Culture, Law

ATF 2021R-08, “Factoring Criteria for Firearms With Attached ‘Stabilizing Braces,’” by Brian G. Mattson

Brian G. Mattson is a public theologian, Senior Scholar of Public Theology for the Center for Cultural Leadership, and adjunct professor at Westminster Theological Seminary. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Aberdeen, has written several books, and lectures on theology and culture.

I am an American citizen enthusiastic about the Bill of Rights, including the 2nd Amendment. As a citizen I must first register my objection to the rule-making process itself: namely, concerned citizens are at an inherent disadvantage having to provide public comment directly to the governmental agency seeking to make them felons by their proposed rule. This conflict of interest or power disparity will inherently distort the true levels of opposition to the proposed rule, given that a vast number of gun owners and enthusiasts will be reluctant to “signal” themselves as out of compliance with the proposed rule. It is, nevertheless, my civic duty to comment.

I have grave concerns about BATFE’s newly proposed rule (Docket Number ATF 2021R-08) regarding “stabilizing pistol braces.” Allow me to summarize them, and then more fully explain each in turn.

1. AR-15 “pistol” variants clearly fall within the definition of “common use” under District of Columbia v. Heller.

2. AR-15 pistol variants are not “especially dangerous and/or unusual weapons.”

3. ATF’s claims about the public benefit of this rule are simply mistaken.

4. The proposed rule’s “Options for Affected Persons” are ineffective and unduly burdensome on law-abiding citizens.

5. ATF’s proposed rule is prima facie ineffective unless the component itself (the “stabilizing brace”) is regulated as an NFA item, thus making it more difficult to obtain; however, ATF admits that “The GCA and NFA regulate ‘firearms’ and, with limited exceptions, do not regulate individual components.”

Explanation:

(1) District of Columbia v. Heller clearly upheld a citizen’s right to keep and bear firearms in common use. The Bureau’s own background summary reveals that at minimum 3 million “stabilizing braces” are in circulation, and this is almost certainly an underestimation. SB Tactical, the most popular manufacturer of stabilizing braces, claims to have manufactured 3 million braces alone. The addition of other popular manufacturers would significantly revise the number upward.

Moreover, in ATF’s OMB Accounting Statement, they claim that the rule would affect “1.4 million purchasers of AR pistols.” That number is obviously incomplete. It may refer to purchasers of fully built, retail purchases of AR pistols, but leaves out the millions of gun enthusiasts who purchased a stabilizing brace to incorporate into other gun platforms.

The sheer numbers of these weapons leaves no doubt that AR pistol variants are very much in “common use.” Anyone familiar with the firearms industry knows that they are in common use. The very fact that ATF has proposed this rule demonstrates that they know these weapons are in common use. What is uncommon is criminal use. (More on that under [3] below.) For now, under Heller, these weapons are not “unusual” or “rare” in any sense of those terms, and should therefore be free from burdensome governmental infringement.

(2) The Bureau states that the NFA was passed to regulate “gangster” type weapons, which were viewed as “especially dangerous and unusual.” It is not a self-evident fact that AR-15s of any type are “especially dangerous.” What is self-evident is that they are not unusual. The Bureau is well-aware that a typical AR-15 caliber is significantly smaller than most hunting ammunition, a fact that by itself refutes the notion of “especially dangerous.” One might counter that muzzle velocities of AR weapons (often exceeding 3,000 feet per second) renders a weapon “especially dangerous,” but that raises an insoluble problem. ATF is ostensibly concerned about shorter barrel lengths; yet shorter barrel lengths reduce muzzle velocity and effective firing range, thus making them less, not more, dangerous. It is simply not cogent as a matter of logic and law why Congress and Federal agencies wish to make the less dangerous weapon subject to burdensome regulations; it directly contradicts the stated purpose of the NFA, which they admit regulates “especially dangerous and unusual” weapons.

(3) The Bureau’s claims about the public benefit of this proposed rule are mistaken. The OMB Accounting statement asserts that the rule: “Prevents manufacturers and individuals from circumventing the requirements of the NFA.” But the rule does not prohibit the manufacture of pistol stabilizing braces; nor does it subject such braces to NFA regulation. The rule, in other words, does nothing to make the production of AR pistols more difficult. Therefore, it “prevents” nothing; all it does it put ink on some paper. This may, by definition, prevent a law-abiding citizen from utilizing a pistol stabilizing brace; but in the incredibly rare event of a criminal using such a weapon, it is unlikely that a person bent on violence will be deterred by the proposed rule.

