ATF Publishes Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to Revise
Definition of "Frame or Receiver"
-- Part I --
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives ("ATF") has published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking ("NPRM") to revise the regulatory definitions of "firearm" and "frame or receiver." The result of these changes will be an expansion of the Gun Control Act ("GCA") controls to frame or receiver blanks that have reached a certain stage in manufacturing as well as certain parts kits. Other definition changes include revisions to the term "gunsmith" and new definitions for "complete weapon," "complete muffler or silencer device," "privately made firearm," and "readily." The NPRM also includes proposed changes to ATF's marking and recordkeeping requirements to implement the new definitions. The NPRM will amend ATF regulations in 27 C.F.R. Parts 447 (Importation of Arms, Ammunition, and Implements of War), 478 (Commerce in Firearms and Ammunition), and 479 (Machine Guns, Destructive Devices, and Certain Other Firearms).
This official publication of the NPRM tracks very closely to the document that was leaked last month, but industry should carefully review the official notice and submit written comments to ATF. ATF will accept comments on the NPRM through August 19, 2021. Comments must identify the docket number (ATF 2021R-05) and can be submitted electronically through the federal portal at www.regulations.gov. Alternative methods for submission are mail and fax as detailed in the NPRM. It is important to note that the electronic Federal Docket Management System will not accept comments after Midnight Eastern Time on the last day of the comment period.
The NPRM can be divided into three main parts: (1) the summary of the proposed rulemaking; (2) supplementary information (includes a statutory and executive order review); and (3) the proposed regulatory amendments. The text of the actual changes proposed in this notice begins on page 27741. While it may be tempting to skip to that part, the supplementary information does provide insight into ATF's reasoning and justifications for this proposed significant rulemaking. Such information may be helpful in framing comments to the proposed rulemaking.
To assist readers in reviewing the lengthy supplementary information, we provide an outline of the structure along with the corresponding pages in the Federal Register publication.
I. Background (p. 27720)
A. ATF's Application of the Definition to Split Frames or Receivers (p. 27721)
B. Privately Made Firearms or "Ghost Guns" (p. 27722)
II. Proposed Rule (p. 27725)
A. Definition of "Firearm (p. 27726)
B. Definition of "Frame or Receiver" (p. 27726)
- General definition of "frame or receiver" (p. 27727)
- Firearm muffler or silencer frame or receiver (p. 27727)
- Split or modular frame or receiver (p. 27728)
- Partially complete, disassembled, or inoperable frame or receiver (p. 27729)
- Destroyed frame or receiver (p. 27729)
C. Definition of "Readily" (p. 27730)
D. Definitions of "Complete Weapon" and "Complete Muffler or Silencer Device" (p. 27730)
E. Definition of "Privately Made Firearm" (p. 27730)
F. Definition of "Importer's or Manufacturer's Serial Number" (p. 27730)
G. Definition of "Gunsmith" (p. 27731)
H. Marking Requirements for Firearms (p. 27731)
- Information required to be marked on the frame(s) or receiver(s) (p. 27731)
- Size and depth of markings (p. 27732)
- Period of time to identify firearms (p. 27732)
- Marking of privately made firearms (p. 27732)
- Meaning of marking terms (p. 27733)
- Alternate means or period of identification (p. 27733)
- Destructive device period of identification (p. 27733)
- Adoption of identifying markings (p. 27733)
- Firearm muffler or silencer parts transferred between qualified licensees (p. 27733)
- Voluntary classification of firearms and armor piercing ammunition (p. 27733)
I. Recordkeeping (p. 27734)
- Acquisition and disposition records (p. 27734)
- Firearms transaction records (p. 27734)
- Recordkeeping for privately made firearms (p. 27734)
- NFA forms update (p. 27735)
- Importation forms update (p. 27735)
J. Record Retention (p. 27735)
III. Statutory and Executive Order Review (p. 27735)
IV. Public Participation (p. 27740)
Because of the size of this publication and the significance to industry, we will address the NPRM in a three-part series. In this Part One, we will review the proposed changes to the definitions of "frame or receiver." It is important to point out that in several areas of this proposed definition, ATF offers "non-exclusive" lists of illustrative examples. These lists will be included in the actual regulations, so when reviewing the NPRM, we recommend paying particular attention to the examples and consider whether the lists could be improved.
