and throw on a pre-manufactured 16”+ upper and be legal. But if your pistol is an AK, a Scorpion, or something else similar to those, you will have to probably revert to options 3 or 4. 

Option #3

The ATF is suspending their fee for tax stamps to compensate for the influx of braced pistols. This begs the question: can you instead throw on a regular buffer tube and M4 stock and register it as an SBR for free?  That would appear to make more sense than registering it as an SBR with a pistol brace since it will now be an SBR either way. But this is certainly an option that many may want to take advantage of. 

Option #4

For AR pistols, you can strip off the current brace and either install a brace that is compliant with your pistol according to the ATF Worksheet 4999, or go with a bare pistol buffer tube so there is no confusion. 

Can the New Regulation Be a Good Thing?

The rulemaking itself could be a lot better, or not at all, considering the iterations and stances of the past. Moreover, the scenarios it is built around, such as the King Soopers shooting in Boulder, Colorado, are infrequent. But this action may yield positive results as it courses its way through the legal system. 

While we are not speaking to the results of Roe Vs. Wade, there is a key takeaway that should not be ignored: a conservative majority in the SCOTUS and the overall effect that can have on the extrajudicial ruling. From the gun owner’s perspective, if there were ever a time to see proposed rules course their way through the legal system, the time is now. 

But whatever the outcome is, all rules which restrict or change the use of or legality of ownership of a thoroughly legal firearm that the owner acquired through legal means should make their way through the legal system to determine whether or not they stand up to the rigors of the law. 

Wrapping Up

The latest iteration of pistol brace regulations will most likely face a stiff uphill battle for implementation. With that said, it is set for publication this month, although there is no firm date set for a final ruling now. We anticipate this ruling will end up in court, which is always a coin flip. In the meantime, though, owners of AR pistols using braces should be aware of the final ruling and what it means for them or at least how it could potentially impact them. 

2 thoughts on “The ATF Pistol Brace Ruling: What We Know and Where it Might Go”

  1. Thanks for the nice overview! I thought they had done away with waiving the SBR fee, but it sounds like that’s back on the table which is nice.


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