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Published On: Mon, Jul 6th, 2020

Global Pandemic and Guns: More Owners are Building Firearms, Not Buying

With the spread of Coronavirus rapidly accelerating – Dr. Anthony Fauci, who leads the federal Coronavirus taskforce, briefed Congress and said cases could reach 100,000 per day without action – a new phenomenon is taking root in America’s Second Amendment sects: First-time gun ownership is skyrocketing. According to the New York Times, 2.4 million firearms were sold in just several weeks this year, with a sales spike of at least 71% reported in April. Current data say that trend is continuing, with May and June breaking more gun sale records.

Yet with new shutdowns looming in the growing wake of Covid-19, and brick-and-mortar sporting goods stores and gun dealers struggling to keep inventory, gun owners have turned to a niche market previously reserved for more experienced shooters and machinist-enthusiasts. Often classified as “ghost guns” by media outlets, gun-making kits that are not considered firearms under federal law are proliferating across U.S. states as Americans seek to arm themselves. Only now, new and veteran gun owners alike aren’t simply buying their arms, they’re building them from scratch.

Rise of the Receiver Blank

Federal firearm laws are filled with legalese, nuance, and little-known statutes. Most of those statutes restrict gun ownership, but one tenant of the Gun Control Act of 1968 says, “a license is not required to make a firearm solely for personal use.” And while most would read current federal law to interpret that firearms require serial numbers – implying they are all regulated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives – that isn’t the case. 

GCA68 also says that, “[The act] requires manufacturers and importers of firearms to identify them with a number or other identification mark. Subsection (b) makes unlawful the obliteration, removal, or alteration of the number and the possession of a firearm when the number or mark has been obliterated, removed, or altered.” 

Except this only applies to licensed manufacturers. These statutes don’t require individual firearm owners to engrave any markings or serial numbers on their firearms made for personal use. With gun store shelves dried up and online Federal Firearm Licensees marking more product out-of-stock, more gun owners, even those who’ve never pulled a trigger, are turning to these little-known statutes to exercise their Second Amendment rights.

But making a firearm from scratch requires expensive, complex equipment. For the unlicensed individual making a gun for personal use, such costs would be prohibitively expensive. Enter the “receiver blank”, as the ATF refers to them, and various dealers who sell kits and components that are nearly considered firearms, but not quite.  

Make a Gun, No Experience Required

Seeing opportunity, various gunsmiths and makers realized that a firearm can be mostly fabricated, but not reach the stage of functionality that would trigger federal laws to consider such things firearms in the first place. Colloquially known by enthusiasts and the community as 80% lower receivers, these gun blanks require basic fabrication to be completed by the end-user, transforming it into a functional firearm by federal law and ATF policy. Since only one component of a gun is considered the firearm, all other parts typically required to complete a firearm – the barrel, trigger, magazine, weapon sights, and grip – can be purchased just like any other consumer product. This practice saw a rise in popularity only years ago with the simultaneous rise of AR-15 ownership. Because this rifle’s design is comparatively simple to other firearms, and because its sale and ownership increased dramatically in the last decade, makers chose the AR-15 as a prime candidate for these gun-making kits

How the “At-Home” Gun Build Works

Rather than requiring equipment like a CNC lathe, pneumatic forges, and other industrial-grade tooling, the 80% lower and its accompanying gun parts require some much simpler tools that many homeowners and amateur weekend warriors probably already have sitting around the house: A drill press, a vise, some WD-40 or oil, and about an hour or two’s worth of time is all that’s needed to turn these hunks of aluminum into firearms. To accomplish this, the receiver makers typically design and offer for sale a small, manually-operated machine called a jig. 

The jig is the other half to the 80% fabrication equation, of sorts: It provides various templates for cutting and drilling the firearm blank in tandem with the tools the amateur builder must provide. The jig works by securing the 80% lower (or 80% frame, because various handgun kits are now available in this niche), which is then secured in a vise for machining. Most of these jig units come with video or written instructions, making moot any machining experience that would normally be required by an experienced gunsmith.

New Legal Gun Battles Heat Up

With a meteoric rise in new gun ownership, and with these 80% firearm kits finding their way into American homes more now in 2020 than years past combined, local and state governments are taking notice. Locales like California have placed severe restrictions on this federally-legal gun-making practice. The CA Department of Justice requires that any homemade firearm first receive an assigned serial number before fabrication, and the builder must go through a state-level background check like he or she would with any other firearm purchase.

Other states – New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Washington state, Washington, D.C., New Jersey, and Connecticut – have effectively banned these 80% receivers and other gun-making kits. Gun-rights groups like Gun Owners of America and the Firearms Policy Coalition have raised money or directly pursued states like Pennsylvania in countersuits, often citing those states’ officials placing bans on such firearm components not through legislative action, but most often through executive orders or opinion letters. Some of those states’ Attorney Generals argue that these kits encourage armed crime and allow existing criminals to get their hands on firearms. The latest Special Reports and data from the U.S. Department of Justice say an overwhelming majority of firearms used in crimes are stolen (6%), found at the scene of another crime (7%), obtained off the black market (43%), or taken or received from a family member or friend (25%).

Yet even the legal battles seeking to balance the Second Amendment’s power may make these almost-conventional firearms moot. Late last year, a federal judge in Seattle ruled that posting blueprints online for 3D-printed guns was illegal. That ruling was later appealed by gun-rights groups. With commercial 3D printers now capable of fabricating metal and high-strength polymer components, some at-home gun builders are even turning away from these kits entirely, favoring firearms made almost literally from thin air.

Author: Travis Olander

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