For example, as we explain in further detail below, ATF emphasizes that this proposed rulemaking is not intended to alter prior firearm classifications that specify a single component as the frame or receiver. To illustrate this, the NPRM lists several different types of firearms as examples. If the type descriptions can be expanded, or if ATF has left out a type, now is the time to bring these suggestions and comments to ATF's attention. The most effective comments will be those that identify any issues, explain why there is an issue, (such as confusion, vagueness, contradictory clauses, etc.), and provide recommended language to resolve the issue.
"Frame or Receiver"
Currently, ATF regulations at 27 C.F.R. 478.11 define "firearm frame or receiver" as "that part of a firearm which provides housing for the hammer, bolt or breechblock, and firing mechanism, and which is usually threaded at its forward portion to receive the barrel."
In the NPRM, ATF proposes to replace the current term “firearm frame or receiver” with an extensive multi-part definition. The first part of the definition broadly describes “frame or receiver” as one that provides housing or a structure designed to hold or integrate any fire control component (the language is "designed to hold or integrate one or more fire control components..."). Also defined is the term “fire control component” to mean a component necessary for the firearm to initiate, complete, or continue the firing sequence, including (non-exclusively) the hammer, bolt, bolt carrier, breechblock, cylinder, trigger mechanism, firing pin, striker, or slide rails.
ATF’s intent here is clear: move away from the rigid and limiting definition of specifying three specific fire control components (the hammer, bolt or breechblock, and firing mechanism) and replace it with language general enough to capture changes in technology. Indeed, one of ATF's primary goals is to update the term "frame or receiver" into a living definition capable of capturing modern firearms technology and changes in terminology as well as capture certain partially complete, disassembled, or inoperable frames or receivers.
Following this broad definition, ATF includes four non-exclusive examples, complete with pictures of common single-framed firearms that fit within this general definition. The examples are (1) the hinged or single framed revolver; (2) the bolt action rifle; (3) the break action, lever action, or pump action rifle or shotgun, and (4) the semiautomatic firearm or machinegun with a single receiver housing all firearm control components. This is one instance of ATF's use of a "non-exclusive" list to illustrate the definition. Does the list as drafted sufficiently demonstrate what common firearms fit within the term?
Next, ATF provides four “supplements” to further explain the meaning of “frame or receiver” for certain firearm designs as follows: (a) firearm muffler or silencer frame or receiver; (b) split or modular frame or receiver; (c) partially complete, disassembled, or inoperable frame or receiver; and (d) destroyed frame or receiver.
(a) Firearm muffler or silencer frame or receiver.
Here, the intent is to clarify how and when firearm muffler or silencer parts must be marked and registered with ATF. Specifically, manufacturers of a "complete muffler or silencer device" (this is another proposed new definition) need only mark each part (or specific part(s) previously determined by the Director) of the device defined as a “frame or receiver.” ATF explains that most often this is likely to be the outer tube because it is the only housing for the essential internal components. However, individual muffler or silencer parts disposed of separately from a complete device must be marked unless transferred by qualified manufacturers to other qualified licensees for the manufacture or repair of complete devices. “Marking the outer tube, as distinguished from a smaller non-housing component like an end cap that can be damaged upon expulsion of projectiles, best preserves the ability of law enforcement to trace the silencer device if used in crime, and is consistent with recommendations ATF has received from the firearms industry.” NPRM at 27728 and n. 50.
(b) Split or modular frame or receiver.
Admittedly, we found this part of the NPRM to be very confusing. The supplement (b) is divided into three subparagraphs marked (1), (2), and (3). Subparagraph (1) describes what ATF may consider when evaluating new firearm designs in which more than one part provides housing or a structure designed to hold or integrate one or more fire control or essential components. In such instances of evaluating a new design, ATF may determine that one or more specific parts is the frame or receiver. In making such a classification, the NPRM lists seven factors that ATF may consider, with no single factor controlling: (i) which component the manufacturer intended to be the frame or receiver; (ii) which component the firearms industry commonly considers to be the frame or receiver with respect to the same or similar firearms; (iii) how the component fits within the overall design of the firearm when assembled; (iv) the design and function of the fire control components to be housed or integrated; (v) whether the component may permanently, conspicuously, and legibly be identified with a serial number and other markings in a manner not susceptible of being readily obliterated, altered, or removed; (vi) whether classifying the particular component is consistent with the legislative intent of the Act and this part; and (vii) whether classifying the component as the frame or receiver is consistent with the Director’s prior classifications.
