With the publication for comment of the ATF's proposed new restrictions on AR-15 pistols, a number of readers have contacted me, asking what they can do to prepare for the new regulations. There are several practical steps one can take, and of course they all depend on whether or not the regulations are implemented as currently drafted. They also depend on whether or not legal challenges to those regulations are successful, something we probably won't know for years as they wend their way through the court system. Nevertheless, in order to prepare ourselves for what's likely to be our new regulatory reality, at least for a time, let's look at what can be done.
First of all, the ATF proposes that so-called "wrist braces" that are no more than a fig-leaf for a pseudo-stock should be banned. This encompasses most of the products out there. Let's face it, from a strictly legal standpoint, the ATF is correct here. Most pistol braces are intended to be used from the shoulder, no matter what their manufacturers may pretend. Therefore, we should be ready to remove the wrist braces from our pistols. Fortunately, this isn't hard to do.
I'd suggest also replacing the six-position carbine buffer tube, like this one, with a pistol buffer tube like this one, which offers no adjustable stock capability. The mere ownership of an AR-15 pistol with a multi-position buffer tube, plus a spare stock of almost any type (particularly a rifle or carbine stock), might lead the ATF to invoke the legal doctrine of "constructive possession". In other words, they'd presume that we intended to put the two items together and make an illegal short-barreled rifle (SBR). The courts have ruled that this is, indeed, a thing, so the onus would be on us to prove that we didn't have that intention and had never done it. It's hard to do that. Ergo - make the problem go away before it becomes a problem.
I haven't found any problem shooting an AR-15 pistol with a smooth buffer tube from any position, including my shoulder. I've seen some shooters who've fabricated rough-and-ready shoulder pieces from pipe insulation tubing, slipping it over the buffer tube and closing the slit with black duct tape. They can take it off the buffer tube and throw it away at a moment's notice if necessary. Since it doesn't look anything like a shoulder stock or arm brace, it's unlikely to be identified as such if it's separate from the weapon. I'm not advocating you do that, you understand - I'm just mentioning what I've seen others do. There's also the option of wearing some sort of shoulder padding, which isn't mounted to the gun at all and therefore breaks no laws, rules or regulations. Well-known devices such as a PAST recoil pad are probably not thick enough to give enough clearance from the shoulder to sight along a short buffer tube. However, if the pad was make thicker by inserting something behind it, like a second or third layer of foam padding, it would probably work fine.
The next issue is the overall length of the pistol. The ATF wants to decree that it should be no longer than 26" from the tip of the barrel to the rear of the buffer tube. That's not very long. In fact, allowing for the standard dimensions of upper and lower receiver and buffer tube, it leaves only about 7.5" for the barrel. A barrel that short in 5.56x45mm, the standard AR-15 chambering, isn't long enough to allow all the propellant in the cartridge to be burned before the bullet leaves the barrel. That results in horrendous muzzle blast and relatively inefficient ballistics, compared to a bullet fired from a longer barrel. Cartridges such as the 300 AAC Blackout or the time-honored Russian 7.62x39mm are not affected as much by a short barrel, but will still lose some performance.
(I do suggest that you re-barrel your AR-15 pistol(s) with 7.5" or shorter barrels, which are relatively easy to come by. I'm doing this as a matter of course, because I don't want to end up in jail by defying the authorities. Others are more inclined to be defiant. That's your choice . . . but be aware that if you need to use that weapon for self-defense, and the authorities subsequently find out that it was in an illegal configuration, you may face federal firearms charges even if your use of that weapon was entirely legal. That's not a good place to be.)
At any rate, once you've re-barreled them, choose ammunition that's optimized to work well out of shorter barrels. See last year's discussion of various cartridges for more information. Briefly, for defensive purposes out of such short barrels I'll use the FBI's FBIT3 load or an equivalent in 5.56, the plastic-point Hornady 123gr. SST round in 7.62x39, and heavy soft- and hollow-point loads in 300 AAC Blackout. Also, don't expect such a short barrel to give you good performance or great accuracy at longer ranges. For practical purposes, I'll consider a 7.5" AR-15 pistol to be a 100-yard gun, with possible utility out to 150 yards, but dubious ballistic efficiency that far out. YMMV, of course.
The other solution, if your present AR-15 pistol barrel is 11.5" or longer, is to extend it to 16" or longer (the minimum legal length for a carbine barrel) by pinning and welding a long flash-hider or other extension on it, such as the XM-177 style that was popular on Colt short-barreled carbines during the Vietnam war. Some versions aren't legal, because the ATF regards them as suppressors, but others are. There are many variations on the theme. I've tried this one and this one, and like them. Being pinned and welded, they're regarded as permanent fixtures, and therefore become part of the overall barrel length. If you don't pin and weld it, they're temporary, and therefore not part of the overall barrel length. Be warned! The ATF has no sense of humor about this!
Another factor to consider is the use of a folding stock adapter (such as this one) on an AR-15 pistol. Many shooters have them, including myself. I like the way they allow the weapon to be folded into a very short length. It can be dropped into even a small backpack or duffel bag for easy concealment. However, the problem is that such adapters add between one and one-and-a-half inches to the overall length of the firearm when in the unfolded position. That might mean that your AR-15 pistol would exceed the 26" length limit - a non-starter. You'll have to carefully measure how much leeway you have to work with, and plan accordingly. One man I know has put a 6" barrel on his AR-15 pistol to allow for that. I think he's sacrificing an awful lot of ballistic performance, but that's his choice. Personally, with an already short AR-15 pistol, I'd rather do without the folding stock adapter. I'll simply separate the upper and lower receivers, and carry the weapon like that. It's a matter of a few seconds to mate them together, drive home the pins, and have a working firearm again.
What about sights? The ATF proposes a point system to determine whether an AR-15 pistol is intended to be fired from the shoulder. Out of a 4-point maximum, they'll allocate 1 point for iron sights on the pistol, and 2 points for a red dot sight. To me, this is nonsensical. If you don't have sights on the weapon, how can you aim it accurately, whether fired from the hand or from the shoulder? I think this part of the proposed regulations will be very susceptible to court challenges, and I'll gladly join such actions myself, because the proposed rule threatens to make the weapon unusable. In the meantime, I'll make sure any red dot sight I may use is pocket-size, and has a quick-detach mounting system!
Finally, a critically important point.
Remember what we said about "constructive possession" above? The ATF might argue in court that since you have an AR-15, but don't have it in pistol configuration and/or don't have an SBR registration for it, then the mere possession of a barrel or receiver group that fits SBR criteria implies that you intended to (or had already) fitted it to your weapon. For example, a 10.5" barrel, mated to a standard AR-15 pistol configuration, will make the weapon too long for the 26" criterion the ATF uses - so it will no longer be considered a pistol. However, it's also too short to be considered a rifle or carbine, which require a minimum 16" barrel length. Ergo - you are in "constructive possession" of an SBR, whether you like it or not.
You don't want to land yourself in that much legal hot water. Trust me on this! If you intend to retain such an intermediate-length barrel and/or upper receiver group, or more than one of them, register one or more of your lower receivers as an SBR, despite the expense. That way, if an ATF agent starts asking questions, you can legally fit that intermediate-length barrel to your SBR (even multiple receivers and/or barrels), so your possession of it is legal.
Stay legal, and you'll stay out of jail. Disobey the law at your own risk, particularly if you use your "illegal" weapon in any situation that brings it and/or you to the attention of federal law enforcement.