A judge in California issued a tentative order this week finding a “disconnect” in the ATF’s classification of AR-15 lower receivers as “firearms.”
The case began when the ATF launched an investigation and subsequent prosecution against Joseph Roh, who they accused of illegally manufacturing and selling AR-15 receivers in a warehouse outside Los Angeles.
After deliberating for more than a year, US District Court Judge James V. Selna determined that because an AR-15 lower receiver does not house the bolt or breechblock and is not threaded to the barrel, as defined in 27 C.F.R. § 478.11, it does not constitute a “receiver” and cannot be considered a “firearm” under federal law.
“No reasonable person would understand that a part constitutes a receiver where it lacks the components specified in the regulation,” Selna wrote.
Therefore, the judge determined, “Roh did not violate the law by manufacturing receivers.”
The case garnered national media attention after CNN reported that prosecutors in the case struck a plea deal with Roh to avoid the judge’s tentative order becoming permanent.
According to CNN, “Sources familiar with the agreement said prosecutors wanted to strike a deal in order to prevent Selna’s order from becoming permanent, drawing publicity, and creating case law that could hamper ATF enforcement efforts.”
Rather than face jail time for a separate charge of illegally selling completed rifles, Roh opted for a sweetheart deal in which he will plead guilty to the charges against him, keep his nose clean for a year, and walk away with no criminal record.
Roh appeared on the ATF’s radar after the feds learned that the California man had been hosting “build parties” at his warehouse south of Los Angeles. Customers could pay $1,000 to have their 80-percent receivers converted into functioning receivers and to have a complete rifle built for them.
Roh tried to avoid obtaining a Federal Firearms License by asking his customers to pay $25 to join his “gun club” and making them push the button on the CNC machine that would mill their 80-percent receiver.
ATF agents charged him with manufacturing and dealing firearms without a license.
Roh’s defense argued that their client could not be charged with manufacturing firearms because AR-15 lower receivers fall outside the definition of a “receiver” as understood by the ATF. According to 27 C.F.R. § 478.11, a receiver is defined as, “That part of a firearm which provides housing for the hammer, bolt or breechblock, and firing mechanism, and which is usually threaded at its forward portion to receive the barrel.”
Since an AR-15 lower receiver only houses the hammer and firing mechanism, it cannot be considered a receiver or a firearm, the defense argued.
Prosecutors countered that even though there are technical differences between the regulation and the lower receiver in Roh’s case, the ATF’s classification of AR-15 lower receivers as firearms is consistent with “the intent of federal gun laws,” according to CNN.
Furthermore, according to prosecutors, adopting the argument of Roh’s defense would “severely frustrate” enforcement of gun control regulations.
The judge sided with the defense in his tentative ruling, which is not binding and does not change how the ATF will categorize AR-15 lower receivers.
But the case does highlight yet another instance of the ATF twisting federal regulations to meet their needs. The judge also noted that the agency’s in-house classification of AR-15 lower receivers as firearms failed to meet the requirement for a notice-and-comment period and eventual publication in the Federal Register, as per standard rule-making procedures.