Legal Issues of personal Machinegun ownership

Those of you who are not familiar with the hobby of machinegun collecting are likely to have always thought that this was not legally possible. Actually you are both right and wrong. In 1934, in response to the actions of organized crime, Congress passed the National Firearms Act (NFA). Since Congress realized that the 2nd Amendment of the United States Constitution prevented them from banning privately owned machineguns outright, the NFA was written to tightly regulate their ownership and sale. In the years following the enactment of the NFA, several States passed their own versions of the law, and imposed additional restrictions. Some states such as Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, New York, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Washington State and the District of Columbia, have a total ban on privately owned machineguns.

Today, nearly a quarter of a million machineguns are privately owned by law abiding US citizens. For many people this may seem incredible.  But in the many decades since the NFA was enacted into law, there has been only three instances of a legally registered, privately owned machinegun being used in a crime.   As a group, machineguns represent the least likely type of weapon to be used in a crime.  This is because machinegun owners have chose to subject themselves to the close scrutiny of the Federal Government.  Machinegun collectors have a lot at stake in their hobby.  Even the most trivial technical violation of the law could result in the seizure of their collection.  As a result, machinegun owners are extremely conscious of their legal responsibilities, and are more than willing to police themselves and report unlawful activities to Federal law enforcement officials.

The first thing a prospective machinegun owner should be aware of is the extensive background checks that will be performed at the Local, State and Federal government levels.  If the person has no criminal history, and is not barred from owning a regular firearm, and does not live in one of the States mentioned above, the long road to owning a machinegun begins with a trip to a Federally licensed Class 3 machinegun dealer.  These are persons who are licensed to handle sales of machineguns to government and law enforcement agencies, but under the law also process the paperwork for private sales.  The Class 3 dealer will help the individual locate a transferable machinegun (one that can be privately owned; not all are*), and then fill out the Federal fingerprint and transfer forms in duplicate. The next step is to attach a passport photo to each of the forms and secure the approval of the local law enforcement official. This is typically a county sheriff, chief of police, prosecutor, judge, etc. The signature simply states that the official knows of no reason why the application should be denied. At this time the fingerprint cards should be signed and the applicants prints taken. The law enforcement official taking the prints also signs the card stating that these are indeed the prints of the person being fingerprinted. The signed forms and fingerprint cards are returned to the dealer who forwards them, along with a $200 transfer tax payment for each machinegun purchased, to the BATF in Washington DC for processing. While the customer is waiting for the transfer of the gun to be completed, the gun must remain in possession of the current owner, pending its approval.

Upon receipt by the BATF, the fingerprint cards are forwarded to the FBI for analysis. If there is no criminal history and the prints check out, the FBI sends its finding to the BATF which conducts its own check. When all investigations have been completed, the serial number of the machinegun being transferred is located in the Federal Registry, which is updated to show that the gun has been transferred and is now registered to the new owner. One of the two forms that were submitted to the BATF is affixed with a Tax Stamp, signed, and returned to the dealer. The dealer then notifies the buyer that the transfer has been approved and that the gun can be picked up. This entire process can take anywhere from 60 to 180 days, but has been known to take up to a year in some cases.

At this point the machinegun owner is subjected to a strict set of rules that govern the movement of the gun. The owner may transport the gun anywhere within their home state without any federal restrictions (be aware of local firearms laws). But if the gun is to be transported outside of the state, no matter what the distance or length of time, a form must be filed with the BATF requesting approval to transport the gun.

As you can see, machinegun owners have chose to live under the close scrutiny of the Federal Government. As a result, they are the least likely people to misuse their machinegun collections. Machinegun owners are also very close knit group. When owners meet at shooting competitions or regular trips to the range, they are instantly drawn to each other as though they were life long friends. Among themselves they outwardly enjoy talking about their hobby and showing off their collections, but to un-informed outsiders they don't want or expect anything other than to be left alone to enjoy their hobby and sport. They pose no threat to anyone, and don't expect anyone else to understand their passion for such a politically incorrect hobby.

For more detailed information about the US laws that govern private machinegun ownership, and detailed information about related case law, check out the legal writings of Attorney James Bardwell at his NFA law web page.

(*Machineguns fall into three categories; (1) Transferable, (2) Pre-86 Dealer Samples and (3) Post-86 Dealer Samples.  Before the Gun Control Act of 1968 (GCA68), all domestic and imported machineguns could be registered and owned by private individuals.   After GCA68, only domestically manufactured machineguns could be privately owned.   Newly imported guns could only be owned by Federally licensed dealers and sold to government agencies or police departments.  Previously owned and registered imported guns were grandfathered in, and remain legal to own and transfer.

After the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986 (FOPA86) was enacted, sales of all machineguns manufactured or registered after May 1986, were restricted to Federally licensed dealers, who could only sell them to government agencies or police departments.  As a result It became illegal to transfer ownership of a new machinegun to a private individual.   Therefore the number of legally transferable machineguns became fixed.  And as demand for these guns increase, so does the price.    Machineguns that sold for a few hundred dollars 10 years ago, now sell for many thousands of dollars. )

Gary James