In an Inflated Market, Gun Owners are Building Firearms en Masse

In the U.S. firearm market – which, in 2020 alone, had seen record sales approaching 40 million transactions, and gun ownership ballooning – prospective buyers are pursuing a new avenue to get their hands on guns: They’re building their rifles and pistols at home, piece by piece. The practice is, of course, legal under federal law. The Gun Control Act (GCA) of 1968 – a piece of legislation largely ratified to curtail gun rights – carved out an explicit section. But why are Americans pursuing this labored approach to gun ownership?

One section of legalese in the GCA says that any American, lest he or she be otherwise legally barred from owning a firearm, may fabricate a gun at home for personal use with no intent to sell it for profit. Unlike manufacturers and dealers, who are presently struggling to stock sporting goods stores’ and online retailers’ shelves, these “amateur gunsmiths” need no license to build a gun. But it’s not merely legal convenience that is spurring this new subset of a traditionally manufacturer-to-consumer market. Indeed, many states have banned the practice of building firearms for individuals, contrary to federal law.

Would-be gunsmiths need the know-how and tooling to complete a complicated project normally left to industrial machinery and their experienced operators. Americans are avoiding the brick-and-mortar sporting goods stores and the litany of online gun dealers that have expanded the market in recent years simply because there are no more guns to buy. Where record sales followed historic demand, the gun industry failed to restock those dealer shelves and distribution centers. It’s a problem that holds true in 2022, with no sign of abating: Supply chain constraints, rampant inflation, and rarely-witnessed bipartisan passage of federal gun control laws have left prospective buyers with few alternatives, lest they build the gun they want to own.

While it sounds complicated, the process is, in fact, relatively easy — and ironically, federal law and most state laws make it so. That’s because the process of regulating firearms isn’t actually easy for the government. Any firearm can be configured and modified, legally, to serve a specific purpose.

But the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives must review and give the stamp of approval to every model of firearm that winds up for sale in the states. To make this approval process feasible for the tens of thousands of firearm models in circulation, the ATF sticks to approving (or denying) and thus regulating one, core component of all firearms: Its empty receiver or base frame. The ATF then specifies through federal law how manufacturers can and cannot configure that firearm, lest they run afoul of certain restrictions.

It is this method of regulation that allows the firearm parts aftermarket to flourish — and it allows gun owners to more easily become gun builders. Why? Because all other components a private individual needs to assemble his or her gun are not regulated. Barrels, sights, handguards, buttstocks, triggers, hammers, bolts, magazines, and accessories are non-regulated components, and that makes sense: Those parts aren’t capable of being assembled into a working firearm without that core receiver or frame.

But would-be builders need not be experienced at assembly. Since the parts required to outfit a frame or receiver into a functional firearm aren’t regulated, many retailers — including unlicensed retailers who merely sell accessories and sporting goods — can provide all components required to assemble a particular rifle or pistol in a single kit, often called a parts kit. Where a new buyer might have to wait months to purchase a retail-bought Glock handgun, he or she can instead buy a Glock frame — or even fabricate one from a blank — and simply purchase a Glock upper parts kit. Where the popular but controversial AR-15 sees climbing prices and low stock, builders simply purchase a stripped receiver and then assemble it using a standard AR 15 lower parts kit.

Basic tools are required to complete the assembly process, but those tools are much simpler and more affordable than the expensive, automated industrial machines major manufacturers employ to spit out hundreds of guns a day. Many gun owners argue this growing practice of building one’s guns is actually cheaper: Builders avoid the dealer mark-ups, higher taxes, and transfer fees associated with a traditional firearm purchase, and they need not invest in components or configurations they’re going to modify, anyway.

What remains to be seen, however, is how the federal government will ultimately seek to regulate or ban this rising practice. Many states have stopped dealers and unlicensed retailers from selling non-firearm parts kits, and many others have banned the practice of fabricating a frame or receiver blank at home. But as demand for guns continues to soar in the states, government pressure to regulate will continue to clash with ever-growing consumer demand