January 2023 Update:
Unfortunately, time has proved that we were right, and pistol braces have now been determined by the ATF to be stocks. As firearm rights attorneys who advocate daily for our clients, we saw this coming, and did our best to warn the community that this was coming for the past year. We stand by responsible firearm owners and the Second Amendment.
This article is now outdated given the recent decision by the ATF which makes a pistol with a brace simply a Short Barreled Rifle or potentially another weapon type depending on the specific details. A new resource article is forthcoming, but for now make sure to register your firearm or remove those pistol braces as soon as possible (and discard the pistol brace), or potentially add a long enough barrel in certain cases to make it a full rifle. We are unable to provide legal advice in this forum, but we recommend you hire an attorney for specific advice to your circumstances if you have any doubts about the new legal requirements.
-Kelton Johnson and Shea M. Randall, Founding Attorneys, Lifeback Legal
Disclaimer: Before making any firearm or ammunition purchase, ensure that you have your gun rights intact. Our law firm is not advising to put a pistol brace on a large format pistol. If you do use a pistol brace, you do so at your own risk. We are licensed lawyers and able to provide general legal advice. This article is not legal advice and is solely provided for educational purposes only. If you would like legal advice, you may hire our law firm, which involves both signing a contract and committing to the analysis cost. Additionally, this article does not discuss state-specific rules which may be much more restrictive, even for pistol braces. Every state is different and different regulations may apply. This article will focus solely on federal law.
In this article we discuss AR-15 style pistols and other large-format pistols, such as the CZ Scorpion and Sig SP5. These pistols look very similar to rifles especially when they have a pistol brace attached, but they fall under different requirements because of their shorter overall lengths. There are many people with questions about this topic because of the recent Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) investigation into Q firearms pistols, specifically the Honey Badger model, and whether or not the pistol braces used made the weapons short barreled rifles instead of large-format pistols. The ATF abandoned the investigation and its attempt to reclassify the Q brand pistols as regulated short barreled rifles because of the included pistol braces for now.
Pistol Braces and the NFA
Under the National Firearms Act (NFA), rifles with a barrell length of less than 16 inches or an overall length of less than 26 inches are regulated. Then, your rifle must be registered with the federal government as a Short Barrelled Rifle (SBR) and you must pay a tax. You may or may not be approved to own that type of rifle. Additionally, traveling with a SBR is not simple if you want to cross state lines.
In other words, the NFA does not cover rifles that have longer barrels and that meet a certain total length requirement.
The alternative to possess a shorter firearm is to simply purchase a handgun, as handguns (or pistols) are not covered under the NFA. Pistols can have a shorter barrel and shorter overall length, but pistols have certain restrictions or else they fall under the NFA. For example, the definition of handgun is defined in 18 U.S.C., § 921(A)(29) and 27 CFR § 478.11 as: a handgun is “a firearm which has a short stock and is designed to be held and fired by the use of a single hand.” This definition means that if you put a forward handgrip, specifically a vertical handgrip, on a pistol, it is not a pistol but rather an NFA firearm known as “any other weapon” as it would no longer be meant to be fired with one hand.
Interestingly, handguns in the United States laws are allowed to have “short stocks.”
So Where Does a Pistol Brace Come Into Play?
Pistol Braces are made to attach to your arm or to somehow brace against your body so that you can use the handgun and fire it with one single hand, as required in the definitions of a handgun.
The “Short” Stock Rule
Handguns can have short stocks. According to the ATF, a stock that can reach your shoulder is not a short stock, which means traditional stocks only are allowed on a rifle or NFA firearm, but not on a pistol.
The Single Hand Rule
A pistol brace is meant to allow operation with a single hand, because if a firearm is meant to be operated with two hands (like with a front pistol grip), then it is an “Any Other Weapon” or an SBR under the NFA unless it classifies as a full rifle due to its overall length and barrel length.
Sidetracked: The Trouble With Forward Handguards (Even Horizontal Ones)
Just as troubling as the pistol brace is the horizontal handguard on a large format pistol or an AR-15 pistol, as these horizontal handguards could make the firearm no longer a pistol. Of course, this is likely, but not guaranteed, to follow a design purpose rule, as you could argue that the handguard is actually for resting the firearm against something but not primarily for holding while shooting. There is some leeway with holding a single grip with two hands as this is allowed with all handguns already. However, encouraging in the design for someone to operate the gun with hands on two points of the firearm may run afoul of this rule which would immediately make the firearm an NFA regulated SBR if it does not meet rifle length requirements.
