Judge Finds Serious ‘Disconnect’ in ATF’s Classification of AR-15 Lower Receivers as ‘Firearms’

Should the ATF be able to classify an AR-15 lower receiver as a “firearm”? One judge says no.

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.”

SEE ALSO: DIY: AR-15 Trigger Installation – RISE Armament Drop-In Assembly

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.

SEE ALSO: Getting Out of a Jam – Clearing Malfunctions in an AR-15

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.

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About the author: Jordan Michaels has been reviewing firearm-related products for over four years and enjoying them for much longer. With family in Canada, he’s seen first hand how quickly the right to self-defense can be stripped from law-abiding citizens. He escaped that statist paradise at a young age, married a sixth-generation Texan, and currently lives in Waco. Follow him on Instagram @bornforgoodluck and email him at jordan@gunsamerica.com.

{ 43 comments… add one }
  • Angel April 1, 2021, 7:16 am

    He took the sweetheart deal like a coward he had a chance to make a major victory vs the atf and folded.

  • Troutman October 20, 2019, 8:24 am

    The whole problem with a confiscation is the technology to manufacture a firearm is not difficult. As in this case the machinist has an CNBC machine and can make parts easily. How many more mom and pop shops can do the same thing. In hard times desperate people will do it. Don’t forget how well prohibition worked out.

  • Bartman October 19, 2019, 3:22 pm

    Anyone with any sense whatsoever does not wish for another civil war. Too many innocents caught in the middle. The communist left may push it on us, that is what they want. May be the only way to obtain total control over the citizenry of this great country. They have been trying for years through politics, education and media, to control us and they are winning. Just a matter of time! Don’t give up your 2A rights in any small way, just a step to total firearm bans. Without 2A we will have only the rights the “ruling class” deems necessary to keep us in line. If the war comes internally, so come the russians, chinese and other commies to grab a piece of us. Keep shooting, reloading and being American!

  • Reb82 October 18, 2019, 7:23 pm

    The way I see it the constitutional right is the right to bear arms why does the government want to try to change it when it was written in the constitutional rights it does not say you cannot own a fully automatic it doesn’t say you cannot own a semi-automatic you cannot convert a semi-automatic to a fully automatic it says right to bear arms with that being said it means semi or fully auto the government is trying to get it to where no one except law enforcement can have the right to bear arms am I fairy of the matter is they can go f*** their self I live in the south we eat sleep and breathe hunting whether it’s with a boat action 30 ought 6 AR 308 a 12-gauge shotgun with slug AR 50 cal muzzleloader the government will not buy back any of my guns is my second constitutional right I will die with my guns

  • Ted October 18, 2019, 4:34 pm

    I used to be for responsible gun control but now I see it’s pointless because of the Democrat haters. So I’ve decided to get my own firearms and CCP. The gov won’t protect my family and I from gun nuts so I will have to do it myself.
    You like to open carry? If I see your hand come within 4 inches of the firearm, you’ll be dead before you hit the ground. I won’t even need my baby Glock for that.

    • Blake October 16, 2020, 9:47 am

      Lighten up, Frances.

  • Martin Zuniga October 18, 2019, 4:01 pm

    The ATF does not have any law making powers but it seems that lately the lines between law and ATF policy blur! Look at what happened to the bump stock! It was all lip service that meant nothing and the ban can’t be federally enforced!! Thank god for judges like this that clear the air and don’t allow these gun grabbing agencies to get away with our rights!!!

  • Randy L Spade October 18, 2019, 3:21 pm

    The ATF has even ruled that engravings turn a lower or upper into a machine-gun. How does that work???

  • James October 18, 2019, 2:46 pm

    Gun buybacks can and will never work. Same as the war on drugs. Just more gov BS trying to get involved into something it shouldn’t.

    Given how many firearms are already owned in Murka, Ghetto Beto (yeah it’s lame, but so is he) isn’t thinking logically or realistically.

    Also, please do not lump all liberals/socialists into the same group. I am liberal (I don’t care what people do), I’m socialist (sad news if you didn’t already know this, America is already socialist bros: VA, SSA, Medicare, etc. Just not the Russia/China variety), I’m Canadian (immigrating legally, paying taxes and bleed red white and MF’ing blue), annnnnnnnnnnnd my blood red too much salt steak meat eating truck driving smoke too much liberal ass loves guns. AND I believe the gov HAS NO BUSINESS telling me what to do at all.

    Why do I want an AR? This is Murka! F your why! Why do I want a suppressor? God bless Murka! F yourself and your why!

    Also, don’t hate on Canada author bro… No place is perfect, grass is NEVER greener, etc.

    • Parker October 19, 2019, 5:24 pm

      We are not socialist. Those are socialist programs, but america isnt socialist yet. It will never really be.

