‘Forced Reset Triggers’:  Are they machineguns?

Have you ever thought it would be cool to own a machinegun if they weren’t so darn expensive? You are not alone. In fact, there is a whole cottage industry trying to develop machinegun substitutes. From short-pull triggers to bump stocks, innovative folks have tried to mimic the fast rate of fire of a machine gun without meeting the definition. 

The Definition.

What exactly is the definition of a machine gun? That is found in 26 U.S.C. § 5845(b):

“The term “machinegun” means 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.”

It’s a bit complicated, but at least Congress didn’t need a half-dozen subparts to describe what they meant. 

The core of the definition is “any weapon which shoots . . . automatically more than one shot . . . by a single function of the trigger.” Also included in the definition is any combination of parts that cause a firearm to fit into that core definition and the frame and receiver of a firearm that fits within that core definition. The latter is why you can’t simply convert a machinegun into semi-automatic functioning.

The FRT: Forced Reset Trigger

Many ideas have been used to mimic automatic fire while avoiding the core definition. The more successful of these ideas, at least in remaining legal, are those that have very distinct functions of the trigger. 

A good example is a binary trigger. A binary trigger fires one round when the trigger is pulled, and a second round when the trigger is released. This allows a shooter to double their rate of fire as they pull the trigger multiple times. 

Less legally acceptable ideas are those that use recoil to push the user’s trigger finger forward allowing the trigger to ‘reset’ while the user continues a rearward pressure upon the trigger. AKA the ‘bumpstock.’ 

This is where a ‘forced reset trigger’ comes into the picture. Said device functions like a regular trigger in that it fires one shot when pulled. But after the shot it functions like a bumpstock in that it uses the mechanical force of the cycling bolt to force the trigger forward against the user’s finger. The trigger is then ready to be pulled again. If the user maintains appropriate rearward pressure, the gun will fire again and again.

Is it a machinegun? 

That is the million-dollar question. Literally. The Gun Owners of America and the ATF are litigating right now whether bumpstocks are machineguns. See Gun Owners of America, Inc. v. Merrick Garland. This case has been through the district court, heard at the circuit court, reheard en banc at the circuit court, and is being appealed to the Supreme Court. The attorney’s are printing money faster than the Federal Reserve. . . almost.  

The argument? Is “a single, continuous pull of the trigger” the same thing as “a single function of the trigger.” The ATF contends these are the same. Therefore a FRT, like a bumpstock, is a machinegun because with the right continuous rearward pressure the gun will continue to fire. 

Gun Owners of America however insists upon applying the definition strictly as written by Congress. That is “a single function of the trigger.” Regardless of the continuous rearward pressure, how many times does the firearm shoot per function of the trigger? 

For the FRT and bumpstocks, the gun only shoots once per function of the trigger. The design however is intended to juxtapose a continuous rearward pressure from the user with the force of recoil to allow multiple functions of the trigger at extreme speeds. Thus mimicking, perhaps too thoroughly, the function of a machinegun.

But is this application too clever by half? Time will tell . . . If the Supreme Court takes up the case. (For those who haven’t been following, this has been a very close battle. ATF took the District Court case, GOA won at the 6th circuit, and then the en banc hearing was a tie which caused the District Court ruling to stand. Appeals are open at this moment.) The ATF released a public letter on March 22 stating their position that “some” FRT devices are machineguns. 

Tell me, do I have an FRT ‘machinegun’?

The ATF was vague in their open letter about what FRTs they consider machine guns. However, previously the ATF has gone after Rare Breed triggers. (Said name is looking more and more descriptive as the weeks go by.) Litigation has begun.   For now, this is the primary offender which the ATF is considering a machinegun. (Remember the combination of parts language in the definition? This is what catches just the trigger as a complete ‘machinegun.’). Other triggers may come under examination as time goes by, and I encourage owners of specialty triggers to stay vigilant.

Oh snap! I have an illegal undocumented machinegun. What do I do?

Don’t panic. The Stormtroopers aren’t going door to door. Here in South Carolina the local field offices of the ATF are actually very understanding. They’ll happily let you surrender your hard earned property without criminal charges. (Exciting! Right?)

Seriously, there are very few options without risk. You can surrender the FRT and be done with it. Alternatively, you can surrender ‘under protest’ in case the ATF loses their legal battle and the FRT is decided not to be a machinegun. In the latter case you will have a chance at having your property returned. (I make no promises about the ATF’s ability to catalog, store, protect, retrieve, and return thousands of FRTs without losing or damaging many.) 

And if I do nothing?

Litigation between Rare Breed and the ATF is underway. We can safely assume that the ATF will shortly have a list of all Rare Breed customers and their addresses. With that, I expect that letters will be mailed (eventually) telling customers what actions they can take. (Said actions will basically be those noted above.) 

If you bought your FRT off of Gunbroker or another online source, then you may get a letter much later. (i.e. after the guy who sold it to you provides your information to the ATF to get out of the hot seat.) And if you bought your FRT for cash at the Jockey lot? . . . We all know why you did that and reading this is purely an academic exercise for you. 

Wrapping it Up

The ATF in South Carolina has little interest in making Federal cases out of every FRT owner who acquired these items in good faith. They’ll work with you to surrender these, under protest or not, and give you a receipt to document that surrender. Uncomfortable with the mechanics of that process? Call me: I have a good relationship with the local office and can help make this a smooth process. 

However, if you insist on keeping your FRT, the ATF may take more interest in prosecution as time goes by. You lose that ‘good faith’ assumption that is being extended right now. You take that action at the risk of prosecution, conviction, and the permanent loss of your firearm rights. Only you can decide if a $400 toy is worth that risk.