Secondly, the OMB statement asserts that the rule “Enhances public safety by reducing the criminal use of such firearms, which are easily concealable from the public and first responders.” Given the observation in the foregoing paragraph, this is simply mistaken. It does nothing to “reduce the criminal use of such firearms.” It is still perfectly legal to buy an AR pistol variant without a stabilizing brace, and perfectly legal to buy a stabilizing brace. Nothing has been proposed that would actually reduce the (newly) criminal activity of putting the two together. Furthermore, the notion that an AR-15 pistol variant is “easily concealable” is ridiculous. It is not. This is why such weapons are rarely used in crime, and the weapon of choice in the vast majority of crimes is a handgun. The Bureau is well-aware of this fact.

The Bureau raises two examples of AR-15 pistol variants being used in “mass shootings.” First, these events are irrelevant unless the Bureau can establish that the pistol brace involved in those shootings somehow made the weapon more dangerous than a handgun or a 16-inch rifle would have been in those circumstances. ATF should not be allowed to simply assert this as a fact. Second, the fact that the Bureau appeals to two incidents is quite revelatory. Recall for a moment the Bureau’s own (certainly low) numbers: 3 million pistol braces; 1.4 million purchasers of AR pistol variants. Millions of people “keep and bear” AR pistol variants and there are two examples of criminal use? This would suggest to me that there is no acute public health crisis to precipitate the intrusive infringement of the proposed rule.

(4) The proposed rule makes law-abiding citizens retroactive felons. There is no “grandfather” arrangement proposed. This is intolerable as a matter of law; no citizen, having engaged in good faith to legally purchase a firearm should be retroactively rendered a felon by fiat. Moreover, the proposed “Options for Affected Persons” has zero chance of success. Leaving aside the paternalistic language (“we want to help you with compliance”) and options seemingly drafted in such a way as to infuriate the populace (e.g., “destroy the firearm”), the Bureau will quickly find itself, should the rule go forward, tasked with actively seeking out millions of citizens who refuse to comply. As the Bureau is likely aware, a scheme in New Jersey to “buy back” standard-capacity magazines netted the state zero magazines. If gun-owning citizens refused to part with their magazines, the likelihood of them parting with their AR-15s is even less.

(5) Finally, the Bureau is clearly frustrated in its task of enforcing the requirements of the NFA, and complains that the firearms industry is “circumventing” the NFA with the use of stabilizing braces. I understand their frustration. However, the problem is not the industry; the problem is the NFA itself and the statutory limitations it places on the ATF. The Bureau admits that the NFA does not give jurisdiction to regulate (most) individual firearm components—they cannot prohibit the manufacture of a stabilizing brace or effectively prohibit someone from utilizing one on their personal weapon. Rather ironically, the proposed rule represents ATF attempting to circumvent their own statutory limitations.

In sum, AR-15 pistol variants are in common use; they are not “especially dangerous or unusual”; there is no acute public health interest in regulating them under the NFA; law-abiding citizens of this country should never be retroactively declared felons by fiat; and as a simple matter of fact, the rule faces very little possibility of actual compliance. It is thus impractical and an example of bad public policy.

I strongly oppose the proposed rule, and encourage the Bureau to lobby Congress to abolish the real source of this longstanding institutional problem: the National Firearms Act of 1934.

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Church, Theology

Allegiant Baptism

Introduction

Few topics generate more theological debate with less  productivity than baptism. I observed recently a reignition on social media of the baptist-paedobaptist dispute; and as nearly always, it included unnecessary heat and very little light. I’ve been on both sides of that debate in my life, and I’ve rarely seen a different, more gracious and successful, conclusion. I’m convinced this issue won’t be solved entirely by appeal to specific biblical texts, because the theological and interpretive assumptions one brings to the texts will influence how he understands them. I’m not suggesting that extensive discussion of the baptist-paedobaptist disagreements is unwarranted, only that public debate might not be the best way to arrive at a defensible conclusion.

Allegiant Faith

But a crucial point on which all Christians should agree is that baptism is (among other things) a visible, public declaration of allegiance to Jesus Christ. The reason this is necessary is simple: the Gospel necessitates allegiance to our Lord, and baptism is the initial public testimony to the reception of the Gospel. We speak of salvation by faith alone, but this is equivalent to salvation by allegiance alone, because faith at root is allegiance.[1] Faith in the Bible is a wholehearted, surrendering trust to Jesus Christ. It’s not identical to belief, when defined as intellectual assent. The devils believe and tremble (Jas. 2:19). A criterion for baptism is “[i]f you believe with all your heart” (Ac. 8:37) i.e., cast yourself on Jesus Christ in full submission.

