Today the ATF released an open letter to firearm dealers regarding Forced Reset Triggers (FRT) and intends to classify guns equipped with them as machine guns. FRT triggers generally mainly drop-in trigger systems for the semi-auto AR-15 based platforms although there could be FRT triggers for other firearms as well. For this post we will concentrate on the AR-15 platform since it's the most common and relavent to the ATF letter.
At the very bottom of this post we will include the full text of the letter, but to make sense of it we need to explain the differences between trigger types as it can be confusing. If you are building or upgrading your AR-15 trigger there are mainly two different style of trigger upgrades. The standard trigger will consist of multiple parts that are installed by the builder in pieces and are the most common. Below is an illustration of such a trigger:
This will look familiar to most people, but some manufacturers are also building off-the-shelf guns with drop-in triggers. Drop-in trigger packs are self-contained units that make it easy to install. They will generally be nicer triggers (smoother/lighter pull, nicer reset, etc.) than your traditional mil-spec trigger. There's nothing illegal about having a drop-in trigger, but they don't all function the same.
The first is the standard drop-in trigger. The basic function is the same as your standard mil-spec trigger parts kit. You pull and hold the trigger back and the disconnector stops the gun from automatically resetting and firing another shot until you release pressure on the trigger past the reset point and again pull the trigger back to fire the next shot. These have been popular for a while and we sell a lot of these. An example is the CMC drop-in trigger:
Here's where the water gets murky. There are other types of triggers that do NOT have the same function, but may look similar from the outside. Starting off is the binary trigger. The ATF has approved this type of trigger and from a technical standpoint it would be extremely hard for them to outlaw these. With the AR15 selector set to Safe the gun will not fire. When you flip he safety selector to the next position it acts just like your normal AR15 trigger. The extra function comes into place by moving to a third position for binary mode. In this mode the gun will fire when you pull the trigger back, but when you release the trigger it fires again. If you decide you don't want to fire a second shot you can hold the trigger back and move the selector to the standard fire position. The intentional pulling and releasing of the trigger constitutes a manual and intentional action to fire a single shot. If you want to fire multiple shots quickly this will do the same as a normal trigger, but with fewer manual motions. A binary trigger can look like this Fostech Echo AR II:
Then there's the thousand pound gorilla in the room - the Forced Reset Trigger. These have been out for a few years although we never sold them. Similar to the forementioned triggers you have your standard safety setting which will not allow you to pull the trigger and fire a round. The next setting is again the same with a single pull of the trigger to fire one shot and a manual release to reset the trigger before you can pull back again to fire another shot. The third selector setting is where the ATF takes issue with it. Once you pull the trigger back, the trigger itself is mechanically forced forward. If you were to apply constant rearward pressure the trigger moves back and another shot is fired. Depending on how you tune your AR15 this can produce a cyclic rate similar to fully automatic AR15s (such as the M16 which is classified as a machinegun under the 1964 National Firearms Act).
Although you are still intentionally pulling on the trigger to cause it to fire again, because the reset is mechanically automated inside the FRT the ATF is stating that the act of firing subsequent shots may not be an intentional act and thus becomes a machine gun. In the view of the ATF there is very little or perhaps no difference between firing an M16 with the selector set to full-auto and your AR15 with a Forced Reset Trigger set to FRT mode beyond the FRT trigger wiggling back and forth a little bit. If you look at it from that perspective it makes sense so as much fun as it would be to experience a full-auto M16 without a $20,000 price tag I get it. Most of us aren't Jerry Miculek and can't manually operate a normal trigger like that. Take a look at a Forced Reset Trigger in action:
Below is the full text of the letter:
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) recently examined devices commonly known as “forced reset triggers” (FRTs) and has determined that some of them are “firearms” and “machineguns” as defined in the National Firearms Act (NFA), and “machineguns” as defined in the Gun Control Act (GCA).
These particular FRTs are being marketed as replacement triggers for AR-type firearms. Unlike traditional triggers and binary triggers (sometimes referred to generally as “FRTs”), the subject FRTs do not require shooters to pull and then subsequently release the trigger to fire a second shot. Instead, these FRTs utilize the firing cycle to eliminate the need for the shooter to release the trigger before a second shot is fired. By contrast, some after-market triggers have similar components but also incorporate a disconnector or similar feature to ensure that the trigger must be released before a second shot may be fired and may not be machineguns.
Both the NFA and GCA regulate machineguns. “Machinegun” is defined under 26 U.S.C. § 5845(b) and 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(23) as—
Any weapon which shoots, is designed to shoot, or can be readily restored to shoot, automatically more than one shot, without manual reloading, by a single function of the trigger. The term shall also include the frame or receiver of any such weapon, any part designed and intended solely and exclusively, or combination of parts designed and intended, for use in converting a weapon into a machinegun, and any combination of parts from which a machinegun can be assembled if such parts are in the possession or under the control of a person. (Emphasis added.)
ATF’s examination found that some FRT devices allow a firearm to automatically expel more than one shot with a single, continuous pull of the trigger. For this reason, ATF has concluded that FRTs that function in this way are a combination of parts designed and intended for use in converting a weapon into a machinegun, and hence, ATF has classified these devices as a “machinegun” as defined by the NFA and GCA.
Accordingly, ATF’s position is that any FRT that allows a firearm to automatically expel more than one shot with a single, continuous pull of the trigger is a “machinegun”, and is accordingly subject to the GCA prohibitions regarding the possession, transfer, and transport of machineguns under 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(o) and 922(a)(4). They are also subject to registration, transfer, taxation, and possession restrictions under the NFA. See 26 U.S.C. §§ 5841, 5861; 27 CFR 479.101.
Under 26 U.S.C. § 5871, any person who violates or fails to comply with the provisions of the NFA may be fined up to $10,000 per violation and is subject to imprisonment for a term of up to ten years. Further, pursuant to 26 U.S.C. § 5872, any machinegun possessed or transferred in violation of the NFA is subject to seizure and forfeiture. Under 18 U.S.C. § 924(a)(2), any person who violates § 922(o) may be sent to prison for up to 10 years and fined up to $250,000 per person or $500,000 per organization.
Based on ATF’s determination that the FRTs that function as described above are “machineguns” under the NFA and GCA, ATF intends to take appropriate remedial action with respect to sellers and possessors of these devices. Current possessors of these devices are encouraged to contact ATF for further guidance on how they may divest possession. If you are uncertain whether the device you possess is a machinegun as defined by the GCA and NFA, please contact your local ATF Field Office. You may consult the local ATF Office’s webpage for office contact information.