Last Updated on April 14, 2017
[NOTE: I am not a lawyer, or a representative of any law enforcement or government agency. The information provided here is the best I could find, but must not be taken to be legal advice. If you decide to engage in the described activity, you assume all responsibility of ensuring that this information is CURRENTLY accurate, and investigating the CURRENT state and local laws of your location. Furthermore, you assume all legal and physical liability resulting from your engagement in this activity.]
In the United States, if you want a particular firearm, and you are legally allowed to purchase that firearm by your Federal, State and Local governments, the easiest methodology is just to buy it. This has some potential downsides. If you buy it from a licensed dealer (a FFL – Federal Firearms License – holder), then you will need to go through a background check and fill out paperwork identifying you and the firearm, which is kept on file. You can only buy what some company decided to make or what is left on the shelf. Plus the price you pay will tend to be close to “list price” (or even higher if demand far outstrips supply). Alternatively, you may be able to avoid the bureaucracy and possibly get a better price if you can find a private party with the desired firearm for sale. Of course, then there is a risk of purchasing a stolen or defective firearm, or unintentionally violating some law with unpleasant consequences.
A third methodology is being pushed lately – making it yourself. Most often, this is the AR-15 style firearm, although the parts for others, including the AR-10 (Armalite), AR-308 (DPMS), 1911 (Colt), 10/22 (Ruger), AK47 and even some Glocks, seem to be available. Such a firearm is often referred to as a “Ghost Gun” because it does not exist in any firearms database. Can you really do this? Yes (most places in the U.S., as of early 2017 at least), although there are some potential “gotchas” which those pushing this methodology either don’t know or don’t care if you know.
Building your own firearms may be a pain, unless you like doing mechanical things like that, and might well cost you more than just buying the thing ready-made, especially if you have to buy the tooling. The advantages (other than pride and any fun you have) are that you can get exactly what you want, you will know how to repair and modify it, and you don’t need to have the background check or fill out the paperwork, either of which could ease confiscation some day. No, this is not paranoia; it is history. Look at the places that used to have guns allowed but then no longer allowed them, and note that those places implemented registration first. It is much easier to implement confiscation of something if the government knows where they all are… “Oh, but that can’t happen here”? Check out what happens in Chicago if you miss your yearly registration date.
The “Fine Print”
The receiver of a firearm (the main part which has or could have a serial number) is considered to BE the firearm. Everything else is “just parts”. Any item (in particular a partial receiver) which is in a condition where it “cannot be used as a firearm or readily converted into a firearm” is generally considered NOT a firearm and does not need to follow any “firearm” laws or Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE) regulations. These not (yet) firearm receivers are commonly referred to as “80% receivers”, although this is not a “technical” term, merely a marketing term based on a BATFE general principle that if 20% of the major work to make it a firearm remains to be done, it is not a firearm. It may seem silly to consider an AR-15 receiver as a “firearm” since by itself it does not look like and cannot be used as a firearm, but it does follow the principle since it is “easy” and “quick” to install the buffer tube, trigger group parts and attach the top part, and then you do have what is unquestionably a firearm. And be glad this is the way it is, since you don’t have to go through any annoyances to buy or ship or install other parts of the firearm.
In the case of the AR style firearms, “80%” means that the cavity in which the trigger, hammer and other trigger-group parts are mounted cannot be already milled out or partially milled out or even marked, and no trigger group pin holes can be marked, or partially or completely drilled. Since a legal 80% receiver is “not a firearm”, anyone can buy one (subject to State and Local laws) and it can be shipped (within the U.S.) by any method. Note that a source of these which has not submitted a sample to the BATFE and had it validated as “not a firearm” could possibly sell you one which the BATFE then decides IS a firearm, resulting in unpleasant consequences (as happened with EP Armory’s earlier 80% which had the trigger group cavity molded in a different color). Therefore, before buying an “80% receiver”, it is wise to ensure you are buying one which has been BATFE validated.
Anyone who meets all Federal, State and Local laws to own that firearm can “finish” an 80% receiver, and even mount all the parts to make it fully functional. There are, of course, some conditions other than the possession and weapon type laws of your location.
Conditions under Which a Non-Licensed Person Can “Manufacture” An ALLOWED Firearm
An “allowed” firearm is one which does not violate any of the restrictions implemented by the NFA (National Firearms Act of 1935) or any later law or regulation. “NFA” firearms include fully automatic weapons, “sawed off” shotguns, short-barreled rifles (SBR), and weapons with bores greater than 0.5″ which are determined to have “no sporting purpose”. Yes, most shotguns have a bore greater than 0.5″ and are allowed because they have been determined to have “sporting purposes”.
The manufacture of firearms as a business requires a license from the BATFE. In order to avoid any appearance of manufacturing firearms without a license, any firearm which is self-manufactured should be intended strictly for the personal use of the person making it. It you do any part of the manufacturing for someone else, or have anyone physically help you make it or do part of the work for you, again, the specter of manufacturing without a license raises its head.