We are baptized into the name of Jesus or the names of the members of the Trinity. This doesn’t require the administrator’s language “I baptize you in the name of….” Rather it means “under the authority of.” This is why in the great commission, baptism is identified as a chief step in discipling the nations. Similarly in Galatians 3:27 Paul writes:

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.

At baptism we are identified with Jesus Christ and his people and his kingdom. To be baptized into the Lord’s name is to be baptized into his/their authority. We swear allegiance.     

God takes the initiative in baptism just as he does in salvation. But also just as in salvation, man is not inert. Salvation by grace doesn’t mean salvation without obligation. When we trust Christ, we transfer allegiance to a new king (Col. 1:13), but at baptism, we swear this allegiance publicly. This is true whether one affirms infant baptism or adult baptism. The covenant representative pledges allegiance for the infant, and the adult pledges allegiance for himself.

Allegiant Ordeal

Another fact lends weight to this allegiance. Meredith Kline draws attention to 1 Peter 3:20–22, where Christian baptism is likened to the Noahic flood.[2] The floodwaters were the world’s judgment, which Noah and his family escaped only by God’s graceful provision. They went through the waters of divine judgment because they cast faith in ( = were allegiant to) God (Heb. 11:7). The waters of baptism signify not just cleansing, but cleansing by judgment. We are baptized into Christ’s death (Rom. 6:3). He bore God’s judgment for us. The condition for God’s deliverance, according to Hebrews, was faith, an act of allegiance.

Baptism, therefore, implies an oath of allegiance, and often it is required of the convert at its administration, such as: “Have you trusted Christ, and do you purpose to follow him all the days of your life?” That this latter provision is heard less and less at today’s baptisms shows the increasing antinomianism (anti-allegiance) of our churches.

Allegiant Visibility

Christians who deny baptismal regeneration (the idea that water baptism spiritually regenerates) wonder at those numerous biblical texts like Acts 22:16 (“Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord’”) that tie baptism inextricably to cleansing from sin. While other texts are incompatible with baptismal regeneration (notably those that make repentance a condition for baptism), a principal truth to grasp is that baptism is the visible component of invisible regeneration. That’s the intimate connection.

Paul writes in Romans 6:4 —

Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.

We might have thought that Paul would mention justification, or adoption, or regeneration as the path by which we’re raised to walk in obedience, but his accent is on visibility. Just as Christ was raised from the dead visibly from a tomb, so we are raised from sin visibly at our baptism.

Many of us have baptismal certificates. None of us has a born-again certificate. This isn’t because baptism is more important than the new birth, but because baptism is a datable, documentable, visible reality to which one (and others) can point. Allegiance to Jesus Christ begins in the heart but never ends there.

The postmodern world is high on inflamed hearts and low on sustained obedience. This is a fruit of 19th century Romanticism, which for the first time in human history replaced objective standards with subjective intentions as the criteria for valid choices[3] (“Darling, I don’t agree with the terrorists, but at least I can admire their well-intentioned hearts”). Christian baptism is an inherent repudiation of any attempt to reduce the Faith to our hearts. Baptism says, “I am now a child of the King, a follower of the Lamb, and you may judge my profession by my visible adherence to the King and Lamb’s Word.”

Conclusion

A leading reason for the futility of today’s church is its severance of allegiance from the Gospel. Christ died, it is thought, to take away our sins and give us hope and assure our eternal bliss with him. Correspondingly baptism is treated as a celebration of a saved sinner or a new church member. It is these, for sure.

But the meaning of baptism is at once more glorious and more severe. Glorious, because it signals a lifelong covenant devotion to Jesus Christ as risen Lord, and severe, because it’s a self-maledictory oath calling down new covenant curses if we turn our back on him (Heb. 10:29).

As a covenant, baptism is bilateral. God has a part, and we have a part. God’s part in the covenant is always more important and always comes first. At baptism he visibly pledges his love and care and protection, the blanketing blessings of his Lordship.

In response, we pledge our faith and fidelity (allegiance), acknowledging the never-ending claims of his Lordship. He tattoos us with his loving mark of ownership, and we bear that mark our entire lives.

Christianity is a serious faith that demands serious allegiance. Baptism is the vestibular, visible testimony to that allegiance.



[1] Matthew W. Bates, Salvation by Allegiance Alone (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2017), 77–100.

[2] Meredith G. Kline, “Oath and Ordeal Signs (Second Article),” Westminster Theological Journal 28, 1965–1966, 3.

[3] Isaiah Berlin, The Roots of Romanticism (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1999).

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