Fact: private citizens are allowed to manufacture their own firearms, as many as they like, without having a Federal Firearms License, and without giving these firearms a serial number. It is only when transferring that firearm to someone else that it needs a serial number and paperwork, and so forth. Fact: the lower receiver is the part of the AR-15 that is legally classified as the firearm, and if that part is less than 80% finished, it is legally not a firearm. Many Americans buy these unfinished blank receivers freely on the internet, finish the machining themselves, and are technically the private manufacturers of the resulting firearm, which is perfectly legal for them to own.
Seems pretty simple, right? Not if you are the BATFE. Take the case of CA resident Daniel Crowninshield, who began renting out his CNC mill to folks that wanted to finish out their 80% lowers. In 2013, an undercover BATFE agent documented how Crowninsheild helped him build a jig for a lower, instructed him on how to fixture it in the machine and how to start and run that machine, and then (at the agent’s request) sold him more lower receivers. In 2014, Crowninsheild was charged with unlawful manufacturing and dealing of firearms, and five other charges. In 2015, the BATFE made a new ruling (2015-1) that more clearly defined Crowninsheild’s activities as unlawful firearm manufacture. Last week, he plead guilty to two charges, including unlawful manufacturing and dealing of firearms.
This would have been interesting case to take to trial, but it’s doubtful that California juries and California judges would have made that a good idea, especially since the prosecution and media began referring to Crowninsheild exclusively as “Dr. Death,” one of his online nicknames. By the way, people should be careful of usernames and gamertags these days. “DreadB0dySlay3r” might seem like fun handle for racking up Call of Duty kill streaks, but if you ever get in some kind of real-life trouble it will make the headlines, the DA’s opening statement, and become your new public name forever.
But let’s get back to BATFE ruling 2015-1. Essentially, it confirms that if you finish out an 80% lower by yourself, it is legal. However, you must do so completely by yourself, and with only your own tools. If you rent, beg, or borrow a CNC mill, a drill press, or a file, the BATFE has declared that it’s no longer a private individual manufacturing the firearm, but suddenly, magically, an unlicensed firearm manufacturer. If you are the part owner of a tool, say, a Dremel that you and your brother got for Christmas in ‘98, the use of such a tool is highly questionable (and when gun-related things are highly questionable, the BATFE usually considers them highly prosecutable).
Even stranger, if you use my tools to finish your receiver, I am the one that suddenly becomes the unlicensed firearms manufacturer who gets highly prosecuted. This is very strange. If you rent tools from Lowes or Home Depot, you are the one that is legally responsible for what you do with them in every possible scenario… except this one. This would be like the president of U-haul going to prison if anyone broke the law in one of his trucks. And things gets even more ambiguous and confusing if you borrow tools or get help from a licensed firearms manufacturer, something legal and recommended in 2014 but now… probably a crime? For at least one of you?
This undecipherable double-speak shouldn’t be too surprising, since the BATFE often changes its mind, contradicts itself, and makes completely arbitrary decisions that only muddy the water more. When Cody Wilson began selling the Ghost Gunner, a small CNC mill that individuals could unequivocally and unambiguously own individually, Fedex and UPS refused to ship it. Fedex carefully stated, “We are uncertain at this time whether this device is a regulated commodity,” and therefore, “declined to ship this device until we know more about how it will be regulated.”
Maybe that was a smart move. Perhaps the BATFE would retroactively decide that shipping machining tools falls under the legal definition of “the unlawful distribution of firearms.” It seems like they make up rules as they go along, whenever they see things they don’t like.
After all, one of the (many) problems with gun control laws are that they seek to regulate devices that could potentially be used to commit crimes, rather than punishing those persons who have committed crimes. It’s a very backwards system, and once you start down this slippery slope, you also need to start regulating devices that could potentially be used to manufacture devices that could potentially be used to commit crimes, and so on, and on and on, all the way down to the point that everything made of metal needs regulating.
And with so many new materials and new manufacturing techniques being invented, the regulations need to updated all the time, usually by non-elected, non-legislative bodies, to become ever-wider in scope. And since it might not be physically possible to restrict ownership of all materials at all times, even information about firearms must be tightly controlled. And then enforcement of such sweeping legislation would require whole armies of bureaucrats, entire districts of federal lawyers, and so on, and on and on, all the way down to the point that, legally speaking, every citizen needs a BATFE agent looking over his should all the time to confirm that he isn’t a criminal.
Frankly, I’m shocked, shocked that our Government would approach things in such a backwards, complicated, top-heavy way that was so obviously destined to spin out of control.