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RE discussions on AR's being required to be classified here as "handguns", found this in the Potter Leader-Enterprise while at camp last week:

State Police Acknowledge Error In Policy, But Defer To ATF
By Donald Gilliland, Managing Editor

Gun dealers no longer have to fill out a handgun Record Of Sale (ROS) form when selling certain long guns. Although that had been the case under state law for at least 14 years, the Pennsylvania State Police had begun requiring dealers to fill out the hand gun form when selling certain long guns such as the AR-15 and the Thompson Encore/Contender, which can be converted to handguns after sale.

Consider it a win for Representative Martin Causer, who went to bat for gun dealers - and the law - and pushed the issue with the State Police throughout 2009.
From the beginning, Causer insisted the State Police policy was contrary to established state law, which determines the difference between a handgun and a long gun as its length at the time of sale and which also prohibits the request of an ROS form for long guns.

While State Police Commissioner Frank Pawlowski in the end did not explicitly acknowledge that his agency - and multiple letters he himself had previously sent to Causer defending the policy - were in error, the effect is precisely that.

“In the end... I am satisfied that under both state and federal law, whether a weapon should be treated as a handgun or a long gun depends on its configuration at the time of transfer,” wrote Commissioner Pawlowski. “Our Firearms Division will be providing dealers with appropriate guidance in the near future.”

It was neither a short nor an easy fight, and the result - even though what Causer intended - raises troubling issues about the Pennsylvania State Police’s relationship - and possible dependence upon - the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF).

For months, the State Police claimed their policy was based - in part - upon “guidance” from the ATF, despite the fact the ATF is a federal agency, despite a decades-old federal Supreme Court case overruling a similar attempt by the ATF to restrict sales of such guns, and despite a 2003 opinion from the ATF unamiguously in support of Causer’s interpretation.

In the end, the State Police acknowledged their error not because they sought an opinion from the Pennsylvania Attorney General - as called for by state law - but because they requested a “ruling” on the issue from the ATF, and that ruling was in Causer’s favor.

The Fight

Causer first raised the issue in a letter to the State Police Commissioner in April.

Causer explained that gun dealers in his district “are being instructed to complete the ROS form in transactions involving long guns like AR-15s and Thompson Encores/Contenders... The State Police Firearms Unit has directed them to fill out the handgun form for the sale of these guns regardless of their actual barrel length.”

The Uniform Firearms Act defines handguns by length: “Any pistol or revolver with a barrel length less than 15 inches, and shotgun with a barrel length less than 18 inches or any rifle with a barrel length less than 16 inches, or any pistol, revolver, rifle or shotgun with an overall length of less than 26 inches.”

The law also specifically states “no application/record of sale shall be completed for the purchase or transfer of a firearm which exceeds the barrel lengths set forth.”

Why is it, Causer asked Commissioner Pawlowski, “that the State Police is instructing dealers in a manner contrary to the Uniform Firearms Act... What possible justification could the State Police have to contravene the unambiguous language of the UFA?”

“I hope,” wrote Causer, “that you justification goes beyond some ill-conceived argument that these weapons could be modified to fall within the definition. If that be the case, then I’m hard-pressed to see how virtually every rifle and shotgun wouldn’t suddenly meet the definition (of a handgun)... After all, anyone with half a brain and a modicum of talent can change the length of a barrel.”

That was April 13.

Causer got no answer from the State Police until June 26.

And the explanation was what he had anticipated.

Pawlowski confirmed that the State Police were requiring handgun registrations to be filled out for AR-15s and Thompson Encores/Contenders - because, he claimed, “The AR-15 is a weapon which can easily be converted from a rifle to a handgun and back again, as can the Thompson Encore/Contender.”

Pawlowski claimed that the policy was based - at least in part - on guidance from the ATF.

Pawlowski acknowledged the unambiguous language of the state law, but claimed the guns are “essentially unique weapons in that they literally can be modified in seconds and switched from a long gun to a (handgun) and back again at will.”

In a sharply-worded response, Causer informed the State Police their answer simply was not good enough.

“I find the two-and-a-half month’s wait for a response, especially a response that is the legal equivalent of ‘because we say so,’ wholly unsatisfactory,” wrote Causer.

He told Pawlowski “You read words into the law that do not exist... Wishful thinking cannot change the rules of statutory construction.”

“For 14 years, the law has remained constant,” said Causer. “For 14 years, your predecessors had no difficulty distinguishing between ‘handguns’ and ‘longarms.’ It seems that the only change that has occurred in all these years is a shift in political posture over what some might describe as ‘scary guns.’”

He again cited the state law, and because the State Police were claiming their policy was based in part on guidance from the ATF, Causer cited a federal Supreme Court case from the 1990s in which the ATF had attempted to treat the Thompson Contender in a similar fashion (as a short gun because it could be converted to one) and told Pawlowski “as the head of the Pennsylvania State Police, you must know that U.S. v. Thompson/Center Arms Co. culminated in the Supreme Court ruling in Thompson’s favor in 1992.”

Causer also quoted a 2003 opinion of the Chief of the Firearms Technology Branch of the ATF that “the configuration determines whether it is sold as a rifle or a pistol.”

