U.S.A. –-(AmmoLand.com)- Internal ATF documents obtained by the Gun Owners Foundation (GOF) and Gun Owners of America (GOA) through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request reveal that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), once again and, to no one’s surprise, has completely reversed its own internal guidance in order to prosecute Polymer80, a company that manufactures gun parts and other non-firearms such as 80% frames and receivers.
ATF Raids Polymer80
In December of 2020, ATF raided the headquarters of Polymer80, claiming the company was illegally manufacturing and distributing firearms, failing to pay related taxes, shipping firearms in interstate commerce, and not conducting background checks for sales of its popular “Buy, Build, Shoot” or BBS kits.
These Buy, Build, Shoot kits include an unfinished “80%” handgun frame—which ATF has explicitly said does not constitute a “firearm” or the “frame or receiver” of a firearm under federal law—along with the remaining parts necessary to manufacture and assemble a functioning firearm.
Polymer80 obtained permission from ATF to sell a “compact” size 80% frame back in 2017. In its approval letter, ATF listed six frame “[m]achining operations or design features not yet present or completed” and stated that the compact P80 frame was “not a ‘firearm’ as defined by the GCA” or Gun Control Act of 1968.
After receiving a favorable ATF classification for its “compact” size frame, Polymer80 then sought approval from the ATF to sell virtually the same product, only this time as a slightly bigger “full size” 80% frame. ATF documents obtained by GOF-GOA tell the rest of the story.
In February of 2018, ATF refused to “render a classification” on the full-size Polymer80 frame, claiming that Polymer80 had not submitted a complete product. Of course, ATF only needed to classify the 80% frame, and had no statutory grounds for its refusal to do so. Still, ATF claimed that the 80% frame was “simply a component of a larger product” (including Polymer80’s jig, drill bits, and frame pins) even though the frame itself lacked the same six “[m]achining operations or design features” as the ATF approved compact model.
ATF’s Flawed Legal Theory
Why did ATF demand that Polymer80 submit a complete “standard pistol frame kit” instead of just an 80% frame? Oddly, ATF’s classification (or lack thereof) letter references not only the definition of “firearm” found in 18 U.S.C. Section 921(a)(3), but also the definition of a “handgun,” found in Section 921(a)(29)”:
“a ‘handgun’ is defined as ‘a firearm which has a short stock and is designed to be held and fired by the use of a single hand’ and ‘any combination of parts from which a firearm . . . can be assembled.’”
ATF’s letter to Polymer80 claims that, while a P80 frame may not be a firearm by itself, when combined with other parts, the package somehow might be a “combination of parts from which a handgun … can be assembled.”
To our knowledge, this is the first time that ATF has made this sort of claim, grossly misinterpreting and misapplying Section 921(a)(29)’s definition of handgun. Indeed, ATF’s Polymer80 search warrant went even further, misleadingly quoting from the statute, leaving out the words “described in subparagraph (A)” and replacing them with an “…” ellipses.
On the contrary, the full statute reads as follows:
“(29) The term “handgun” means—
“(A) a firearm which has a short stock and is designed to be held and fired by the use of a single hand; and
“(B) any combination of parts from which a firearm described in subparagraph (A) can be assembled” (emphasis added).
Contrary to ATF’s outlandish claim, a “handgun” as defined in Section (a)(29) is not another way for an item to be a “firearm” under Section (a)(3). If that were the case, then one would expect that language would be found in Section (a)(3). Instead, both parts of Section (a)(29) require that a weapon already be a firearm under section (a)(3) before it can be further classified as a “handgun” under section (a)(29).
In other words, how can an unfinished frame, which does not meet the definition of a “firearm”, nevertheless meet the definition of a “handgun” if every “handgun” must first be a “firearm”?
The short answer is that it can’t. ATF put the cart before the horse in its zeal to crack down on Polymer80’s products.
This convoluted definitional mistake shows us what ATF’s true intent is here. The agency wanted to ban Polymer80’s products, and obviously regrets having approved of the original Polymer80 frame. Thus, rather than blatantly reverse its original letter, ATF instead decided to pretend that unregulated Polymer80 frames magically become “handguns” when combined with other parts.
