Can A Privately Made Firearm Be From An Existing Serialized Frame Or Receiver?

If you are digging into this article, I am assuming you have already read about ‘Privately Made Firearms’ and have a handle on what that term means. The question here, succinctly stated, is:

Can a Privately Made Firearm be made from an existing serialized frame or receiver?

I’m sure the instinctual answer is NO: “PMFs are ghost guns without serial numbers and existing commercial frames and receivers are already serialized.” 

Before jumping to that answer, let’s remind ourselves of the full definition of PMF.

27 CFR § 478.11 Privately made firearm (PMF).

Privately made firearm (PMF). A firearm, including a frame or receiver, completed, assembled, or otherwise produced by a person other than a licensed manufacturer, and without a serial number placed by a licensed manufacturer at the time the firearm was produced. The term shall not include a firearm identified and registered in the National Firearms Registration and Transfer Record pursuant to chapter 53, title 26, United States Code, or any firearm manufactured or made before October 22, 1968 (unless remanufactured after that date).”

Is there a problem with the cumbersome definition?

The inclusion of assembly and completion of firearms has a consequence that is unintended and which I do not believe the ATF has addressed. A completed frame or receiver is a firearm. However, it is not a rifle, shotgun, or pistol: yet. The frame or receiver will not become one of these types of guns until completed / assembled into the final full gun. 

Historically, when a licensee received a frame or receiver and assembled it into a full gun, they had to log the frame or receiver into the acquisition and disposition book, log it out to themselves as a frame or receiver, ‘complete it’, log it back in as a full gun, and only then could they sell it. The frame or receiver had to be marked by the last licensee as a manufacturer even though it already had a serial number and maker’s markings. It is the ATF’s position that the licensee who assembled the gun from pre-existing parts is a manufacturer. See ATF Ruling 2010-10 (interpreting the term manufacture to include “assembly, alteration, or otherwise” making firearms “to include installing parts in or on firearm frames and receivers.”) (It should be noted that to be a manufacturer requires a purpose of sale or distribution that is not required for PMFs, and further that ATF Ruling 2010-10 has been superseded as to marking requirements for manufacturers.) 

So how does this theory of assembly-of-a-firearm-from-existing-parts-is-manufacturing clash with the PMF definition? A rifle, shotgun, or pistol assembled by a non-licensee from a commercially manufactured, and serial numbered, frame or receiver is a new firearm not previously existing. The frame or receiver existed, but the firearm is now no longer a frame or receiver: it is a full firearm. The rifle, shotgun, or pistol is a PMF by definition even though it has a serial number.

Some may argue that the firearm described above is exempt from the PMF definition because it has “a serial number placed by a licensed manufacturer at the time the firearm was produced.” However, the firearm has a serial number placed by a licensed manufacturer at the time the frame or receiver was produced. The assembly of the frame or receiver into a rifle, shotgun, or pistol is the creation of a new firearm, the manufacturer is a non-licensee, and there is not a “serial number placed by a licensed manufacturer at the time the firearm was produced.” 

Why is it important whether or not such a firearm is a PMF? “Unless previously identified by another licensee in accordance with, and except as otherwise provided by, this section, licensees must legibly and conspicuously identify each privately made firearm or “PMF” received or otherwise acquired.” (27 CFR §(a)(2).) A “PMF” made from a marked frame is a new firearm not previously identified. Further, to my understanding, an exception doesn’t apply. In fact, 27 CFR § (a)(4)(B) covers the exceptions for “Remanufactured or imported Firearms” and requires a licensee to mark said guns in a limited manner. 

So how do you tell a PSA, Anderson, or other rifle from a PSA, Anderson, or other lower receiver assembled by a private person into a rifle? I don’t know: especially since a commercial rifle could be dissembled and any number of parts replaced to mimic the effect of completing a receiver into a rifle. Theoretically the latter must be marked but the former not, even though the two guns may already bear similar markings on the receivers. 

Is the ATF attempting to set the stage where a gun must be marked with a new serial number every time it is bought / sold by a licensee from a non-licensee? Such action would create a much more effective index for tracking used guns. (Perhaps even a backdoor decentralized registry?) It would also kill the value of collector firearms and hurt the resell value of all firearms. 

I don’t have a crystal ball on this one. It may be nothing more than poor writing skills rather than nefarious purposes. After all, this is only one line of a 364 page rule. There had to be mistakes somewhere. . .