Thursday, September 21, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Thursday, September 21, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Postponed but not forgotten: GOP puts off gun rights work in wake of Nashville shooting

A Republican bill now in a holding pattern would nix registration rules for pistols whose arm and shoulder braces make for a gentler recoil.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The same week that a lone shooter killed three children and three adults at a private school in Tennessee, House Republicans were set to debate a resolution aimed at scrapping new federal firearms guidelines.

Georgia Congressman Andrew Clyde introduced the legislation, which supporters positioned as a check on what they called an unconstitutional restriction on pistol brace attachments recently unveiled by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The House Judiciary Committee had been scheduled to take up Clyde’s resolution on March 28, but panel chair Jim Jordan chose to postpone the bill’s markup in the aftermath of the mass shooting one day earlier at the Covenant School in Nashville.

Blaming his colleagues across the aisle but resolved to return to the issue, the Ohio Republican told The Hill last week that the committee had decided to stand down so that Democratic lawmakers could not make the markup “a political thing.”

Congressional Republicans have long railed against the ATF’s new pistol brace rule, signed in January by Attorney General Merrick Garland.

“Unquestionably, this is nothing more than a reckless attempt to advance President Biden’s ultimate goal of an unarmed America,” Clyde said in March in a statement unveiling his resolution. Congress has the authority to review and disapprove of federal agency actions such as the ATF rule.

The ATF rulemaking redefines how the agency evaluates pistols fitted with a rearward attachment designed to stabilize the weapon while being fired. The new guidelines, which went into effect January 31, hold that pistols using a stabilizing brace that allows them to be fired from the shoulder can now be regulated as short-barreled rifles under the National Firearms Act.

The federal law, first written in 1935, requires owners of rifles and other regulated firearms to register them with the government. Now, under the January rule, anyone who owns a pistol with a stabilizing brace must do the same by May 31.

If guns with pistol braces go unregistered, they must be destroyed or the brace removed in such a way that it cannot be reattached, the ATF said. Violating the new rule carries fines or up to 10 years in prison.

Although the “pistol” designation might suggest a certain category of firearms, it’s not just handguns that are subject to the new regulations. AR-15-type weapons — such as the one that made up part of the Nashville shooter’s arsenal — can be legally classified as pistols if they meet certain ATF criteria.

The ATF has previously said that a stabilizing brace attached to an AR-15 would not make it a rifle under the National Firearms Act, but the agency’s January rulemaking could mark an about-face on that policy.

Critics of the rule, including congressional Republicans, have said that it would unnecessarily criminalize lawful gun owners who have until recently been using pistol braces in accordance with federal law. Lawmakers point in particular to people with physical disabilities who use such attachments to safely operate firearms.

“Disabled persons, including disabled veterans for whom the pistol brace originally was created, will lose the benefit of this useful tool and potentially their ability to operate firearms entirely,” Arizona Republican Andy Biggs said during a March 23 hearing of the House Judiciary Committee, just days before the Nashville shooting. “Millions of law-abiding Americans will be turned into felons overnight by the stroke of a pen and without any congressional action,” Biggs complained.

The ATF, however, has said that the new rule does not apply to stabilizing braces designed as orthotics.

“This rule does not affect ‘stabilizing braces’ that are objectively designed and intended as a ‘stabilizing brace’ for use by individuals with disabilities, and not for shouldering the weapon as a rifle,” the agency said in a statement accompanying the rulemaking. “Such stabilizing braces are designed to conform to the arm and not as a buttstock.”


The inventor of the stabilizing brace is among those opposed to the ATF's rule, which he said unfairly targets law-abiding gun owners.

“None of them want to run afoul of the [National Firearms Act] as a result of ATF’s flip-flop,” Alex Bosco, founder of pistol brace company SB Tactical, testified before Congress at the March 23 hearing.

Bosco said he had initially designed his stabilizing brace to be used by disabled veterans and worked closely with the ATF to ensure the attachment’s legality. In his testimony last month, Bosco assailed the agency and the Biden administration for what he called a circumvention of legislative authority and urged Congress to roll back the rule.