The BATFE has its benefits and a number of competent and diligent people working for it. It is, however, a government agency, and sometimes a representative makes a statement they believe to be true (or wish were true), but which is not supported by the underlying laws and regulations. As a result, a number of statements about restrictions on self-manufactured firearms are floating around out there, which are not supported by the actual regulations and rulings. To get to the bottom of what actually is and is not allowed in three key areas (location and tool ownership, markings and transfers), I went to Richard Vasquez, former Assistant Chief of the BATFE Firearms Technology Branch, now a consultant to the firearms industry. He has access to and knowledge of the statutes, regulations and official ATF letters and rulings, which are what is validly enforceable.
There are a number of claimed restrictions on ownership and location of equipment used. Most appear to not be valid; that is, current regulations allow you to use any equipment you own or borrow or rent in any location as long as neither the equipment nor location is used by a licensed manufacturer of firearms. Personally, I would err on the safe side and not use any commercial equipment or a commercial location (say a machine shop I owned or worked at or could get access to outside of business hours). If this were ever questioned, it may eventually be decided that it was allowable, but the process to get that result could be annoying.
If you meet the requirements and laws to self-manufacture a firearm, then there are no Federal or BATFE requirements for a non-NFA self-manufactured firearm to have a serial number or any specified markings on it. As long as it is in the possession of the person who made it, and no subsequent laws say otherwise, it is legal for the maker to possess it and use it.
It is claimed that you can’t sell or transfer a non-serialized firearm, or even bequeath it to someone. This is not the case. Just be sure not to give even a hint that you are engaged in the “business” of manufacturing (that is, you have a valid reason why personal use of that firearm is no longer desirable or practical).
Note that because the receiver IS the firearm, any restrictions refer to the finishing and transfer of the receiver only, not the assembly or modification of the complete firearm, or transfer of any other part.
Warning: California residents, make sure you check out AB 857. It requires you to apply for a serial number from the CA DOJ before making any firearm after July 1, 2018, and apply for a serial number from the CA DOJ on any firearm without a serial number which you possess after that date, with possession of a firearm without a serial number becoming a crime in the state on January 1, 2019. What this says to me, is if you want to make any, do it before July, 2018, and if you do make or have already made any, ensure you add your own serial number(s) before July of 2018. What is not clear is what you need to do for a commercial firearm (probably pre-68) which legally never had a serial number.
The law mentions manufacture and assembling. This is troublesome, since the Federal definition of a “firearm” is the receiver, so “assembling” would seem to be meaningless (if it is a firearm already, nothing you can do to it makes it “more” of a firearm). But since California seems to include adding parts under this bill, then it would seem that not only the receiver, but the whole firearm has to be completed before July to avoid the state number requirement, and they might even be able to harass firearms owners who after the July date, change out any parts on their firearm legally completed and with a serial number prior to that date.
It also seems to require polymer receivers to have a specified amount of a specific metal in it, prohibits transfers which Federal law permits, and prohibits manufacture of “assault weapons”. And CA interprets this to be “evil-looking” weapons such as the AR style. Of course, check out all the other CA laws which seem to ban possession of magazines with greater than 10 round capability, redefine “bullet button” rifles which previously were “non-assault” weapons as “assault weapons” now, and require all “assault weapons” to be registered with the state. Pretty much all you can do (besides move someplace saner) is build your AR-15 “featureless” (without adjustable stock, pistol grip or thumbhole stock, vertical forward grip or flash hider) and then it is not an assault weapon by California’s flakey definitions.
How a Legal Self-Manufactured Firearm Can Mess You Up
Ok, let us say that you carefully followed all the rules and regulations, and you are fully legal. You are safe, right? This is not necessarily so. Let us say some busybody sees your legal firearm and decides it “looks illegal”, so they call the authorities. Police or other officials look at it, and with no serial number, it doesn’t look kosher to them either. They might treat you as if the firearm was illegal, and then you would have to prove it is legal. That is, that you legally obtained all the parts and they were all non-restricted, that at that time you were allowed to build that type of firearm, that you intended it for personal use, that you did all the work yourself, and that the equipment and location used were legal for making it. Oh, and that no State or Local laws were violated, and no import/export restrictions (use of foreign parts is limited to some degree, and ITAR – International Traffic in Arms Regulations – prohibits export of most firearms parts) were violated.
The first should be fairly simple, just keep the receipts, making sure they have the date, identify the seller and purchaser, and describe what was purchased. Matching credit card statements or cancelled checks can be helpful.
Showing your intent is going to be rather more of a challenge. There is a period of time, beyond which if you still have the firearm, a reasonable case of intent of personal use can be made, but that time period is not defined anywhere. It might be wise to write a statement describing your intent, and get it notarized before starting construction.
A set of pictures or videos showing you doing each major step should be enough to show that you made it and identify the equipment and location.
It is important to keep good track of the significant dates when you manufactured the firearm, so the laws and regulations in effect at that time can be referenced. To avoid any import or export questions, buy American and keep it in America.
Tune in next time for a way to reduce the risks and annoyances of owning a self-manufactured firearm and a look at the various ways you can complete a receiver.