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If you’ve been paying attention to the gun community over the past few years, you may have heard confusing information regarding the legality of pistol braces. There is much conflicting information regarding whether one is legally allowed to place it against your shoulder.
What exactly is the situation with pistol braces? Why is it such a big deal?
Find out whether it is legal to put one against your shoulder.
Why Pistol Braces Matter
A pistol brace (also called a stabilizing brace) is an attachment intended for AR-15 pistols, first introduced in 2012 by SB Tactical. Many other manufacturers produced their own lines of pistol braces since the original SB15.
A pistol brace mounts to the AR pistol’s buffer tube, employing either a soft sleeve or a flat plastic blade in its construction. Officially, sleeve-type braces are intended to wrap around the user’s forearm, whereas blade-type braces are meant to fit into the user’s elbow pit.
Regardless of its design, the purpose of a pistol brace is to help control an AR pistol one-handed more effectively, decreasing muzzle rise.
Cheatsheet of pistol and rifle definitions
Before going further, here is a handy reminder of the legal definitions as they are currently understood:
- Rifles are firearms with a shoulder stock, an overall length of 26” or more, and a barrel length of 16” or more.
- Pistols are firearms with no shoulder stock. They can have any overall lengths or barrel lengths.
- A rifle with a barrel length under 16” is a Short Barreled Rifle (SBR). SBRs are regulated under the National Firearms Act and are illegal to possess or manufacture without the ATF’s authorization and relevant paperwork.
- A pistol modified by an end-user to accept a shoulder stock legally becomes a rifle. If the resulting firearm’s barrel length is under 16” or the overall length is under 26”, it constitutes manufacturing an SBR.
Timeline of Events
Sometime after the SB15’s introduction to the market, most AR-15 enthusiasts and most YouTube gun channels noticed that pistol braces superficially resemble shoulder stocks.
By placing the back of a pistol brace against the shoulder instead of using it “as intended,” it is possible to use the brace as a shoulder stock, despite it not being intended for this purpose.
Despite being based on actions and mechanisms largely seen in rifles, AR pistols are legally pistols because they leave the factory without stocks. This legislation allows them to possess barrels under 16” long. If you know the legal difference between a rifle and a pistol, you know that a rifle with a barrel under 16” in length is considered a short-barreled rifle (SBR).
Discussion forums, social media, and other YouTubers quickly realized the implications: Can you shoulder a pistol brace? Could pistol braces be used as a loophole to circumvent SBR legislation? Is it even legal to do so?
The ATF’s first responses
In 2014, the ATF issued their first statement regarding pistol braces, stating that if the device is “used as a shoulder stock,” doing so would constitute “the making of a rifle.”
By extension, if the firearm’s barrel is under 16” in length, the ATF determined that using an attached pistol brace as a shoulder stock on an AR pistol would be equivalent to manufacturing an SBR.
Many gun owners were concerned, disagreeing with the notion that misusing a firearm attachment is equivalent to“manufacturing, particularly when the ATF’s letter specified that it applies regardless of whether or not the brace is modified.
A year later, the ATF’s Firearms Technology Criminal Branch issued another statement, reinforcing their 2014 opinion by stating that shouldering a pistol brace is equivalent to redesigning the device.
The industry’s reaction
Between 2015 and 2017, multiple manufacturers (most notably, SIG Sauer) and other prominent members of the gun community sent letters to the ATF, explaining their positions and challenging the ATF’s interpretation of the law.
In March 2017, the ATF issued a third statement regarding pistol braces, appearing to be a reversal of some of their previous interpretations and concluding the following:
- Merely shouldering a stabilizing brace is not illegal and does not constitute redesigning the device, so long as it is incidental, sporadic, or situational.
- Modifying or adapting the pistol brace to make it more comfortable to use as a shoulder stock does constitute redesigning, therefore legally converting the AR pistol into a rifle (and most likely, an SBR).
A 2020 attempt at reclassification
In December of 2020, preliminary legal documents published by the ATF outlined a rulemaking proposal entitled Objective Factors for Classifying Weapons with Stabilizing Braces. The document’s purpose was to establish a list of criteria to legally define whether a firearm with a stabilizing brace is a pistol or a rifle.
Between December 18, 2020, and January 4, 2021, the ATF accepted formal comments from the public through the regulations.gov platform. Within days, the agency received multiple tens of thousands of comments from regular gun owners and industry professionals urging the ATF not to impose further regulations.
Five days later, the ATF issued a letter rescinding their proposal, confirming no changes to any laws or regulations.
Where Things Stand Now
As of March 2021, the answer to the question “Can you shoulder a pistol brace?” is yes, but there are caveats.
Legally speaking, you can shoulder an AR pistol fitted with a stabilizing brace. However, the specific wording uses the terms “incidental, sporadic, or situational use.” The ATF’s interpretation is that you’re legally allowed to do so. But they discourage the practice, suggesting that you should not show it off or encourage others to do so.
The sentence “in its original approved configuration” also suggests that it is only legal so long as the brace is not modified or improved for use as a shoulder stock.
Merely removing the adjustment straps may constitute “redesigning” the brace into a stock, converting your AR pistol into an SBR.
The best course of action is to tread carefully and avoid making modifications to your braces.
New devices and innovations, such as pistol braces, can sometimes challenge or upend the way we interpret existing firearm laws and regulations. As a responsible gun owner, you should always stay informed of news regarding firearm legislation.
Merely knowing the laws on the books is not enough; you must also remain informed of the ATF’s statements and interpretations on all applicable regulations, as they have the full force of law.