The legal path to the AR pistol brace is a long one. Let’s start several decades ago. In 1934, Franklin Roosevelt was president, Bonnie and Clyde were killed during a police ambush in Bienville Parish, La., and “The Three Stooges” released their first comedy short. The same year, Congress passed and FDR signed the National Firearms Act (NFA) of 1934. This unprecedented legislation established definitions concerning machine guns, destructive devices, and short-barreled rifles/shotguns that drive the American civilian gun market today. These definitions changed somewhat over the years, but the NFA still regulates these firearms.
The Information Age is literally unrecognizable from the era when the government crafted the NFA. The ATF has the undeniably thankless task of trying to superimpose the NFA’s archaic dicta onto a modern world. Nowadays, however, everyone involved has an agenda.
AR Pistol Brace Confusion
The leadership at the ATF almost assuredly wishes to enhance firearm regulation and the incoming Presidential administration is the most rabidly anti-gun in American history. Meanwhile, purveyors of firearms and accessories strive to make a healthy living. American gun nerds just want to enjoy our quirky little sport without getting arrested, shot, or burned to death.
What makes this all so poignant is a recent bit of correspondence dated November 2020 wherein the ATF states that several of the SB Tactical pistol stabilizing braces—most specifically the wildly popular SBA3—are actually not approved. This letter, distributed by Ammoland, unambiguously states that all of us out there gleefully enjoying our SBA3-equipped AR pistols are actually rocking unregistered short-barreled rifles; that’s the sort of revelation that gives guys like me pause.
The Way It Ought to Be, and the Way It Is
I believe pretty much every syllable of the 1934 NFA to be a gross violation of both the letter and intent of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. As a veteran, I have dear friends who gave their young lives for that document. It’s a big deal. However, just because I believe something so strongly does not change reality. Unless and until the U.S. Congress changes the law or the Supreme Court strikes it down—and that is honestly never going to happen—those moldy old rules aren’t going anywhere.
“Our products are designed and intended only for use as forearm braces to provide a more stable firearm platform. They are neither designed nor intended to be fired from the shoulder. As configuration changes may alter the classification of a particular firearm, the user bears sole responsibility for determining the correct application of state and federal law. “
I copied this bit of legal boilerplate from the SB Tactical website. While we all want pistol braces to be our magic ticket freeing us from the onerous and unconstitutional restrictions defining short-barreled rifles, they simply aren’t. Now what remains is to divine reality as it affects us normal American shooters.
All of this stuff is incredibly complicated. The ATF issues opinion letters on a case-by-case basis adjudicating the legality of these pistol braces. Typically, these letters are restrictive in scope and oftentimes contradictory in substance. It leaves American gun owners confused, alarmed, and frustrated.
It’s maddening that the ATF will not simply issue a set of uniform definitions describing the physical characteristics of legal pistol braces. However, I honestly suspect that these definitions do not exist, as of yet.
The Man With the Plan
In an effort to find some clarity on this labyrinthine mess, we reached out to Rick Vasquez. We’ve spoken with Vasquez a number of times before here on PersonalDefenseWorld.com, as well as on BallisticMag.com and Tactical-Life.com. As the former Acting Chief of the ATF Firearms Technology Branch, he brought some insight to the recent Q Honey Badger fiasco.
A retired career Marine with a life characterized by service, Vasquez currently works as a consultant with RickVasquezFirearms.com. Vasquez provides firearms training and professional technical opinions on the myriad sticky dicta of American firearms law. Not unlike the A-Team, if you have gun-related problems and need the very best, Vasquez is your guy. He is uniquely positioned to provide insights into this current quagmire. Here’s what he had to say about the AR pistol brace.
Words From Vasquez
“There are many years’ worth of opinion letters on arm braces. The ATF was always concerned that they would in fact not be used as arm braces. I’ve personally penned letters denying submitted arm braces, of any shape and size, because of their ability to be used as stocks. That said, the ATF changed its mind in 2012. It then granted SBTactical the authority to make arm braces for large pistols to assist disabled shooters.
“Immediately letters were written to the ATF asking whether you could use a brace to shoot from the shoulder. YouTubers began firing braces from the shoulder and declaring a brace-equipped pistol to be a free SBR requiring no registration. This created a series of three contradictory opinion letters from the ATF—two from the FTISB (Firearms Technology Industry Services Branch) and one from the Assistant Director Marvin Richardson. Thus, the battle began. This deep down the rabbit hole, how could the FTISB now find the right language to make arm braces unlawful?
“If you look at the early opinion letters arm braces were just called arm braces. There was no specifying weight, dimension, size, length, or color. How could they now be made illegal?”
ATF Source Material
“First of all, the ATF referenced the NRA Firearms Source Book and found where it described the length of pull on a rifle. The subsequent deduction was that a length of pull of 13.5 inches must define a rifle.
“To paraphrase from the NRA Firearms Sourcebook, most shoulder-fired firearms have a 13.5- to 14.5-inch length of pull. You would only select the lower dimension if you had an agenda. If you use a citation in a reference, then you must use it in its entirety. In the Kelland Wright case, authorities even measured the length of pull at a severe angle to obtain the length of 13.5 inches needed to classify it as a rifle. The NRA Guide says the measurement should be parallel to the bore. In this case, authorities used a severe angle to the bore to obtain the minimum 13.5 inches. The first time that citation was used in a criminal case report with the NRA guide as a reference, everyone involved should have been fired.
“Now that’s a strong statement. However, all regulatory agencies have regulations and statutes they use to prosecute. The DEA does not use Department of Agriculture regulations to prosecute drug crimes. The ATF uses the statutes and regulations in the GCA, NFA, Rulings, Standard Operating Procedures based on these laws and regulations, and ATF orders to prosecute violations. The NRA reference guide is an informal educational tool for persons wishing to learn gun-speak. For the ATF leadership and the United States Attorney’s Office to accept the report in the Wright case based upon the NRA reference guide is staggering. Further, this has now become the standard for denying arm braces as stocks.”
A Conflicting Message
“The FTISB also considered size. If the brace was too big, then the rear seemed more like a stock. Well, if I have large forearms I need an arm brace larger than someone with pencil-like forearms. These criteria had been evolving.
“Now we have two duplicate arm braces. One has an approval letter saying it is OK. The duplicate with a different name is not.
“Currently, the ATF will not issue any criteria concerning what makes an accessory an arm brace. Additionally, they are not reviewing any new arm braces until DOJ and the ATF come to an understanding. We will soon have a new DOJ. Who knows when new arm braces will be approved?
“There are a great many companies with items awaiting evaluation. The new administration is overtly anti-gun. This stagnation may be the wave of the future.”
Final Thoughts on the AR Pistol Brace
No one knows what the future will hold for the AR pistol brace, but I am not hopeful. On one side we have Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and also Beto O’Rourke. When they take control of the ATF, the agency stands ready to tighten the screws on American gun ownership in unprecedented ways.
Meanwhile, in the other corner, you have the law-abiding owners of some 25 million black guns. Faced with civil unrest, skyrocketing crime, defunded police, and rampant chaos, we will be justifiably slow to give up our firearms rights. The stage is set for a simply epic showdown. Lord help us all.