But, as explained above, ATF’s anti-gun agenda doesn’t jive with the statute Congress enacted.
ATF’s Second Flawed Legal Theory
Interestingly enough, by the time ATF published its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) Definition of “Frame or Receiver” and Identification of Firearms, it dropped this faulty “handgun” argument based on Section (a)(29), opting instead for a different faulty argument about the Section (a)(3) definition of “firearm.”
In the NPRM, ATF most recently argues that:
“Weapon parts kits such as these are ‘firearms’ under the GCA because they are designed to or may readily be converted to expel a projectile by the action of an explosive.”
But this ATF claim is just as ridiculous as the last. How can Polymer80’s Buy, Build, Shoot kit be “readily… converted” into a functioning “weapon” without the 80% frame first being manufactured into a completed “frame”? And once it’s a finished frame, it’s already a “firearm” even before it’s assembled into a functional weapon.
In other words, an unfinished frame is manufactured into a “firearm” long before it becomes a complete “weapon,” meaning the addition of parts in a “kit” have literally nothing to do with when a Polymer80 becomes a firearm. Again, ATF’s logic defies reality and the text of the statute Congress enacted.
ATF’s 180 Degree Reversal on Firearm Parts Kits
But enough with the legal mumbo jumbo. Not only does ATF’s attack on Polymer80 violate the clear statutory text, but also ATF’s claims about Polymer80’s BBS kits are diametrically opposed to previously issued classification letters, which promise that it is perfectly legal to sell kits exactly like Polymer80’s Buy, Build, Shoot Kit.
As documents obtained by GOA/GOF show, in an August 16th, 2006 letter to a redacted company, ATF approved the sale of do-it-yourself gun “kits,” stating:
“your incomplete receiver was previously examined… and was classified as a non-firearm. Selling this item as a “kit” with blueprints, parts, etc., will not change this classification.”
Indeed, ATF agents saw fit to include “etc.” in their classification, insinuating that nothing—no matter what—you put in a “kit” along with an unfinished “frame or receiver” will change that classification.
This letter demonstrates that ATF’s attack on Polymer80 is a sham. The American people need look no further than this ATF classification letter to understand that Polymer80 was set up. Polymer80 did nothing wrong when they sold Buy, Build, Shoot kits and ATF’s own internal documents and interpretive guidance proves it.
ATF’s Reversal Leads to Absurd Results
ATF has completely reversed its prior interpretation of federal law about what constitutes a “firearm,” manufacturing a convoluted, nonsensical definition in order to persecute Polymer80. Where does that leave gun owners?
In a recent April 30th, 2021 letter, also obtained through the GOA/GOF FOIA request, ATF was asked to determine whether a 24-ounce metal water bottle is a firearm. Along with the water bottle, the requester submitted a sheet of paper explaining how a person theoretically could take the water bottle, purchase additional parts including a barrel and grill lighter, and turn the water bottle into a functioning firearm.
You might think that, in response, ATF would have simply stated the obvious – that this is a water bottle, not a firearm. Well, you would be wrong.
After conducting a technical examination of the water bottle, ATF reported that it “cannot classify whether the submitted [water bottle] is, or is not, a “firearm” as defined in the GCA or NFA.”
According to ATF’s absurd reasoning, if a water bottle “was possessed with all the parts and instructions necessary to complete it into a weapon … this combination of parts could be considered a kit … and a firearm under the GCA or NFA.”
As a result of its silly new rules, ATF now finds itself unable to decide whether a water bottle is a gun. This is hardly what Americans deserve from an agency tasked with regulating their constitutionally protected rights. If ATF can justify banning water bottles, then how is an AR-15 or a Glock safe from the sticky hands of the government?
This article was written by Aidan Johnston, director of federal affairs for Gun Owners of America. Follow Aidan on Twitter @RealGunLobbyist.
Gun Owners of America
Gun Owners of America has previously supported the right of members and staff to carry firearms on Capitol Hill for self-defense, as GOA supports the rights of all law-abiding citizens to carry firearms in their workplace. Gun Owners of America is a grassroots organization representing more than two million gun owners nationwide and is dedicated to protecting the right to keep and bear arms without compromise.