The second subdivision is frames or receivers of different weapons combined to create a similar weapon. The NPRM states that each retain their respective frame or receiver classifications, provided they retain their original design and configuration.
The third subdivision addresses pre-existing classifications of split or modular frames or receivers and contains a nonexclusive list of nine examples of existing classifications of common designs distinguished by their differences in firing cycle, method of operation, or physical design characteristics. These are:
- Colt 1911-type, Beretta/Browning/FN Herstal/Heckler & Koch/Ruger/Sig Sauer/Smith & Wesson/Taurus hammer fired semiautomatic pistols;
- Glock-type striker fired semiautomatic pistols;
- Sig Sauer P320-type semiautomatic pistols;
- Certain locking block rail system semiautomatic pistols;
- AR-15-type and Beretta AR-70-type firearms;
- Steyr AUG-type firearms;
- Thompson M1A1-type machineguns and semiautomatic variants, and L1A1, FN FAL, FN FNC, MP 38, MP 40, and SIG 550 type firearms, and HK-type machineguns and semiautomatic variants;
- Vickers/Maxim, Browning 1919, and M2-type machineguns, and box-type machineguns and semiautomatic variants thereof; and
- Sten, Sterling, and Kel-tec Sub-2000-type firearms.
As we explained earlier, ATF emphasizes that this proposed rulemaking is not intended to alter prior classifications of firearms that specify a single component as the frame or receiver. So this is another list that should be reviewed carefully to determine whether ATF should make changes. Is this list a fair representation of all the firearm types out there that ATF has already classified? If not, should one of the categories be revised, or should ATF consider adding more categories? Illustrative examples in the regulatory context all too often can be misinterpreted as being exhaustive lists, even when the agency specifies their non-exclusive nature.
(c) Partially complete, disassembled, or inoperable frame or receiver.
By way of this third supplement, the revised definition would capture a frame or receiver that has reached a stage in manufacture where it may "readily" (another new definition) be completed, assembled, converted, or restored to a functional state. To classify such partially complete, disassembled or inoperable frame or receiver, ATF may consider any available instructions, guides, templates, jigs, equipment, tools, or marketing materials. For purposes of the definition, “partially complete” means “a forging, casting, printing, extrusion, machined body, or similar article that has reached a stage in manufacture where it is clearly identifiable as an unfinished component part of a weapon.”
According to ATF, “[c]larifying this issue is needed to deter the increased sale or distribution of unlicensed and unregulated partially complete or unassembled frames or receivers often sold within parts kits that can readily be completed or assembled to a functional state.” NPRM at 27729 and n. 54. In this vein, the NPRM explains the proposed rulemaking would also address the untraceable nature of these types of firearms that have made their way into interstate commerce. “Many kits that include unfinished frame or receivers have been sold by nonlicensees who were not required to run a background check or maintain transaction records. Accordingly, prohibited persons have easily obtained them. Moreover, without any markings, they are nearly impossible to trace.” The NPRM also explains that “frame or receiver molds that can accept metal or polymer, unformed blocks of metal, and other articles only in a primordial state would not—without more—be considered a “partially complete” frame or receiver.” NPRM at 27729.
(d) Destroyed frame or receiver.
The fourth supplement excludes destroyed frames or receivers from the definition and describes what qualifies as “destroyed” (permanently altered not to provide housing or a structure that may hold or integrate any fire control or essential internal component, and that may not readily be assembled, completed, converted, or restored to a functional state). The supplement would include nonexclusive acceptable methods of destruction, which have been provided by ATF in past guidance.
So there you have it, the proposed new definition of "frame or receiver" in a nutshell. Next week we will look more closely at how the proposed rulemaking targets the market of partially complete or "80%" firearms.