By: Peter Suciu
Whenever the debate over gun control comes up and the outlawing of “assault rifles” is discussed, many pundits will quickly proclaim that, “The government banned machine guns.” Such a declaration, however, is a popular misconception based on blatant hyperbole.
The truth is that while machine guns are technically illegal to own in 13 states, in the other 37 states, they’re legal to own, though there are numerous restrictions.
Another common myth even many Second Amendment supporters wrongly believe is that to own a machine gun, one must be a “Class III dealer.” While this topic has been covered by some news outlets, I haven’t encountered any writers who have actually gone through the process of purchasing a machine gun. I personally completed the fully legal process of buying a machine gun by obtaining a transfer stamp in January of this year.
Machine Guns in American History
How the machine gun became so tightly controlled has been the subject of much media coverage lately.
As Time noted, “The NFA imposed a tax on the manufacturing, selling, and transporting of firearms listed in the law, among them short-barrel shotguns and rifles, machine guns, firearm mufflers, and silencers.”
That tax, which was imposed when buying NFA weapons, was set at $200 and has not increased since 1934. The tax doubled the cost of a Thompson submachine gun, a firearm known fondly as the “Tommy Gun,” among other colorful monikers. It was designed for use in the trenches of World War I, but was introduced only after the war had ended.
Its maker, Auto Ordnance – which somewhat ironically had its corporate offices on Broadway in Manhattan in the 1920s – found the weapon quite difficult to sell at $200, and in one, now infamous ad campaign marketed it to cattle ranchers as a weapon to fend off rustlers!
It has been suggested repeatedly that the use of the Thompson and other machine guns by gangsters is what led to the NFA, however, despite what movies and TV shows may suggest, most gangsters didn’t carry the Thompson. At $200, it was simply far too expensive. It was used at the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929, though, which resulted in the deaths of seven Chicago gang members and put the Tommy Gun in the law enforcement spotlight.
The NFA was also a result of a 1933 assassination attempt against President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The law originally aimed to impact the ownership of revolvers and pistols – as the would-be assassin used a handgun. In the end, Congress backed off on taxing handguns, but other potentially dangerous weapons were subjected to a tax, including, of course, the machine gun.
The NFA was enacted on June 26, 1934, but again, didn’t technically “outlaw” machine guns. What the NFA did was impose a statutory excise tax on the manufacture and transfer of “certain firearms” and mandated the registration of said items. The registration was initially done through the IRS, and the actual weapon registered with the Secretary of the Treasury.
Buying a Machine Gun Today
Another misconception many people have about buying a machine gun – or other NFA weapons, including short-barreled rifles and silencers – is that one must have a Class III permit. The legal possession of an NFA weapon only requires transfer of registration within NFA registry, a process I completed earlier this year.
One of the hardest parts of buying a machine gun is simply finding one for sale. You don’t go to a gun show to buy one, or in most cases the gun shop down the road, and there really aren’t that many available to buy.
The reason for the scarcity of machine guns is because the Firearms Owners’ Protection Act of 1986 prohibited the sale of machine guns manufactured after May 19, 1986. There are some exceptions to the rule – such as in cases where an individual is an importer of weapons for use by the military or police – but when it comes to what the average citizen can buy, it is a moot point.
When machine guns do come up for sale – often at auction – weapons will cost several thousand dollars, and a vintage Thompson that was once $200 could fetch $30,000 or more at auction! Like anything, the rarer the gun, the higher the price.
Once you find a gun for sale, you become the “transferee” on the ATF’s Form 4. This form can be downloaded from the ATF website, and it can be printed out or filled out online and then printed out. It needs to be filled out in triplicate with two copies going directly to the NFA branch in Martinsburg, West Virginia, while the third copy must be sent to the buyer’s Chief Law Enforcement Officer (CLEO), the local police chief or sheriff.
In most cases, buying a machine gun does need to go through a Class III dealer, who can and should fill out that paperwork. However, if the gun in question is on the ATF’s Curio & Relic (C&R) list, and both the buyer and seller have an ATF C&R License, then the sale can occur as a person-to-person transfer. This is how I purchased my machine gun.
It was not a simple process. As the “transferee,” I had to fill out the paperwork and then have the seller (“transferor”) sign all the copies.
The forms list detailed descriptions of the firearm, and the name and address of the maker, manufacturer, and/or importer of the firearm. The forms will note the caliber or gauge of the gun, plus length of both the overall weapon and the barrel length. Social security numbers, addresses, phone numbers, and other relevant information is required for Form 4.
It is important to note that the NFA Branch wants to see the details match up with all past transfers, so if the previous seller listed the machine gun as 8mm, the NFA branch doesn’t want to see 8 x 54mmR on the new forms. Even something as seemingly minor as this will result in the forms being returned for corrections, and when this happens, you generally are given one chance to take care of the corrections and return them to the NFA office within 30 days.
The rest of the paperwork is akin to a National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) for purchasing a firearm. If you can’t answer honestly on these forms, don’t waste your time. The background checks conducted by the NFA branch will reveal convictions and other issues.
One key question you will have to answer is why you “have a reasonable necessity to possess the machine gun, short-barreled rifle, short-barreled shotgun, or destructive device described on this application…” In the case of collectors, it has been suggested that stating, “for the purpose of historical research and for all other legal reasons” is sufficient and what most dealers have recommended.
After filling out the form and having the seller, or transferer, sign the document, you will need to attach two current passport-style photos, as well as two FBI Forms FD-258 (fingerprint card with blue lines). The fingerprints must be clear for accurate classification and must be taken by someone properly equipped to do so, such as your local police station. Two copies are mailed to the ATF, along with a payment of $200 by either credit card or personal check – that is for the aforementioned transfer stamp, while the third form goes to the CLEO.
Unlike most firearm purchases, this is not a cash and carry situation. Anyone who thinks California’s 10-day waiting period for firearm purchases is extreme should know that with an NFA transfer, it can take up to a year, and rarely less than 240 days to take possession of your machine gun. In my case, it took 272 days, in part because I did have to make some corrections to the forms.
It is important to note that I as a legal owner of a machine gun understand the responsibility that comes with owning it. My purchase of a Fusil Mitrailleur Modele 1915 CSRG – known as a Chauchat – came about because I am interested in military history and regularly write about military firearms. This weapon has been described as being one of the worst machine guns created. That was sort of the appeal to me in owning one – understanding why it earned this reputation and trying to correct it, if possible, in articles and a future book project. (Frankly, I see this as a weapon that was ahead of its time in design and potential, but that’s another story.)
It’s also worth noting that I live in Michigan, one of the 37 states where ownership of an NFA item is legal. Had I lived in one of the 13 states where it would not been allowed, I would not have even attempted to obtain one. It should be stressed that at no point will attempting to obtain an NFA weapon “slip through the cracks,” and even if such a thing were to happen, it would be a criminal act at the state level.
Most importantly, I understand that a machine gun is something that needs to be controlled at all times and stored properly. A machine gun isn’t something you can use at most gun ranges; it isn’t something I can let a friend borrow or even leave at a buddy’s house to be cleaned. It can’t even go with me to an approved range without that form that includes the $200 tax stamp, and in no way will I ever stop for lunch and leave the weapon in the car!
Yet in the end it is just another tool, maybe a tool of war. And it isn’t something that has been banned or is impossible to own. It’s just another gun, like so many, that the media fails to understand.
Peter Suciu is a freelance writer based in Michigan. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo Credit: Peter Suciu
Editor's note: This article originally misidentified the "transferer" and "transferee." This mistake has been corrected.