Causer’s response to Pawlowski was signed by 28 other state representatives, including House Republican Leader Sam Smith, Republican Whip Mike Turzai, Rep. Matt Baker, and Rep. Kathy Rapp. Copies were also forwarded to the Governor and the Attorney General.

Commissioner Pawlowski responded that because the Supreme Court case dealt with federal law, it was “not determinative,” and asked Causer for a copy of the ATF opinion he cited because “our review of available material on the ATF’s website suggests that this opinion is not currently available online.”

In another sharply worded letter, Causer responded with a copy of the requested ATF opinion, acknowldeged he knew the Supreme Court case was “not determinative” in Pennsylvania, but told Pawlowski “I believe there’s a lesson in there somewhere.”

Causer also noted that despite Commissioner Pawlowski’s claims that PSP was reviewing the matter, PSP had in fact just sent guidance to gun dealers reinforcing the requirement to fill out an ROS form for Ar-15s and Thompson Encore/Contenders.

“Perhaps you misunderstood my concern (and the concerns of my colleagues),” Causer wrote. “Any shift in policy as it relates to the necessity to complete records of sale... is the subject matter of legislation, not the politically motivated machinations of the Pennsylvania State Police.”

“Up until your shift in policy,” said Causer, “a longarm was a longarm; and, a handgun was a handgun... But under your proposed policy, certain longarms are now handguns.”

ATF Ruling

Pawlowski had indicated that he understood opinions contrary to the State Police policy may exist, and therefore was “requesting a formal ruling from the ATF regarding the AR-15 and the Thompson Encore/Contender. This ruling should aid in determining an appropriate policy for the Commonwealth.”

That ruling from the ATF - dated September 18 - confirmed Causer’s interpretation, and Pawlowski subsequently informed Causer that he was now “satisfied” that Causer’s interpretation had been correct.

But it raises the question of whether the State Police follow state law as they are supposed to or whether they defer to the ATF, which is a federal agency with no jurisidction in interpreting state law for state agencies.

Causer raised this issue of the State Police’s apparent dependance on the ATF before the State Police asked the ATF for a “ruling” on the issue.

“I am struck by your insistence on contacting the ATF for ‘a formal ruling,’” wrote Causer. “Even more striking is your belief that ‘this ruling should aid in determining an appropriate policy for the Commonwealth.’

“Why a state agency like the PSP would establish a policy unsupported by state law and then hide behind the apron strings of ‘ATF guidance’ is astonishing. I think you and I understand that it is simply not within the province of the ATF to explain whether substantive Pennsylvania law allows the PSP to go beyond the federal law in its treatment of certain firearms.”

Causer told Pawlowski, “If you are truly confused as to the meaning of a law that your agency has had the duty to enforce since its passage fourteen years ago, I strongly encourage you to observe the direction provided in another state law and seek legal advice from a more appropriate source.”

Causer then cited the state law which says the Attorney General shall furnish legal advice concerning any matter or issue arising in connection with the exercise of the official powers or the performance of the official duties of executive agencies like the State Police, and which states if the agencies aren’t satisfied with the Attorney General’s opinion, they can seek a declaratory judgement from the Commonwealth Court.

“The PSP owes a duty to all Pennsylvanians to act in a manner consistent with Pennsylvania law and to engage in conduct that is above reproach - to proceed in a manner that is clear, transparent and intellectually honest,” said Causer.

After the final determination from Pawlowski, Causer said the PSP decision was “a big win for gun owners rights.”

He said, “The ATF letter reinforces what we have been saying all along. Maybe now the State Police will follow the law.”

But the fact it took a “ruling” from the ATF to accomplish that troubles Causer.

It’s a federal agency with no jurisdiction over state law. If the State Police had questions about state law, the proper procedure is to request an opinion from the Attorney General.

To the best of Causer’s knowledge, the State Police never did that. He said he spoke to the Attorney General’s office, and “the Ag’s office never heard from the State Police.”

Causer said he suspects that’s because “if they ask the advice, they’re bound to follow it.”

“It shows me exactly how political their policy really was,” said Causer. “They wanted to say they were hiding behind the ATF and hoped we’d just go away... but when pressed, even the ATF didn’t stand behind it.

“The administration really wants gun control laws in this state, and can’t accomplish that through the legislature, so they try to impose restrictions any way they can administratively. It’s pure politics.”

When the Leader-Enterprise contacted the State Police for comment on why they relied on an ATF interpretation of federal law to come to their conclusion, a spokesman said, “In complicated, technical matters involving firearms issues such as this, Pennsylvania and other states often rely on ATF for guidance. We appreciate Rep. Causer’s concern and input on this issue.”

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Ok quick question. Currently a gun registry is prohibited by the PA Constitution. So now if you would buy a T/C Contender or Encore as a rifle and no record of sale is submitted to the State Police by the dealer at the time of sale then I would take it that you can legally put a pistol barrel on the frame at a later date and it would be legal to use in PA??

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I think this all stems from the whole "lower receiver" sale BS...

Thanks Denny, I remember this coming up earlier this year.

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ddtedd said:
So does this mean that anyone can walk into a dealers shop, buy a gun and not have to fill out any paperwork for the gun other than an owners transfer?
I am not sure I fully understand your question. You still have to go through the background check. The record of sale is what I was asking about in my previous question. That is how they track who owns what handguns in PA.
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