A couple of years ago, an "80 percent" receiver I purchased refused to accept parts, let alone chamber and fire cartridges, until my son and I drilled and milled it to completion; that's because unfinished firearms are not firearms. For a long time, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) agreed. But, pressured by the Biden administration, the ATF tried to extend firearms regulations to a lot of things that aren't guns but could, with work, become one. Now a federal judge is injecting some sense, ruling in a lawsuit that bureaucrats can't just decide that inert objects are guns.
The Rattler is a weekly newsletter from J.D. Tuccille. If you care about government overreach and tangible threats to everyday liberty, this is for you.
Feds Change the Rules on Gun Hobbyists
For years, through a page still on its website, federal gun regulators assured the public that "ATF has long held that items such as receiver blanks, 'castings' or 'machined bodies' in which the fire-control cavity area is completely solid and un-machined have not reached the 'stage of manufacture' which would result in the classification of a firearm." That's good sense unless you look forward to background checks and government scrutiny every time you visit the hardware store where all sorts of items that could be turned into guns are sold. It also gave guidance to companies that serve firearms hobbyists by selling unfinished receivers (the regulated part of firearms) and other components to people who build their own firearms using traditional workshop tools or high-tech computer numerical control (CNC) machines and 3D printers.
But everything that can be used can be misused. Anti-gun activists built those misuses into a moral panic over "ghost guns" based on a lot of florid language. Their efforts are self-defeating since DIY gunmaking gained popularity specifically as a means of rendering gun control unenforceable. But that didn't stop authoritarian policymakers, and the Biden administration went all-in on efforts to inconvenience DIY hobbyists in the name of stopping "ghost guns." The result was a hot mess of a rule change that would expand firearms regulation on the ATF's say-so without any legislation. That left legal analysts agreeing on little except that the agency gave its own people wide discretion and that lawsuits were inevitable.
The ATF Can't Just Make Things Up, Now or In the Past
One of those lawsuits, VanDerStok v. Garland, brought by Jennifer VanDerStok, Blackhawk Manufacturing Group, and other plaintiffs, has now resulted in a loss for the federal government. On July 5, building on a preliminary injunction issued last year, Judge Reed O'Connor of the U.S. District Court for Northern Texas wrote that the "Final Rule was issued in excess of ATF's statutory jurisdiction" and the "Definition of 'Frame or Receiver' and Identification of Firearms…is hereby VACATED."
Reed gave his reasoning days earlier, on June 30, in his memorandum opinion.
"A part that has yet to be completed or converted to function as frame or receiver is not a frame or receiver," O'Connor wrote. "ATF's declaration that a component is a 'frame or receiver' does not make it so if, at the time of evaluation, the component does not yet accord with the ordinary public meaning of those terms."
Elsewhere in the opinion, Judge O'Connor rejected the ATF's astonishment that any court could take issue with the agency's arbitrary reclassification of inert items as firearms.
"Defendants offer several classification letters in which ATF previously determined that a particular component was (or was not) a 'firearm' for purposes of the [Gun Control Act of 1968] based on the item's stage of manufacture," O'Connor chided the feds. "But historical practice does not dictate the interpretation of unambiguous statutory terms. The ordinary public meaning of those terms does. If these administrative records show, as Defendants contend, that ATF has previously regulated components that are not yet frames or receivers but could readily be converted into such items, then the historical practice does nothing more than confirm that the agency has, perhaps in multiple specific instances over several decades, exceeded the lawful bounds of its statutory jurisdiction."
In other words: Thank you for this evidence that you have repeatedly exceeded your authority!
"We're thrilled to see the Court agree that ATF's Frame or Receiver Rule exceeds the agency's congressionally limited authority," commented Cody J. Wisniewski, who represented the plaintiffs in this case as counsel for the Firearms Policy Coalition (FPC). "With this decision, the Court has properly struck down ATF's Rule and ensured that it cannot enforce that which it never had the authority to publish in the first place."
"With this effort to rewrite federal regulations, Biden tried to make countless individuals criminals," agreed plaintiff's co-counsel Mountain States Legal Foundation. "But Mountain States and FPC sued, and argued that the rule was illegal, on behalf of Jennifer VanDerStok, Mike Andren, and Tactical Machining. Our winning argument was that the ATF exceeded its authority, as outlined by Congress."
It's Not Over Yet (But the Control Freaks Are Doomed)
As strong a decision as this is, it's at the district level and can be expected to run the gauntlet up the judicial food chain before being ultimately decided one way or the other. The U.S. Department of Justice has already filed a notice of appeal in the case as well as an emergency motion for stay to try to keep the rule in effect while litigation continues. Clearly, the feds fear losing control of the situation.
But, as mentioned above, governments lost control long ago. DIY gunmaking became popular as a deliberate effort to evade draconian laws. Then 3D printing and CNC machines helped make DIY gunmaking that much simpler. After the ATF released its restrictive new rules regarding unfinished receivers, the industry, led by Ghost Gunner, moved to "zero-percent" blocks of material to be finished by hobbyists (In June, Reason TV interviewed Cody Wilson, who brought us Ghost Gunner as well as 3D-printed firearms).
There are also the rapidly growing ranks of gun owners to consider. Driven by the social tensions of recent years, gun sales rose to record levels and came to encompass Americans who didn't adhere to traditional stereotypes of white, rural conservatives. "Liberal, female and minority: America's new gun owners aren't who you'd think," CNN headlined a story last September.
Researchers say that these new gun owners are even more protective of their privacy than those who came before them. That leaves anti-gun politicians to wonder if they can still assume their constituents are as unlikely to be directly harmed by gun restrictions as in the past; elected officials love using legislation to lash out at perceived enemies, but pushing punitive laws that hurt your own base is no way to win reelection.
For now, Judge O'Connor's decision in VanDerStok v. Garland is a small but significant win in an ongoing dispute between pro-liberty activists and control freaks who want to disarm the public. But no matter how the legal battles shake out, advocates of control effectively lost the war long ago. Many people are working to ensure that, no matter what government officials want, guns will remain in private hands.