Biden’s War on Pistol Braces

Why not regulate guns as seriously as toys?

-Nicholas Kristof, New York Times editorial headline, January 12, 2011

“In the US we have more federal regulations over toy guns than real ones”

-Senator Cory Booker, tweeted May 7, 2019

“Everyone knows that teddy bears aren’t as dangerous as firearms. But these classic toys have to satisfy a wide range of safety standards before they make their way into a store, much less a child’s hands. Guns, on the other hand, face few such requirements.”

-Patrick Coffee, Adweek, March 31, 2017

Too many such false generalizations and emotional platitudes dominate firearm debates. It’s absurd, of course, as guns in the US are highly controlled, far beyond most consumer products. Particularly frustrating is how capricious and arbitrary many gun regulations are. For one, the difference between a rifle and pistol is defined by barrel length. Anything over sixteen inches is a rifle. Anything under that is technically a pistol, unless it has a stock for shouldering which makes it a short barreled rifle (SBR). An SBR requires registration, more background checks and additional taxation. This becomes more bizarre upon observing that barrels on US military standard issue M4 carbines are 14.5 inches, making semi-auto civilian versions without stocks technically handguns.

Even more obtuse is that SBRs are supposedly regulated out of fear that short rifles represent a special hazard as concealable for use in crime. This dates from the National Firearms Act of 1934, a legislative backlash against prohibition fueled violence during the ‘20s, sensationalized by gangsters wielding legal, full-auto Tommy guns. But much changed between then and now. Rifles with folding stocks or bullpup designs were unusual in the early 20th century, but later became much more common. Yet as long as their barrel remained over 16 inches, or entire length over 26 inches, no NFA violation occurred. 

Such rifles were untypical among criminals, therefore, no reason was seen to close any alleged “bullpup or folding stock loophole” in the NFA. Gun violence in the US is essentially handgun violence. Pistols are small, easily concealed or disposed if needed, and because most armed exchanges involve only a few shots at very close range, best suited for most illegal endeavors.*

From left to right: Scorpion 9mm pistol with 8” barrel and SB Tactical brace. FN PS90 5.7×28 bullpup rifle with 16” barrel, AK-47 7.62×39 rifle with folding stock and 16” barrel.

Now, the particular design of an M4, just like its more famous relations, the AR-15/M-16, involves a buffer tube that extends behind the hand grip, much like a rudimentary stock itself. Many shooters over the years saved time and money by simply buying short barreled AR pistols and bracing against the buffer tubes for steadiness while firing. Others used slings for the same purpose with stockless AK or other large pistol variations.

Standard AR-15 lower receiver with buffer tube exposed. Left in this condition or with a brace it remains legal for -16” barrel configuration but with a stock, as a +16” rifle or SBR only.

Eventually, a creative Iraq war veteran noticed some disabled vets, who formerly enjoyed sport shooting, might continue if a way existed to strap pistol carbine variants around their forearms. He began modifying the AR platform, which most obviously lent itself toward the effort, as it’s buffer tube already formed an anchor point. In 2013, a company named SB Tactical began producing arm braces for this purpose, with a letter from the ATF certifying them as legal pistol attachments. These became very popular, not only among disabled persons, but anyone who appreciated better controlability. Beside the benefit created using these braces as advertised, it soon became obvious they made shouldering possible. Internet gun culture quickly filled up with articles and videos discussing the potential legality of this practice, and cautioning against posting photos with pistols unstrapped and shouldered, lest regulators find an excuse to ban the devices.

Rear view of SB Tactical brace above and typical AR-15 stock below

For a couple years, braced pistols flew under the mainstream radar. I regularly read anti-gun newsletters and only once or twice saw brief mention. The apparent absence of these pistols (or even proper SBRs with stocks) among violent incidents weakened arguments for greater restriction, so in an odd unspoken truce, both gun control groups and shooting enthusiasts largely kept silent about braces, though for quite different reasons.

