On June 10, the Department of Justice (DOJ) posted, in the Federal Register, a notice of proposed rulemaking and request for public comment, concerning firearms such as AR-15 pistols equipped with “stabilizing braces.” To bolster its position, the DOJ cited the Supreme Court’s decision in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008).
Before explaining how Heller comes to bear in this instance, some background is in order. Stabilizing braces were developed in 2013 to help wounded former military servicemen and other disabled Americans use, one-handed, AR-15s and similar firearms equipped with a barrel under 16 inches in length to reduce weight. But there’s a rub.
The National Firearms Act of 1934 (NFA) doesn’t define “pistol” or “handgun,” but it defines “rifle” as a firearm that, among other things, is “intended to be fired from the shoulder.” Furthermore, it requires federal registration and a $200 tax for any “rifle” less than 26 inches in overall length or having a barrel less than 16 inches in length, commonly referred to as a “short-barreled rifle” (SBR).
Because AR-15s and similar firearms are usually rifles, with shoulder stocks so they may be “fired from the shoulder,” the question has been whether such a firearm, having never been assembled as a rifle, but instead having been assembled from the outset as a pistol using a stabilizing brace instead of a stock, and a barrel shorter than 16 inches, would be considered a handgun or an SBR.
In 2014, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE) issued a letter to a manufacturer of stabilizing braces, stating, “[W]e have determined that firing a pistol from the shoulder would not cause the pistol to be reclassified as an SBR … Generally speaking, we do not classify weapons based on how an individual uses a weapon.”