What Makes a Receiver into a Gun?

posted on November 27, 2022
ATF Headquarters
Photo: Dicklyon

The ATF's headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) sent a letter to gun dealers (Federal Firearm License holders) in late September further “explaining” the Biden administration’s arguably unconstitutional new rule on gun frames and receivers.

The ATF wrote a long-winded opening statement to “further assist the firearms industry and the public in understanding whether a ‘partially complete, disassembled, or nonfunctional’ receiver of an AR-15/M-16 variant weapon has reached a stage of manufacture such that it ‘may readily be completed, assembled, restored, or otherwise converted’ to a functional receiver, and is therefore classified as a ‘frame or receiver’ or ‘firearm’ in accordance with the final rule titled ‘Definition of ‘Frame or Receiver’ and Identification of Firearms’ (Final Rule 2021R-05F), which became effective August 24, 2022.”

Much of the letter, which seems to be a classic case of making up the rules as you go, revolves around what many refer to as "80% receivers." According to the letter, however, ATF doesn’t use that term nor recognize any significance in it. The ATF’s analysis, per the new rule, revolves around the word “readily,” which the agency says, “examines how efficiently, quickly and easily a clearly identifiable component part of a weapon can be completed, assembled, restored or otherwise converted to house or provide a structure for the applicable fire control component.”

“Thus, in order not to be considered ‘readily’ completed to function, ATF has determined that a partially complete AR-type receiver must have no indexing or machining of any kind performed in the area of the trigger/hammer (fire control) cavity,” the letter states. “A partially complete AR-type receiver with no indexing or machining of any kind performed in the area of the fire control cavity is not classified as a ‘receiver,’ or ‘firearm,’ if not sold, distributed or marketed with any associated templates, jigs, molds, equipment, tools, instructions or guides, such as within a receiver parts kit.”

Further, the ATF letter explained that to not be considered a “firearm,” the trigger/hammer area of the lower receiver must be solid. If a trigger slot has been created in the receiver, it is considered a “firearm,” regardless of whether it meets the other criteria to not be a “firearm.”

The letter further stated that even a receiver meeting the criteria as not being a “firearm” can be reevaluated if the person making it sells other “items” that can be used to “readily” make it into a “firearm.”

Lastly, the ATF warned against trying to skirt the rule as explained, writing in a passage underlined for emphasis: “It is important that persons engaged in the business of manufacturing, importing, or dealing in these items do not take any steps to avoid licensing, serialization, recordkeeping, and other requirements and prohibitions of the law by selling or shipping the parts or parts kits in more than one box or shipment to the same person, or by conspiring with others to do so.”

In the end, the Biden administration pushed the ATF into skirting Congress and making a confusing, arguably unconstitutional new rule. It’s likely that the ATF’s recent letter, signed by Acting Assistant Director of Enforcement Programs and Services Andrew Graham and Acting Assistant Director of Field Operations William Henderson, will leave more people confused than it did answer important questions. 

Still, those interested in selling and purchasing partial receivers would be wise to read the ATF letter carefully to keep from running afoul of the new rule, however misguided it might be.


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