OSD 130: Ho ho ho, now I have a machine gun

Merriam-Webster fought the law, and the law won.

A kerfuffle kicked off this week between Rare Breed Triggers and the ATF. Rare Breed has been selling its FRT-15 trigger for a while. The way the trigger works is that you pull it, it pushes back on your finger as the gun cycles (this is the “forced reset”), you pull it again, and so on until you release the trigger. Mechanically, you’re pulling the trigger once per shot. But it makes it easier to fire faster than a typical trigger.

Rate of fire isn’t legally relevant, so the FRT-15 went on sale last year. Last month, the ATF told Rare Breed that wait, actually, the FRT-15 is a machine gun.

There are a couple notable things about that.

First, Rare Breed is fighting back. They’ve filed for an injunction to stop the ATF from shutting down their business, and the comprehensiveness of their response suggests that they’ve been ready for this fight for some time. That’s not something to take for granted. The ATF routinely imposes six-to-seven-figure compliance costs on gun businesses by changing its mind about their products, and it relies on the fact that most businesses are in no position to push back. We covered this most recently in “OSD 105: The ATF is giving out machine guns, whether you want one or not”, when the ATF suddenly decided that Tommy Built Tactical’s products were machine guns.

Second, this case is a good lesson about how what matters in law isn’t what the law says, it’s what prosecutors say the law says. The definition of a machine gun was written by Congress, and it’s pretty explicit:

Any weapon which shoots, is designed to shoot, or can be readily restored to shoot, automatically more than one shot without manual reloading, by a single function of the trigger

The RBT-15 self-evidently doesn’t meet that definition. Neither did bump stocks. Neither did the Akins Accelerator (which was released and then subsequently reclassified as a machine gun). The “single function of the trigger” test is clear, and those products all work within it. That’s the test in the law, but it’s not the test that’s actually being used.

In practice, the actual test is rate of fire. You could even argue that rate of fire was the original target of 1934’s National Firearms Act. Early drafts of the NFA classified any semi-auto gun that held 12 or more rounds as a machine gun. They eventually settled on the “single function of the trigger” test, but that was perhaps an early hint at the assault weapons bans that would come into vogue in the 1989-1994 period — a law where the words say one thing (because hey, you’ve got to write some words down to have a law), but the actual law is “We don’t know quite how to define the thing we want to ban, so we just picked some words and wrote them down, but you know what we mean, right?”

So the FRT-15 is legal according to the law that was written down, but illegal under “you know what we mean”-as-law. That has happened before. What’s interesting is that the company is fighting back. The Firearms Policy Coalition is doing the same on behalf of bump stocks.

The ATF has a lot of practice at reinterpreting the law, but very little practice at defending those reinterpretations in court against motivated and well-funded opponents. The question in these lawsuits is a simple one: do the words in a law mean what they say? Or do they mean what the ATF would prefer they mean? We’ll see.

This week’s links

Spiritus Systems’ director of R&D walks you through his recce kit

Cool to see the rationale behind each choice.

A redditor discovers barrel length laws by accidentally making an SBR

Would be interesting to see how many people out there have SBRs without knowing it. There are something like 75 million gun owners in the US. How many know what the NFA is?

Eighth Circuit judge says (in dissent) that AR lowers aren’t firearms

The latest judge to weigh in on a topic that came up way back in OSD 51. We’re only going to be hearing more about this over time.

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