Because of the utility of a handguard as a heat shield in general, we think it likely to be legal long term, but we do think that any type of horizontal or even slightly slanted handgrip attached to the handguard could turn the pistol into an NFA firearm so we would advise against it, even if they are currently a trendy accessory. Currently you cannot put a forward vertical grip on a pistol, and we think wise gun owners should extend this to any forward grip designed exclusively for hand use.
The “Pistol Brace is Not a Stock” Argument
The ATF has said that the brace versus stock debate depends on the intent of the design (the ATF’s statements are private statements made public, and not official published regulations). This standard could change in the future. We believe the major pitfall here with pistol braces is that the brace may actually have been designed to look like a stock so it can be used like a stock. In other words, if the brace was made in the way it was so it can easily be shouldered, even if it also functions as a brace, then it will be illegal without NFA SBR classification.
Additionally, for it to not be a stock, there seems to be some loose rules on keeping the brace short enough, and also possibly on making sure the brace is not permanently affixed to the firearm.
It Doesn’t Matter How You Hold It (For Now)
The pistol brace versus pistol stock argument does not hinge on how you hold the gun or if you are able to shoulder the pistol brace. The ATF has, so far anyway, rejected the arguments that if it can be shouldered while firing the gun that it must be a stock. This is in line with how the ATF views all weapons. Consumer misuse alone should not make an otherwise legal product illegal. It all hinges, currently, on what the product was designed for and how it was designed to be used.
Where Are The Likely Problems With This Whole Pistol Brace Scenario?
Pistol braces look alot like rifle stocks and function alot like rifle stocks, and if they were designed that way in order to get around SBR rules under the NFA, then the design purpose would likely fail the ATF’s tests for determining if it is a stock or a brace. Of course, there should be nothing wrong with making a functional part with vanity appeal that looks like something it is not. It would make sense to want to make the brace look aesthetically pleasing as many gun owners want their firearms to not only have great functionality, but also simply look good.
Furthermore, even if there was an ulterior motive, is it enough that the pistol brace actually serves many gun users who need the extra support when firing a large format pistol? Not everyone who buys a large format pistol has strong enough arms to hold the firearm, and democratizing who can safely shoot different types of firearms only seems fair.
Design elements beyond “vanity” features should probably guide this discussion, in our mind. For example, is the part of the brace that could touch your shoulder padded and textured like a normal rifle stock? While there is no definitive test to resolve the debate without the ATF’s input, or possibly court intervention, trying to get to the bottom of the design elements is a very challenging task and does not necessarily result in a clear cut outcome.
Pistol stocks are allowed, but they have to be “short.” So is the brace a “short” stock or is it not a stock at all? The ATF has pretty much taken a line that if the stock looks like a rifle stock at all it is not a permissible “short stock” which is allowed on pistols. In other words, short stocks to the ATF just fit in your hand and would not be designed to reach your shoulder or cheek. In short, for pistol braces to be allowed, they would have to maintain their current designation as not being stocks at all. If they are defined as stocks, you would only be able to put one on a registered SBR or on a full rifle.
In short, if you use a pistol brace, you need to stay on top of the law and you use them at your own risk. Currently, it appears to be legal. However, we see one method, under the ATF’s current rules, that would allow for them to be a prohibited NFA accessory on pistols even without a regulation or law change, by finding that the designers and creators of pistol braces meant for them to be stocks, and used the brace design and advertising as a way to allow stocks on pistols without SBR registration.
Because using a brace is clearly not without legal risk due to a change in how they are treated by the ATF, our opinion is to remove pistol braces from your AR-15 pistol or large-format pistol when it is stored, and to only place it back on your gun after checking the laws as of that date to make sure you are not taking undue risk. That said, we think there is always risk with this type of product. If you were arrested, there is nothing to stop a prosecutor from attempting to prove that your firearm is in fact an unregistered NFA weapon.
What Would We Do? Would We Recommend the Pistol Brace?
We would avoid the brace for now, unless you are in an area where you know local law enforcement does not believe they violate the rules. In that case, you should still stay abreast of any law changes and be cautious about transporting a firearm with a pistol brace attached in your vehicle. Of course, if the ATF releases a definitive statement on pistol braces, that would eliminate the risk in this situation by providing clarity one way or the other.
Furthermore, if you want or need this type of firearm we would recommend that you simply get approved for a SBR so you are no matter what 100% legal with the shorter firearm, even though that firearm will not be easily transported across state lines after it is a SBR. If $200 and the wait to get SBR approval under the NFA mean you are under no legal risk, that is the obvious smart choice.
Contact Us With Your Questions
Unfortunately, we will not be able to provide more clarity on the brace situation as of the date of this article, which is why we decided to publish this article at this time.
However, if you have been denied a firearm purchase, or if you think you may have lost your firearm rights, feel free to contact us to see if there is anything that can be done to restore your second amendment rights.
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