Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives have been busy in California this month seizing inventories, computers and customer lists for the manufacturer and distributors of an unusual piece of plastic that the ATF says is a gun.

To understand what this is all about, first you need to know some basic facts about building guns. First, Americans have been legally manufacturing personal-use firearms in their basements, garages and backyard shops since the nation was founded. Only since 1968 have commercial manufacturers been required to be licensed, but anyone wishing to build a gun for their own personal use is free to do so under federal law.

Next is the issue of what exactly constitutes a firearm. If I sell you a plain block of steel, aluminum or plastic, that is not a gun, and there are no requirements for any sort of government paperwork, even if you plan to carve that block into a firearm. Likewise, if I do some machining on the block before I sell it to you – taking care of some processes that might be particularly difficult or require special tools – but I don’t do all of the necessary machine work – this unfinished piece of material is still not considered more than just a piece of metal – a paperweight – and still, no government paperwork, license or tracking is required.

Where exactly the line lies between a paperweight and a firearm has been determined over the years by manufacturers submitting their unfinished pieces of metal to the ATF for a ruling on whether the amount of work completed constitutes a firearm under legal definitions. In the case of the AR-15 rifle, the ATF’s determination has been that as long as the central well where the trigger assembly goes, and the critical holes for the trigger pin, hammer pin and the safety selector switch have not been drilled, the part is not yet a firearm, even if all other machining, drilling and threading on the receiver have already been completed.
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