  • Markus October 18, 2019, 2:35 pm

    Pardon my ignorance but was there a time when the ar bolt was the registered part?

    • dooood August 3, 2020, 11:22 am

      No.

  • MikeRoss October 18, 2019, 12:50 pm

    The BATFE wants it both ways. They call the SHF .50 BMG AR-15 upper a firearm and require it to have a serial number and be sold through an FFL. They also want to call AR-15 lower receivers firearms, but the law says a receiver is the part the barrel threads into. Bureaucratic autocrats.

    • James October 18, 2019, 2:53 pm

      Any opinion on the Beowulf AR-15 50? It sounds like an ideal home defense firearm.

      • Preston October 19, 2019, 5:15 pm

        That’s ridiculous…

    • Jeff Becker October 24, 2019, 10:00 am

      The problem with this for everyone would be if the next step was to make the upper the firearm ala FN FAL (which for many of us would at least double the number of “firearms” we own and make shipping problematic. A lower 80 % is pretty easy to do at home but milling an upper would take a CNC machine unless perhaps the other 20 % was cutting the ejection port, drilling the FA holes and threading the front end…probably just easier to stock up on them when they’re as cheap as 30 bucks a piece

      • Lloyd A Smith November 29, 2019, 9:27 am

        That’s exactly what a fellow was doing. One fine day, the local chicken-shit ATF agent came into my licensed premise with all kinds of wild accusations and proceeded to confiscate a dozen stripped lowers that the customer had not picked up yet. The agent charges that they guy bought too many and demanded to know why i had not reported his activity. I asked just where does it say how many lowers someone could buy and WHERE does it say I’m required to report him? His response was that morally, I should have called them. I asked his Highness why the online vendor had not felt “morally” to report they had sold this guy x number of lowers? He said that was his next call! The customer in question has a fine job, nice home, a wife and 5 children, several of which are adopted, passes a background check instantly and is generally an upstanding citizen. On the same day they came here, they confronted him at his place of employment. Probably didnt go down well with his boss. No warrant should have meant no confiscation but the law doesn’t mean shit to the ATF! i barely make a living and can’t afford to challenge them. I’m a firm believer that justice is bought and paid for in this country! Look at Clinton Cartel.

  • Jager October 18, 2019, 11:53 am

    Fuck the ATF and ALL control initiatives! They are basically unconstitutional, allowed to exist soley by apathy and confidence in a corrupt Govt. quilty of violating our Constitution. What part of “shall not be infringed” do you people not comprehend? Any law passed in conflict of the Constitution is moot, and should not be followed.

  • Jim Matters October 18, 2019, 10:35 am

    If a dem wins in 2020, I am buying 20 AR bare lowers and when the govt wants to “buy back” my ARs, I will happily sell them my $40 lower (ATF firearm) for $700 each.

    • SuperG October 18, 2019, 10:57 am

      You are wise beyond your years! 🙂

    • Dave October 18, 2019, 11:25 am

      There NOT going to give you $700 per firearm on a must turn in buy back, probably get a $100 gift card of some sort per firearm

      • Tommygun851 October 18, 2019, 12:24 pm

        Dave, I live in CT😢 the first time the state had a buy back program, they offered $100 for ANY gun and $500 for any “assault style” rifle! People were going to Hoffman’s Gun Shop and buying SKS Rifles (new in the box) for $99 and getting $500 for them! The state ran out of money for the buy back program in two days! They announced that “THE PROGRAM WAS A SUCCESS!” Democrats are SO STUPID!!!

    • Jerry w Robinson October 18, 2019, 1:10 pm

      Jim never give away your game plan or count your chickens before they hatch. I know the government is stupid but they have spent many years screwing us out of our money and been getting away with It. So keep your plan to yourself and stick It to them bro

    • Bob October 18, 2019, 5:24 pm

      I live in a rural area and for some reason they elected a dem sheriff. They instituted a buyback program this month…$20 per complete firearm. Guess how that’s working out for him?

    • Preston October 19, 2019, 5:22 pm

      They’re only giving 25 for non complete guns. And 100 for complete rifles. That’s how it was in new jersey… theyll never get anything here in texas

  • Mortarman October 18, 2019, 9:03 am

    For everybody that likes to play mix-and-match with AR bits and pieces, this has all the earmarkings of a “Be careful what you wish for” moment.
    Much as I distrust the ATF’s regulation writing, their treatment of lower receivers as the legally identifiable receiver was the most pragmatic approach, in addition to being a straightforward acceptance of Armalite and Colt’s practice of stamping the serial number into that component.
    Think about the consequences if you trash that as an accepted practice.
    Upper receivers would almost certainly become the new identifying part, especially if you made a rational comparison to other military semi-auto rifles such as the M-1 Garand. How do you get unique serial numbers on all those AR-15 (and AR-10) upper receivers currently out there? Selling unserialized upper receivers becomes a crime, and who wants to be legally responsible for marking them with unique serial numbers *and* doing all the legally required recordkeeping?

