Chances are, you have or have considered purchasing firearms regulated by the National Firearms Act (NFA). That might include a Short Barreled Rifle (SBR). Or perhaps you, or a friend, have taken a shortcut and are using an AR-15 pistol with a brace in lieu of a SBR. The two function practically the same; so why not?
Well . . . legally the SBR and the pistol are a world apart. Read on and we will explore the differences.
Lets start with what these guns have in common. Typically the barrels are around seven to ten inches in length. Both can be built on the AR platform using the same receivers, barrels, calibers, and magazines. Both are typically between 22” and 27”.
The single difference that determines the nature of the two guns is the buttstock. The SBR has a traditional buttstock. The pistol has no buttstock. It may feature an empty recoil tube or a brace of various styles. However, these do not qualify as a buttstock.
The lack of a buttstock determines that the pistol is a firearm designed to be fired from a single hand and not from the shoulder. 18 U.S. Code § 921 (a)(29)(A). Can you “shoulder” a brace? Depends on who you ask and when you ask them. This is a huge grey area, and I generally suggest my clients steer clear.
There is one other physical area where I see clients cross the NFA line. The vertical fore-grip (think of the front grip on a tommy gun) provides a good handhold for the off hand. On the AR platform it is simple to attach a modular vertical fore-grip to the hand guard.
It is so easy and convenient to attach a vertical fore-grip that some fellows put one on their AR-15 pistol. STOP. Recall the definition above: the pistol is a firearm designed to be fired from a single hand. Once you add a vertical fore-grip to a firearm, it is no longer designed to be fired from a single hand. When done to a pistol under 26″ in length, the former pistol becomes a NFA “Any Other Weapon” (AOW) and the gun must be registered prior to being made. 26 U.S. Code § 5841.
Did you make an AOW without paying the making tax and registering the gun? GO TO JAIL: Go directly to Jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200. 26 U.S. Code § 5861 (f); 26 U.S. Code § 5871 (“Any person who violates or fails to comply with any provision of this chapter shall, upon conviction, be fined not more than $10,000, or be imprisoned not more than ten years, or both.”)
Carrying the firearms
With the two guns so similar, why is there a critical difference in how they are carried? Because of the fundamental difference: An AR-15 pistol is a handgun and an AR-15 Short Barreled Rifle is a Rifle. Let us look at what that means.
Carrying the AR-15 Pistol in SC.
The general rule in SC is that “It is unlawful for anyone to carry about the person any handgun, whether concealed or not.” S.C. Code Ann. § 16-23-20. However, there are 16 exceptions to this rule. We examine here the most significant exceptions and how they apply.
Exception (4) authorizes licensed hunters and fishermen, engaged in hunting or fishing, to carry a handgun while in a vehicle or on foot. There is some language to cover travel to or from places of hunting or fishing. If you are going to use the AR-15 Pistol for hunting, then you can rely on this exception. If you want to call this your “trunk gun” then you’ll need another exception.
Exception (8) authorizes possession in your home or upon your real property or property you control. So you can have the AR-15 Pistol at home or any other property you own or rent. But this still doesn’t help you with having the gun in your car on the public street.
Exception (9) grants a limited authorization for handguns in vehicles. Without a Concealed Weapons Permit (CWP) you may only have a handgun “in a closed glove compartment, closed console, closed trunk, or in a closed container secured by an integral fastener and transported in the luggage compartment of the vehicle.”
Most glove compartments and consoles will not hold an AR-15 pistol. If you have a car, then the gun can be placed in the trunk. But if you have an SUV, minivan, or a truck, then the only option under this exception is to place the firearm in “a closed container secured by an integral fastener” in the luggage compartment.
Exception (12) grants authority to carry a handgun under the conditions of a permit granted by SC SLED. This is the exception for a CWP. Unfortunately, the CWP exception is not helpful because a CWP defines a “concealable weapon” to mean only a firearm less than twelve inches in length measured along the greatest dimension. SC. Code. Ann. § 23-31-210(5). AR-15 pistols are greater than twelve inches in length, and thus do not meet the definition of a concealable weapon. Therefore, at this time, SC CWPs do not authorize the carry of AR-15 pistols.
Exception (13) grants authority for the owner or person in control of a fixed place of business to carry while at the place of business. The language also extends to employees under some conditions and may or may not include AR-15 pistols.
Exception (14) authorizes the transfer of a handgun from a vehicle to any other location where the handgun is allowed under this statute.
In examining the statute, pistols larger than twelve inches in length may only be carried in very limited situations. In a vehicle, the handgun must be kept in the literal trunk or properly cased in the luggage compartment. (Note that the luggage compartment does NOT include under a seat.) This makes carrying an AR-15 Pistol a difficult proposition.
Carrying the AR-15 Short Barreled Rifle in SC.
South Carolina has few regulations on the carrying of rifles. The most critical regulation on carrying a legally owned rifle is SC. Code Ann. § 16-23-460. This statute provides that it is a misdemeanor to “carry a deadly weapon usually used for the infliction of personal injury concealed about his person.” Weapon is defined to include firearms in S.C. Code Ann. § 16-23-405 with a noted exception in § 16-23-460.
What is the exception to the general prohibition on the carrying of a concealed weapon? SC Code Ann. § 16-23-460 (C) states “the provisions of this section also do not apply to rifles [or] shotguns . . . unless they are used with the intent to commit a crime or in furtherance of a crime.”
Thus the Legislature provides an express exception from the prohibition of carrying concealed weapons for rifles and shotguns. There are some limits to the exception, and some officers may interpret the exception quite narrowly.
As one additional warning, some municipalities attempt to further regulate the carrying of rifles and shotguns. (This includes major cities such as Charleston, Columbia, and Greenville.) The attempted regulations are expressly pre-empted by SC Statute. SC Code Ann. § 23-31-510 (“No governing body of any county, municipality, or other political subdivision in the State may enact or promulgate any regulation or ordinance that regulates or attempts to regulate . . . the transfer, ownership, possession, carrying, or transportation of firearms, ammunition, components of firearms, or any combination of these things.”) The application of the preemption statute is important, but beyond the scope of this article.
Location specific prohibitions
Regardless of the type of firearm, do not forget that there remain location prohibitions that cover such places as Government buildings, schools, and restaurants that serve alcohol. These prohibitions generally do not have exceptions for rifles nor for handguns that do not meet the definition of “concealable weapon”. (And in some cases, there are no exceptions!)
While the AR Pistol and AR SBR are similar in size, look, and use, the two firearms have significant legal differences. These differences require a cautious use of the AR Pistol that is conscious of the accessory and carry limitations imposed by the pistol classification. For some people, these limitations are acceptable detractors in exchange for the ease of accusation and lack of registration. For others, the SBR will be the better choice. Before making a choice, consider the differences and what you ultimately want to do with the firearm. It may change your mind.