“Unless this rule is put on hold by Congress or the courts, the company I founded and many others will go out of business soon,” Bosco said. “I urge Congress to reverse ATF’s arbitrary decision, take back its legislative authority and strike a blow for liberty and good government.”

SB Tactical, alongside a coalition of businesses and states, sued Attorney General Garland and the ATF in February over the new rule.

The National Rifle Association, one of America’s most prominent firearms lobbying groups, is purportedly throwing its full weight against the ATF rule.

“Frustrated with their lack of progress restricting Americans’ Second Amendment rights, the Biden Department of Justice has decided to utilize the ATF as a tool to harass the nation’s law-abiding firearms community,” an NRA spokesperson told Courthouse News. “The arbitrary approach taken by ATF towards enforcement actions and rulemaking is evidence of this vendetta.”

Meanwhile, some members of Congress and supporters of the ATF rule have argued that pistol brace users don’t necessarily employ them as orthotics but instead as stocks used to stabilize recoil against the shoulder.

Maryland Democrat Jamie Raskin contended at the March 23 judiciary panel hearing that pistols equipped with a brace are functionally similar to short-barreled rifles that would be regulated under the National Firearms Act.

“There really is no difference in the power and potential violence of the weapon, and there is very little difference in the weapon’s design,” Raskin said after showing the committee a video compilation of firearms reviewers openly suggesting that SB Tactical’s pistol braces could be used as a stock.

The lawmaker slammed the GOP attempt to roll back the rule. “Our colleagues advance a completely flawed theory of the Second Amendment which leads them to oppose even reasonable, common sense gun safety rules that the Supreme Court has approved and that the vast majority of Americans endorse," Raskin said.

Rob Wilcox, senior director of policy at gun control advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety, said he didn’t buy Republicans’ constitutional argument against the ATF rule.

“It’s ridiculous,” Wilcox, who also testified before the House Judiciary Committee, told Courthouse News in an interview Thursday. “Congress passed the law to regulate unusually dangerous weapons over 90 years ago, and it’s ATF’s job to keep up with technology and make informed determinations when companies have gone over the line. The fact that [Republicans] don’t like what Congress did 90 years ago isn’t a reason for ATF to not enforce the law.”

Wilcox pointed out that many of the short-barreled rifles used in mass shootings, such as in Nashville, were equipped with arm braces. To address that, he reasoned, the ATF rule would establish clear guidelines for determining whether such an attachment is designed for orthotic use or to make an end-run around federal law.

“The ATF has laid out a clear test for what will be considered a short-barreled rifle when equipped with an arm brace,” Wilcox said. “Now, moving forward, if there are companies who want to develop and honest-to-goodness orthotic for disabled shooters, they need to design that and submit it to ATF for review. What they’re certainly not going to tolerate are designs that have clearly been marketed to get around the long-standing law of short-barreled rifles.”

For Wilcox, the path forward for gun owners under the ATF guidelines is simple: play by the rules.

“You follow the procedures of the National Firearms Act, because arm braces are not banned,” he said. “The National Firearms Act processes hundreds of thousands of applications a year, so it’s something that regularly happens.”

For now, House Republicans' proposed challenge to the ATF rule has yet to be scheduled for a new markup. Even if Clyde’s resolution clears the judiciary committee and the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, it is unlikely that such a measure could pass the Democratic Senate and survive a veto from President Biden.

Clyde’s office declined to comment further on his resolution.

Wilcox opined that, however doomed the GOP’s current move to roll back federal gun restrictions, it represents what he sees as a larger, more dangerous campaign to muzzle the government’s firearms regulator.

“The focus on this regulation is the tip of the iceberg,” Wilcox said. “What the extremists want is not to just do away with the regulations, but to do away with the entire agency.”

Florida Republican Matt Gaetz introduced legislation in January that, if made law, would abolish the ATF entirely. The measure is before the House Judiciary Committee.

Follow @@BenjaminSWeiss
Categories / Civil Rights, Consumers, Government, Law, Politics

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.