In the world of criminal law, words matter. Cases are often lost and won based on the prevailing interpretation of the relevant statutory and regulatory language. This is also the case for federal firearm enforcement.
For decades, federal prosecutors and regulators at the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) have relied on what some call an archaic definition of the word “gun.” This agency defines the frame (or receiver) of a firearm as a gun.
However, with AR-15-style weapons, a frame is made of two separate parts: the upper and lower receivers. Neither of these parts could fire a bullet on their own, but ATF and federal prosecutors have treated these individual parts as guns in order to regulate who can obtain them.
A significant part of ATF’s mission is to prevent certain people — those legally prohibited from possessing a gun — from being able to legally obtain the separate parts they could use to make a firearm. However, the discrepancy between the law as it is written and the construction of AR-15-style weapons is starting to cause panic within the federal gun enforcement community.
Defense attorneys are making a “plain reading of the law” argument in efforts to invalidate assertions that their clients are guilty of having possessed or sought to possess a gun. They argue that one part of the receiver does not make a gun and should therefore not be treated as a firearm.
The courts are starting to listen. Since 2016, at least five defendants have seen their cases or charges dropped or have avoided prison. Recently, an Ohio federal judge sided with the defense’s argument that a plain reading of the law necessitated a dismissal and said that the legal definition of the word “gun” is something ATF has a duty to fix.