There is no standard progression for the culture of firearms ownership. Whether for self-defense, personal interest, artistic development, or human rights, firearms culture is arguably more diverse than any political party, and certainly outpaces most activist communities, as the Venn diagram stretches across both demographics and world views. This is achieved due to a dedication to of a universal principle: it is an individual right to own a firearm, for whatever purpose, so long as it doesn't violate the rights of other human beings. It is no surprise that firearms culture as a whole takes issue against various casual infringements placed upon them arbitrarily. At the time of writing, nothing better exemplifies this than the restrictions on owning a Short Barreled Rifle, commonly referred to as an SBR.
What is an SBR / Short Barreled Rifle?
An SBR is a legal designation for a rifled firearm, shoulder-fired, with a barrel length of less than 16-inches, or an overall length less than 26-inches. These characteristics are entirely arbitrary in nature. For simplicity's sake, an SBR is a rifle with a barrel shorter than 16-inches long.
This designation came about with the National Firearms Act of 1934, under the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. It started as a desire to eliminate “undesireable” items through economic means. Suppressors, Short Barreled Rifles, Short Barreled Shotguns, Machine guns, and a catch-all called “Any Other Weapon (AOW) were now to be regulated separately and named.”Title II firearms”.
The cultural opposition takes issue with the distinction between an SBR and other rifles on three layers: the arbitrary definition of an SBR, the insolvency of its restriction, and the fundamentally infringing nature of the relationship between the enforcement agency and American citizens.
Why are we talking about the Legality of SBRs?
SBR are regulated under the NFA, and are technically legal to own, with restrictions. The process to legally acquire an SBR requires that the purchaser submits paperwork with the BATFE effectively requesting the permission of the government–and paying an additional $200 tax for the purchase of the firearm, in addition to a NICS background check. In 1934, $200 was the equivalent of ~$4,075 dollars in 2021. A large part of the reason you see more Title II firearms now is that [thankfully] the additional taxation did not increase along with inflation.
Special restrictions are applied to the transfer of the firearm to another person, be they next-of-kin or anyone else. A pistol may be converted into an SBR, via an ATF form 1 process which still incurs the $200 tax, and registers the firearm as an SBR, subject to the restrictions thereof. Various states have outright banned the possession of SBRs, and the crossing of state lines with one as an individual requires an approved ATF form 5320.20 to avoid breaking federal law.
As stated, SBRs and all other Title II items are registered to the owner. That means the BATFE has a list of everyone who owns a legally registered SBR; to include name, address, fingerprints, and photograph. Furthermore, the Chief Law Enforcement Officer (CLEO, typically a county sheriff) also has access to all of this information. Despite how firearms are often portrayed in the media, It is not the same as other firearms (which still require a NICS background check to purchase, but do not create a registry).
A Perfect Example of Arbitrary Distiction
With the criteria of an SBR listed above, each element is subject to scrutiny. Identifying the physical difference between a firearm that can be purchased over the counter with an appropriate background check, from an SBR, incurring the additional administrative and financial burden on the owner.
The act of rifling a barrel at one time held much more significance than it does today, dramatically increasing the accuracy of a firearm over distance. In our current year, however, it is difficult to even find a firearm other than a shotgun that is not rifled, as even handguns as small as a SIG P365 include them. Hardly a distinguishing factor, if Rifling is upheld as the difference between an SBR and a non-NFA item, we must conclude that having greater accuracy is seen as a factor in the designation.
Part of the designation for an SBR is that it is shoulder-fired. The distinction between a pistol and a rifle can accurately be described as a social construct. The etymology of the word Pistol gives a hint of how it has been thought of in the past, as the early use comes from the 1550's French word pistolet which could have denoted a small firearm or a dagger at that time. If we think of an SBR like a short-sword as compared to a two-hander, however, it begins to sound a little like something from a video game, not reality.
The ability to increase stability when aiming a firearm by having more points of contact with it, such as a stock or brace or foregrip, only aids the wielder at hitting what they are aiming for. The concept of ‘shoulder-fired' as a designator must either be considered merely an arbitrary cultural construct, or a restriction on more accurate firearms.
Pistol Braces add a further complication to the mix, as they increase the stability of a firearm without requiring it to be ‘shoulder-fired' but the real crux of the issue this: barrel length.
In theory, the smaller a firearm is, the easier it is to conceal. Conversely, generally speaking, the shorter a barrel, the less it performs in all relevant metrics: projectile velocity, felt recoil, and accuracy. Although not ad absurdum, a longer barrel allows for higher velocity, which affects the trajectory of the projectile. Some rounds, such as NATO-issued 5.56, are less effective in short barrels in a lethal sense because the typical issued load relies on a higher velocity for its primary wounding mechanism; if a barrel is too short to achieve this velocity, the firearm is less effective unless special loads are used. When it comes to SBR Ammo, choice matters.
Even if shorter barrels can underperform in regards to ballistics, a short barrel is easier to conceal. Enter a world of gangsters and trench coats, and we can easily imagine nefarious actors hiding guns underneath long coats. If this is considered common sense then we must also conclude that common sense includes an aspect of discrimination.
