Sunday, January 8, 2012

What is a Firearm? Part 1

When I decided that I would compete in the Service Rifle division of NRA High Power matches, I needed to acquire an AR-15.  The AR-15 is a semi-automatic rifle, the civilian version of the US military's M-16.  The only difference between the AR-15 and M-16 is that the M-16 is capable of fully automatic fire.   The AR-15 is currently the most popular choice for the Service Rifle division, which requires a rifle configured "as-issued" by the US military.

Here is a complete AR-15 service rifle:

However, competitors are allowed to upgrade the barrel and trigger of the rifle.  A popular route is to simply buy a complete "upper" receiver with a custom match barrel and match grade sights.  The upper can detach from the "lower" as it is simply held in place by two pins.  Here is the upper:

 For completeness, here is the "lower" with the lower receiver:
The seller, who happened to be an attorney, proposed sending the upper directly to my home address, and the lower to a licensed dealer.  Why?

Many people intuitively conclude that if under federal law you have to purchase firearms through a licensed dealer, then naturally the same would be true for gun parts.  This is, however, not the law.  Some gun parts require purchase through licensed dealers, some parts do not.

In the case of the AR-15, every website forum will tell you that the only part that requires purchase through a licensed dealer is the lower receiver, which bears the manufacturer's serial number.  In fact, the seller shipped a stripped lower receiver and parts kit to assemble myself, which saved a few dollars over an assembled lower:
We went ahead with the transaction as he proposed (lower through a licensed dealer, upper directly to me), without any issues.  This got me wondering, was this really legal?  How did this come to be the law for the AR-15?  Does it hold for all firearms?  Does it make sense?  

Legal Research:
I spent a couple hours browsing the ATF web site, which includes their regulations and rulings, but I am no closer to answers.  Sure, a google search reveals that everyone "knows" that only the AR-15 receiver is considered a "firearm."  But where is it written?  Everyone seems to believe that "only the serialized part" is the firearm, but again, where is that written?

What stops an AR-15 manufacturer, say Colt, from deciding to serialize the upper receiver, but not the lower?  For example, Ruger serializes the upper receiver on its MKIII pistols, not the frame, but many 1911 manufacturers serialize only the grip frame, not the upper slide.  How did this come about, and what would stop a manufacturer from making an AR-15 with a serialized upper only?  What would happen if one wanted to transfer the non-serialized lower?

Adding more spice to the dish is the existence of so-called "80% receivers."  These are receivers are not completely manufactured, but require some additional machining by the end user to be functional.  I was able to locate an ATF letter to a manufacturer discussing the topic, and what was required in order to produce hunks of metal that do not qualify as AR-15 receivers and therefore not as "firearms."  Unfortunately, the letter was not well cited.  I will discuss this 80% wrinkle in more detail later.

So at this time, I have more questions than answers.  Stay tuned.

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