AR shooters, Rejoice! The ATF have reversed their position on the legality of stabilizing arm braces. The popular arm braces became a near-instant hit following their introduction in 2013, but ran into some legal gray areas following an ATF guidance letter in 2015 that stated shouldering the brace would lead to the creation of a Short-barreled Rifle. The letter shocked the firearms community, as the mere act of putting the legal firearm to your shoulder would constitute a criminal act breaking the National Firearms Act (NFA). Luckily, the ATF has clarified their language in a new guidance letter.
Timeline of Stabilizing Braces
The pistol stabilizing brace has a short but rocky past. Marine and Army veteran Alex Bosco was shooting with a disabled veteran friend when a range safety officer asked the disabled vet to stop shooting due to his lack of control. This embarrassing moment spurred Bosco to assist his friend and other disabled shooters by creating a product that would allow them better control when firing AR-style pistols.
Bosco developed a product that attached to the buffer tube and used a cuff and straps to attach the firearm to the forearm of the shooter. This allowed for much better control during one-handed firing, as the recoil was distributed across the forearm, as opposed to just the grip. Bosco tested his prototype stabilizing brace and founded SB Tactical. Bosco applied for ATF approval and got a response from the Bureau stating:
The submitted brace, when attached to a firearm, does not convert that weapon to be fired from the shoulder and would not alter the classification of a pistol or other firearm. While a firearm so equipped would still be regulated by the Gun Control Act … such a firearm would not be subject to NFA controls.
With his ATF approval and prototypes in hand, Bosco found manufacturing partners that would be able to take his product to market. He signed agreements with Sig Sauer, Inc. and Century International Arms to create pistol stabilizing braces for AR and AK rifles. By May 2013, the products hit the market and the industry fell in love.
Many members of the firearms community were skeptical, though, and many questions were raised. What if you shouldered the brace? Would that mean the brace is actually a stock? That would mean the firearm would be an NFA-regulated item. The ATF released a second letter in March of 2014 to clarify the legality of the pistol brace:
For the following reasons, we have determined that firing a pistol from the shoulder would not cause the pistol to be reclassified as an SBR: FTB classifies weapons based on their physical design characteristics. While usage/functionality of the weapon does influence the intended design, it is not the sole criterion for determining the classification of a weapon. Generally speaking, we do not classify weapons based on how an individual uses a weapon.
For a while, it seemed, the pistol brace was here to stay. SB Tactical was able to work with manufacturers to make a slew of new models that could fit on a variety of handguns, and change designs to make them adjustable and more ergonomic. Of course, like all good things, that didn’t last long. Right before the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) annual SHOT Show in 2015, the ATF offered a new “open letter” on the legal use of the stabilizing brace:
The pistol stabilizing brace was neither “designed” nor approved to be used as a shoulder stock, and therefore use as a shoulder stock constitutes a “redesign” of the device because a possessor has changed the very function of the item. Any individual letters stating otherwise are contrary to the plain language of the NFA, misapply Federal law, and are hereby revoked. Any person who intends to use a handgun stabilizing brace as a shoulder stock on a pistol (having a rifled barrel under 16 inches in length or a smooth bore firearm with a barrel under 18 inches in length) must first file an ATF Form 1 and pay the applicable tax because the resulting firearm will be subject to all provisions of the NFA.
Naturally, this spooked many users of the stabilizing brace. The brace remained legal to manufacture, sale, own, and use, but any “misuse” of the brace would inherently lead to some legality issues.
The ATF Changes Their Mind…Again
As we reported a couple months ago, the second-highest-ranking officer of the ATF, Ronald Turk mused in a private white paper that it would be prudent to readdress the stabilizing brace issue to clear up the confusing language and legality.
Then, on April 25th, SB Tactical released a new letter sent from the ATF to SB Tactical’s legal counsel entitled “Reversal of ATF Open Letter on the Redesign of ‘Stabilizing Braces'”. The letter, written and signed by the Assistant Director of Enforcement Programs and Services of the ATF, Marvin Richardson, gives a quick review of the ups and downs of the stabilizing brace’s legal status. Then Richardson explains that the mere action of putting the device to the shoulder does not constitute the “making” of an NFA firearm. That is to say, just shouldering a gun with an attached braces isn’t manufacturing an NFA gun, thus there is no need for a Form 1 to be filed. Here’s Richardson’s words:
With respect to stabilizing braces, ATF has concluded that attaching the brace to a handgun as a forearm braze does not “make” a short-barreled rifle because in the configuration as submitted to and approved by FATD, it is not intended to be and cannot comfortable be fired from the shoulder…Therefore, an NFA firearm has not necessarily been made when the devise is not re-configured for use as a shoulder stock—even if the attached firearm happens to be fired from the shoulder.
And a sigh of relief was heard from all owners of pistol stabilizing braces. Now, accidental or even intentional shouldering of a firearm with the brace installed does not qualify the shooter for criminal firearms charges.
There are, however, some caveats given by the ATF. If the owner of the brace modifies the brace to be used only as a stock, then it would constitute the “making” of an NFA weapon. This includes permanently affixing the brace to the end of the buffer tube (to create a length too long for use as a brace), removing the arm straps, or another other way that prevents its use as a brace (like adding a recoil-reducing pad). If any of these steps are taken, and the firearm is then fired from the shoulder, that person has effectively “redesigned” the firearm to create an NFA weapon.
Long story short, feel free to install your stabilizing brace on your handgun. And if you happen to shoulder the firearm, you won’t be in any trouble. Just don’t try to turn your stabilizing brace into a buttstock without doing the proper NFA paperwork first.