While we wait for someone to come up with a justification for the length of 16-inches to be the demarcation between a firearm that can be purchased with a background check, we can't help but be reminded that *originally* SBRs applied to barrels under 18-inches (the law was changed after WWII to accomodate for the wildly various barrel lengths of wartime-produced M1 Carbines).
We recognize that each of these criteria inherently infringes on firearms ownership through additional financial and administrative burdens, on a basis that is arbitrary at best, or culturally malicious at worst.
In order to legally possess an SBR or Short-Barreled Rifle, a citizen of the United States must submit a form to the BATFE that includes their personal information, a set of fingerprints, and a photograph, as well as $200. Essentially an application, registering the item to the owner, in the age of information, creates a registry or makes one possible of all owners of NFA items. A registry creates an imbalance of power and disrupts the relationship between the enforcing agency and the citizens of a country. Those with access to the registry are given a sanctioned power to discriminate on either A: who can and cannot own said firearms, and B: unjustified, non-representative advantages, not to mention use-of-force privileges.
Two elements draw ire, and for different reasons. In 2021, a $200 tax on an arbitrarily distinguished item disproportionately impacts lower-income households–and it priced out plenty of rich people in 1934 too. Remember, the goal was elimination through economic discrimination.
Any regulation that discriminates on the basis of economic status has racial ramifications as well, as the two are inextricably linked in the United States.
Two common challenges to a restriction of this sort refer to the types of crimes considered. First, illegally owning an SBR is a victimless crime. Second, and more importantly, the potential of a crime being committed is not the same as committing a crime. Being able to commit murder is not the same as committing murder.
Imposing a registration only creates the illusion of regulation. The only people who submit to registration are the ones who are least likely to commit crimes with the possessed firearms, and thus the system actively punishes people for acting in the way it desires them to do so.
Why Process Matters
As an NFA item, an SBR will be regulated by the BATFE. The Bureau of Alchohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives is tasked with enforcing regulations on items within their namesake. The justification for the existence of just such an agency, and the powers it contains, often go unquestioned. Further, a long-standing grievance against the BATFE is that it is somehow permitted to both interpret and enforce restrictions at its will.
The nature of representative government enforces a balance between those who hold power and those who are governed. So when the ability to restrict what a population can and cannot own privately, be it through direct prohibitions, or by softer means such as fiscal and administrative burdens, the result is nothing short of an imbalance.
This is exacerbated when the head of an Agency such as the BATFE is appointed, not elected.
Two present cases demonstrate this dynamic. The first is infringement through definition such as with 80 percent receivers. By every definition provided of what constitutes a firearm, an 80 percent component drastically lacks all criteria. As a result, the BATFE proposed to change the definition of a receiver in order to include, and thus regulate this part.
More problematic, however, is the vast inconsistency displayed over the classification and reclassification of various firearms and firearms components. At one point, a bump-stock is merely a piece of plastic, and the next, it is a machine gun in and of itself. A brace for a pistol is a legal, non-NFA item, and in the next moment, an item with a brace on it is now considered an SBR.
In some cases, an item itself is suddenly classified as a complete firearm, such as with the newest BATFE literature regarding Rare Breed Triggers' FRT-15, which, in itself, is only a trigger. And more importantly, objectively does not fit the definition for a machine gun.
The result is this: an NFA item is whatever the BATFE determines to be an NFA item, and the possession of such item is subject to the regulation of the BATFE, which may change at any moment. Cool.
The SBR Problem
The nature of SBR regulation in the United States must undergo review, as in its current state, the criteria which designate a Short Barreled Rifle do not hold up outside of arbitrary distinctions. This puts undue strain on the restrictions themselves, as they are predatory at best, antithetical to the founding principles of the United States. Finally, it is not the BATFE that can solve this problem alone, but the imposition of restrictions on, and oversight of, the BATFE by elected officials.
The nature of a just society does not run on a single agency or small group of people infringing on the rights of the many, simply on the grounds of what they *could* do. It does not punish people for victimless crimes, such as owning an SBR, nor does it give some people the right to dictate the safety and security of another, by defining away what they can or cannot legally own.
Recently the ATF has moved to consider large frame pistols with stabilizing braces as Short Barreled Rifles, subject to their regulation, registration, and taxation. While this does highlight the arbitrary distinction between a large-frame pistol, a rifle, and an SBR, it shows that the ATF is moving in the wrong direction towards a Brace Ban. Instead of correcting the arbitrary, and thus barely enforceable NFA, it seeks to wrap more firearms up under its regulation, further infringing on the rights of Americans, and disenfranchising them from their own government.
While this dynamic may look gloomy, it is up to us, the people, to impose checks and balances on the ATF, through elected representatives. Another deeper component in furthering the firearms culture in America is the active participation in our communities, wherever they may be. For it is said, they only govern by the consent of the governed, be it a representative government, or any other.
For more on action against the ATF, check out the Firearms Policy Coalition.