Beware the Stupid Law
By Chris and Jeff Knox
“If the law supposes that,” said Mr. Bumble,… “the law is a ass—a idiot.”
Charles Dickens − Oliver Twist
One of the gravest mistakes anyone can make in dealing with the law is to assume that the law has the slightest shred of common sense, and that the agencies enforcing the law have any interest in justice. Our writing in other publications such as Shotgun News, Jeff’s column at World Net Daily (wnd.com), and on our own web site at FirearmsCoalition.org is generally geared toward injecting some common sense into the bodies that make law and eventually into the law itself. Our focus changes a bit when we come to Front Sight. Here, rather than talking about changing legislation or legislators, we turn our focus to helping readers stay safe from both.
The law has proven that it knows little about guns, and cares less about people who use them. A malfunctioning AR15 landed David Olofson in jail. The Ruby Ridge fiasco stemmed from a shotgun barrel that was crudely cut a half-inch shorter than an arbitrary limit. The Waco conflagration started from a botched attempt to serve a warrant for a rifle that might have contained an automatic sear. The allegation has never been proven; an independent testing lab offered to examine the charred remains of the guns but the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives has so far refused to let any outside party see the evidence.
While the press gets riled up over “sawed-off shotguns” and “machine guns,” the root of the issue is a $200 tax stamp. None of the guns that triggered the subsequent incidents was used, nor expected to be used, in a crime of violence.
One recent stupidity to be exposed is the fact that under federal law, as interpreted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), millions of law-abiding gun owners could be committing a serious felony by simply possessing their guns.
ATF has refrained from pursuing prosecutions of these millions of illegal gun possessors − so far. Nonetheless, pretending that a law doesn’t exist is not a solution to the problem – especially when ATF has a history of pulling forgotten laws out of the closet when they need something to pin on someone they’ve targeted.
If you’re old enough, you might remember Steve McQueen’s TV show from the late 1950s, Wanted Dead or Alive. In that show McQueen’s character carried a chopped Winchester Model 92 lever-action rifle. That gun almost landed the show’s producer in jail and cost the studio over $1100 in special taxes. Cutting a rifle’s barrel down to less than 16” or reducing the gun’s overall length to less than 26” turned that gun into a “Short Barreled Rifle,” or SBR, subject to the taxes and rules of 1934 National Firearms Act (NFA).
If one of us were to take a Model 92 today and cut it down to 19” like McQueen’s gun, we would be subject to up to 10 years and a $10,000 fine unless we went through the process of obtaining an NFA tax stamp. If we really wanted a gun like that, it’s available for about $600 with no special restrictions. If you put the original and the replica through side-by-side comparisons and testing you would be hard pressed to find any differences at all besides some government-required import markings and a different manufacturer’s name.
The difference is that the replica was manufactured short, not cut down from a longer gun. Officially, it is a pistol and so, it does not fall under the rules of the NFA.
If you were to replace the stock on the replica with a full length shoulder stock though you would have a problem because that would move the gun’s official classification into what the NFA calls “Any Other Weapon,” making it subject to NFA taxes and regulations.
Add a longer stock to McQueen’s SBR and extend the barrel a few inches and the gun will qualify as a rifle again and you could de-list it from NFA and sell it like any other regular gun.
Here’s another example. Today’s most popular rifle is the AR platform, the civilian version of the M16. Many returning soldiers want a gun like the one they carried in combat and a few are willing to pay the extra $200 taxes to have one with a barrel less than 16” long. But the ATF has decreed that since the barrels of AR-pattern rifles are easily interchangeable, if a collector with a legal SBR possesses another receiver on which that barrel can be installed, he is in possession of multiple SBRs and is in violation of the law if he doesn’t pay the extra taxes and register each one.
So far, ATF has pressed only a few cases like this, preferring to exercise discretion and to use this aspect of the law as a lever. Frankly, that much discretionary power makes us nervous.
ATF has taken some serious punches over the past few months, as the agency has apparently been shown to be a leading supplier of the Mexican gun-smuggling trade. Wounded, the agency is liable to be dangerous. A recently leaked internal memo to “All Public Information Officers” encouraged regional offices to look for opportunities to generate positive press. “Positive press” in the ATF’s eyes, and in the eyes of the dominant media, may mean busting a “cache” of scary looking guns and “getting those guns off the street” − even if they previously resided peacefully in a gun safe. We’re not saying to hide your guns, but it might be injudicious to engage a friendly stranger at a gun show in a conversation about swapping a short barrel onto an AR15 platform rifle.
What seems like common sense we who like, own, and shoot guns may be deep, arcane knowledge to a lawmaker, judge or juror. What seems like a simple tweak to a gun using interchangeable parts might be presented by a hostile prosecutor as a dangerous modification that puts the gun under the NFA. When you tinker with your guns, be aware that anything that changes the overall length or the length of the barrel can easily lead you into dangerous legal territory. Until the law changes, that’s the world we live in.