Enforcement of ATF rule redefining short-barreled rifles starts June 1

The rule change has drawn criticism from gun rights advocates who say the new rule could make legal gun owners felons overnight.
The rule change has drawn criticism from gun rights advocates who say the new rule could make legal gun owners felons overnight.
Published: May. 31, 2023 at 5:18 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - When does a handgun become a rifle? It might not seem like a difficult question since these types of firearms are considerably different, but the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives recently made changes to federal regulations that redefine the definition of a rifle.

The updated rule by the ATF reclassifies pistols utilizing stabilizing braces as short-barrel rifles. The rule change has drawn criticism from gun rights advocates who say the new rule could make legal gun owners felons overnight. The new rule will be enforced starting June 1, 2023, meaning gun owners who still have these braces could be in possession of an illegal firearm.

It’s something that Grass Roots North Carolina, a group that regularly advocates for gun rights in the state, says is an about-face from previous positions on stabilizing braces.

“What they’ve done with these pistol stabilizing braces, these are devices that the ATF has told gun owners were legal for at least 15 years, and yet on Jan. 31, they reversed position and told people ‘oh, by the way, you’re now in possession of an unregistered short-barreled rifle’ which has been tightly regulated since 1934,” Paul Valone, president of Grass Roots North Carolina, said.

The new regulations will redefine what is considered a rifle and the term rifle will now apply to pistols equipped with stabilizing braces.

“The final rule’s definition of ‘rifle’ states clearly that the term ‘designed, redesigned, made or remade, and intended to be fired from the shoulder’ includes a weapon that is equipped with an accessory, component, or other rearward attachment (e.g., a ‘stabilizing brace’), that provides surface area that allows the weapon to be fired from the shoulder, provided other factors (as described in the rule) indicate the weapon is designed, made, and intended to be fired from the shoulder,” according to the ATF.

Short-barreled rifles are nothing new and according to the Department of Justice, they’ve been regulated for decades.

Since the 1930s, the NFA has imposed requirements on short-barreled rifles because they are more easily concealable than long-barreled rifles but have more destructive power than traditional handguns,” according to the DOJ.

The new rule faces challenges in the courts already, and a recent decision by a federal court has put a pause on the new rule, but Valone said the impact of that decision isn’t widespread.

“The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals has issued a preliminary injunction against the pistol stabilizing brace. That’s the good news; the bad news is it only applies to the plaintiffs in that case. It does not apply to anyone else, and particularly it does not apply outside the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals,” he said.

That lawsuit isn’t the only one that has been filed since the rule was implemented; 25 states now have joined a suit as well.

While Valone and other gun rights supporters oppose the rule, some federal officials including Attorney General Merrick Garland say the rule will increase gun safety.

“This rule enhances public safety and prevents people from circumventing the laws Congress passed almost a century ago. In the days of Al Capone, Congress said back then that short-barreled rifles and sawed-off shotguns should be subjected to greater legal requirements than most other guns. The reason for that is that short-barreled rifles have the greater capability of long guns, yet are easier to conceal, like a pistol,” said ATF Director Steven Dettelbach.

For owners of a stabilizing brace, the deadline to comply with the new law is May 31, and if owners do not register the firearms with the federal government, the ATF said there are other things owners can do.

“Other options including removing the stabilizing brace to return the firearm to a pistol or surrendering covered short-barreled rifles to ATF,” according to the ATF.

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