Eventually, as more manufacturers began selling braces, the original intent became muddied. From any observers standpoint, it was obvious SB Tactical’s brace was built to be strapped around the users forearm. By contrast, the later Shockwave brace looked more like an actual stock and didn’t even come with straps, though featuring slots they could fit through. The question of what made stocks and braces different revolved more around length of pull than anything else. This refers to the measure between a trigger and the end of a rifle stock, under the idea that a short brace is uncomfortable to shoulder, clearly making it a byproduct of design, not the primary intent. However, every person is different and while someone with long arms might find shouldering a brace problematic, smaller framed individuals could do so with ease.

SB Tactical brace above and Shockwave brace below

As more braces became available, the ATF received increased queries for clarification. It’s understandable why companies desired individual affirmation, as nobody wants a product that is legal one day and a felony the next. In 2015, what many gun owners feared finally happened. A new ruling came out stating that shouldering braces transformed them into an unauthorized SBR. For two years, this firearms accessory actually made people criminals the instant they assumed a particular stance holding it. Then, in 2017 a reversal was issued maintaining braces were legal, no matter how an individual used them.

It took until 2019 before any notable crime involved a braced pistol, the Dayton, Ohio mass shooting which killed nine victims. This tragedy illustrates why cracking down on pistol braces makes little sense. The supposed reason SBRs were originally so heavily regulated is that smaller rifles are somewhat concealable. However, as decades of criminal activity demonstrate, rifles simply aren’t part of most gun violence, no matter their size. In this instance, concealment wasn’t even attempted. The perpetrator suited up with tactical gear from his vehicle before rushing across a parking lot and opening fire on a crowd. While the brace made his 10.5 inch barrel AR style pistol easier to handle, the increased velocity provided by a 16 inch rifle barrel would have actually been deadlier and a proper stock made it even more controllable. It’s obviously small consolation to survivors, but the fact a braced pistol was used likely prevented increased casualties. 

This horrifying event was almost precisely replicated in March of 2021 during the Boulder, Colorado shooting which took ten lives. Again, a 10.5 inch AR style pistol wasn’t concealed by the shooter who wore blatant tactical gear and opened fire across a parking lot. Just as before, a more orthodox rifle would have only raised the body count. However, this took place following the 2020 elections which put Democrats in political majorities and after four years of Trump’s cozy relationship with the NRA, anti-gun supporters were hungry for anything, no matter how symbolic.

Therefore, the fact pistol braces wafted for years amidst a regulatory grey area suddenly became brandished as if they formed significant aspects of mass shootings. Just as Trump banned bump stocks with a simple executive action, President Biden could do the same, and while courts might eventually strike it down, a short term win would be achieved. That’s why anti-gun activists rejoiced when Biden asked the ATF to once more clarify if pistol braces create SBR rifles, with a statement that they “can make a firearm more stable and accurate, while still being concealable.” All this despite the estimated 3-4 million braced pistols already sold, yet which appear in few crimes and none known where concealability played a role.

What’s truly heartbreaking is America actually suffers from significant social violence. Structural racism. The failed war on drugs. Domestic assaults. Rising fascist movements with alarming support inside the police and military. Even within firearm related statistics, the overwhelming majority of deaths are suicides. None of these issues even slightly involve the the tedious minutia regarding how many quarter inches differentiate a brace from a stock.

Banning braces simply means widespread illegal materials abruptly in circulation, more opportunity for biased law enforcement ruining lives, and while many urban liberals likely envision White rural rednecks being persecuted, the reality is always more prisoners of color locked away. Democrats still have time to veer away from squandering political capital in a post-Trump era where real change is possible, not on pointless distraction from real problems.

*The actual number of shots fired during armed encounters is very difficult to determine. Police reports are typically unhelpful and so most estimations are based on anecdotal evidence. However, these tend to agree on the basic elements: that such exchanges are brief, close and with only a few shots fired. In my own experience of interviewing many persons who used firearms for self defense over the years, this bears up, except that in every time related, the mere presence of a gun was sufficient to defuse situations nonviolently.

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