Guest Post: Is This the End of 80% Receivers? by Timothy Priebe

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While the rest of us were enjoying our own post New Year’s Day activities, BATFE Director B. Todd Jones was approving his department’s latest ruling. On January 2, 2015, ATF Ruling 2015-1 was approved.

The ruling was a clarification of ATF Ruling 2010-10. That ruling advised licensed dealer-gunsmiths that they may legally perform certain firearm manufacturing activities on completed firearms if certain conditions were met. However, since that ruling in December of 2010, it appears that issues surrounding “incomplete” or “80% receivers” have moved to the forefront of the ATF’s purview.

For those not familiar with “80% receivers”, “blanks”, or “paperweights”, let me explain. These items are castings or molded blocks of aluminum or polymer that have not been manufactured to the point of being legally recognized as a “firearm”. Hence, they are “80%” done. They are not quite a “firearm” that would otherwise require the seller to provide and the purchaser to complete ATF paperwork to purchase them.

After purchasing the 80% receiver, one then has to complete the rest of the machining so that it can be used in conjunction with other parts to make a complete firearm. This usually requires some sort of machining in the fire control area of the receiver and then some minor drilling of holes so that other parts may be fitted in and through the receiver. Both of these actions can be completed in a garage using some basic electric hand tools. However, this ruling does not apply to your average handyman/youtube-trained amateur gunsmiths.

It is important to note that such 80% receivers are legal, as agreed to by the ATF in this ruling, and can be bought and sold without any type of ATF paperwork/documentation. It is also legal to complete the machining on the items yourself without the need to fill out the paperwork/documentation as you would if you purchased a completed receiver. However, it is illegal for you to sell or distribute that same firearm after it is completed.

So who does this ruling apply to?

This ruling applies to those who were assisting the owners of such 80% receivers in the completion of their firearms. If a person/company is a “manufacturer” of firearms, they needed to be appropriately licensed as such by the ATF. Persons/businesses have been, according to the ATF’s ruling and opinion, illegally manufacturing firearms when they complete the 80% receivers for others because they do not hold a license to do so.

Previous case law states, “the plain and ordinary meaning of the word “manufacture” is to “make into a product suitable for use”. See Broughman v. Craver, 624 F.3d 676 (4th Cir 2010). So according to this Ruling and the ATF’s interpretation of Broughman, “machining or other manufacturing process includes making a frame or receiver, or taking any of the steps to make an existing frame or receiver functional…” and therefore requires a manufacture license.

What has become popular over the past few years is for businesses, such as machine shops, to make its machinery available for a temporary loan in exchange for a small fee. Some of these shops have the 80% receiver owner “operate” the machinery by showing them how to set it up and having them turn the machine on. The equipment then machines the receiver so that it can be used by the owner to complete the firearm assembly.

With this ruling, the ATF has now clarified that, in its opinion, any person (including incorporations or other legal entity) engaged in the business of performing machining or other similar type processes to create a firearm frame or receiver suitable for use as part of a firearm must be licensed as a manufacturer under the Gun Control Act, must mark such firearm, and maintain the required manufacturer’s records.

Further, the ruling holds that a business may not avoid the manufacturing license, marking, and record keeping requirements of the Gun Control Act by allowing a person to perform manufacturing processes on blanks or incomplete firearms using machinery, tools, or equipment under its dominion and control where that business controls access to, and use of, such machinery, tools, or equipment.

Now this ATF ruling is not considered case law or a binding statute. It is the opinion of the ATF of what the law, in this area, holds. For that brave person or business that wants to challenge this ruling, he/she/it will have to bring the matter to court to have a Judge make a legal ruling on this matter. Given that most of the machine shops previously providing such services probably do not consider this much more than a way to make a little extra side money, I do not see someone taking the time and effort to fight this.

This does raise some issues for businesses that rent out their equipment to others while not providing them instruction or supervision. What projects are their renters working on? I foresee the need for such businesses to have waivers drafted to cover themselves legally. The same holds true for places such as Makerspaces, which rent out space and use of their equipment, both machinery for metal working and 3d printers. Speaking of 3d printing, could this ruling apply to a business that provides schematics and/or other related tools for 3d-printed lower receivers? In March of 2013, Defense Distributed– a Texas non-profit organization– claims to have “printed” a lower receiver that, when completed, shot over 600 rounds. Defense Distributed claims to have had the printing schematics downloaded over 10,000 times.

The next step in this journey will be with the quickly advancing technology surrounding 3d printers and when it is considered manufacturing. Also, up for evaluation is whether the materials used to make the 3d-printed firearms are considered undetectable to x-ray machines and walk-through metal detectors and therefore illegal. I foresee that this will keep the ATF attorneys and agents busy for years to come. Visit Legal-Tactics.com and leave me your questions.

Timothy J. Priebe, Attorney and Counselor at Law

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