    • CplGumby October 18, 2019, 10:16 am

      Interesting point. How would this change SBR classification/registration? Would the upper then be the registered portion, would upper and lower have to be registered, or would that become a classic ATF Hot Mess of a situation?

    • Elapid King October 18, 2019, 10:55 am

      I fully agree, this has all of the hallmarks of someone attempting to run their own business and is readily attempting to throw everyone else “under the bus” with his defense.
      That said, this being the most dangerous and absolutely selfish course of action to take on his part, it can only hurt a lot of firearms owners should the ATF decide to alter their classification of what constitutes the receiver on the AR platform.

      • Brandon October 18, 2019, 2:01 pm

        Yes, it’s incredibly selfish to tell the ATF to go fuck themselves. The ATF wrote the law, the guy abided by its letter. End of court case.
        Your on a ridiculous high horse. It’s like all the SBR running around tagged as pistols. It’s blatant disregard of the spirit but abides exactly to the letter of their law. I guess all those guys are selfish pricks as well? What about the guys in Colorado that ignore the mag ban because As Written in the letter of the law it’s unenforceable? Selfish pricks?
        Assholes like you tried to talk the founding fathers out of the Revolutionary War because they were being selfish pricks. Damn.

        • Elapid King October 19, 2019, 11:35 am

          Are you really so short sighted as to not foresee the possible long term ramifications if such a defense is allowed to stand on it’s merits?
          Perhaps you don’t care about the likely fallout from this, but since everyone else will have to live under the umbrella of the new rules, you can take your self aggrandizement and leap from a cliff.
          By the way, those who speak of rebellion so cavalierly, as you do, are almost always the first ones to capitulate.

    • Stacy Leighton October 19, 2019, 3:43 pm

      If you go on the ATF website it clearly states that any gun you make at home (yes it’s legal) has been since before we were a country does not require a serial number you just can’t make them to sell them without a FFL

  • Mike V October 18, 2019, 8:38 am

    Yeah we know where this is headed, more control.

  • Evan October 18, 2019, 8:03 am

    If this ruling survives appeal, it could be a major blow to all gun control efforts.

    • Elapid King October 18, 2019, 11:07 am

      Correction, if this survives appeal, it will only confound all current owners as the ATF will begin classifying all upper receivers as the firearm.
      That said, how many owners currently possess a single lower to a wide array of upper receivers.
      If the upper courts concur with the defense in this case, then the upper receivers will be reclassified as the firearm, thus frustrating any efforts to resell any uppers into the future.

    • Robert Messmer October 18, 2019, 9:13 pm

      Since the victim and prosecutors struck a plea deal, exactly why would this non-binding decision be appealed?

  • J Franks October 18, 2019, 7:44 am

    We need a civil war now.

    • Jonathan Lemaire October 18, 2019, 10:37 am

      You must have never been to war, and have a traitors heart. The right way to do anything in our government is through lobby and voting. To even hope for civil war sickens me, as I love all fellow citizens no matter if they don’t agree with me, that’s what Patriots do.

      • dan October 18, 2019, 11:13 am

        the way you write i can’t help but tell you in my opinion you and others that think like you are the reson thing are so wrong now . every day we lose our freedom ,and its because you and your kind will put your faith in a corupt system .someday when its all gone ,you can look in the miror and know you let it all happen.

      • Troy Lindstrand October 18, 2019, 11:28 am

        Lobbying is what got our country in the mess it is. It’s what made congress the cesspool it’s become with 30-40 year morons that are supposed to represent the people

      • SuperG October 18, 2019, 11:43 am

        I would not accuse someone has having a traitor’s heart. A lot of people are seeing the dirty tricks that states are playing in order to keep people from voting for Trump, and if those tricks work and they install a Democrat shill, I can see the people rising up for justice and to protect the Constitution. If they suddenly change and begin playing by the rules, then I will peacefully suffer another Obama era, unless they try to take away my Constitutional rights, because I know if one is allowed to go, they all will.

  • Cam October 18, 2019, 6:20 am

    Under the usc definition an at receiver would not be made until both the upper and lower come together do to the fact that both are missing vital parts to fulfill the definition. So using the definition a completed lower should be no different than an 80% if it it sold without an upper.

    • Elapid King October 18, 2019, 11:09 am

      Then the law will simply forbid the selling of the components separately.
      It’s as simple as that.

  • Rangemaster11B October 18, 2019, 3:45 am

    Just as the Democratic Peoples Republic of Kalifornia requires all “precursor” gun parts to process through a licensed dealer.

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