As he was editing my post yesterday, our <begin gratuitous suck up> esteemed, heavily overworked and vastly underpaid editor, Dan Zimmerman </end gratuitous suck-up> noted my comment about how loaning an NFA item might be considered a constructive transfer that the ATF could prosecute should they choose to. He asked me to elaborate on the topic. This particular issue regularly rears its head on the various firearms board and quite frankly there is no really good answer. I was made aware of the issue by the attorney who set up my NFA trust and the question of bias in the matter is certainly a good one. It came up after I had already paid my fee, so one could argue that in my case there was less of an incentive to use it to “sell” me on something that I had already bought . . .

The question arose as we were discussing who should be a trustee on my trust. I mentioned that I sometimes take some friends shooting and the lawyer pointed out that it could be argued that if I loaned them my suppressor, SBR, or once I win the lottery, that H&K MP5 that I am lusting after, even if I was standing next to them, the ATF could conceivably view it as a constructive transfer and make things very uncomfortable for me.  It immediately occurred to me that the local gun range had a nice collection of full auto weapons that they are more than happy to rent to whoever walks through the door and I inquired as to how they can do this legally.

“They can’t” was the answer. Now, while I don’t know the owner of the range personally, I do know him by reputation and he is a fairly meticulous guy. I happened to be at the range later that day and was talking to some of his more knowledgeable employees and the subject of gun trusts came up. The employee told me that the lawyer the range uses was a pretty good one and that he would be happy to set up a Gun Trust for me for only $500 – A 30% savings over what the Apple Law Firm wanted to charge me, so I was certainly interested.

I went to the firm’s site and read the lawyer’s professional profile. Unfortunately his stated expertise was personal injury law. Nowhere did his profile mention his firearms credentials. It seemed to me that if this guy was such a hot shot attorney in the gun world, this would have been featured prominently in his profile. By comparison, the local attorney used by the Apple Law Firm has a well established reputation in firearms litigation and in fact had written a book on the state gun and knife laws. With this in mind, it made me somewhat question the quality of legal advice that he might be in a position to offer on firearms laws.

So, I decided to do some digging on my own. No, I’m not an attorney.  Aside from a couple of graduate degrees in IT and Business, my undergrad work was actually in English, so I have a fair amount of experience reading things and grasping both the overt and implied meanings. I therefore decided to refer directly to the source documents on NFA legislation, which can be found in the official NFA documentation on the ATF website concerning transfers

The first thing that set off some warning bells in my mind was the official definition of transfer which reads, “The term “transfer” is broadly defined by the NFA to include
“selling, assigning, pledging, leasing, loaning, giving away, or otherwise disposing of” an NFA firearm.” Whenever a government document states that something can be “broadly defined” I get really nervous. Broad definitions can be read in different ways by different people. Should you find yourself in a courtroom, getting to a specific interpretation of a specific situation means, if nothing else, a lot of lawyer time and money.

Section 9.5 goes on to define specific situations that the ATF does not consider transfers. These include transferring the firearm to an FFL/SOT holder who is going to make repairs on the NFA item as well as the ability for any employee of said FFL/SOT holder who handles the NFA items and who handles said items “for purposes within the employee’s scope of employment and for the business purposes of the FFL/SOT.” This section is of particular interest because on some of the board posts I have read, people have suggested that because you can give an NFA item to a gunsmith, obviously it must be okay to loan your NFA item out as long as you are present the whole time.

No one disputes the contention that loaning it to your buddy to use for the weekend is not okay. The fact that the ATF handbook specifically addresses the question of giving your NFA item to an FFL/SOT for repair but remains silent on loaning it to friends makes that argument somewhat questionable. Furthermore, the handbook also suggests that completing a Form 5 is recommended before conveying your NFA item to a gunsmith, but it is not required.

So, where does this leave us? Are you going to get in trouble for letting your buddy use your NFA item? Are firing ranges that rent machine guns in violation of the law? Well, as in most things having to do with federal regulations, there is no clear answer. The fact that no one has ever been prosecuted in the past is no guarantee that prosecution in the future won’t happen. If you are prosecuted, you might ultimately prevail, but how much money will it cost you to fight it in court?

What is true is that there are a whole lot of laws that are not actively prosecuted. You’ve probably seen your local paper run one of those stories about all the silly little laws that are on the books in many jurisdictions that are never prosecuted. The Simpsons even did an episode on the topic a number of years ago where Mr. Burns bought an unused convention hall in Springfield and turned it into a prison. He was losing money, so he prevailed upon the local police to start enforcing all of the silly laws that were on the books in order to arrest more people to fill his prison.  Homer gets arrested for violating the law that states kicking a can three times is an arrestable offense and gets tossed in jail for it.

As silly as it sounds, the possibility of something like that happening does exist. President Obama is certainly no friend to the gun rights community. While it would be difficult for him to pass new laws restricting firearms, is it such a stretch to suggest that he might someday use tools like this to impose new restrictions?

Any honest study of recent past Presidents – both Republican and Democrat – suggests that under-the-wire expansion of federal powers is a tool that they are not afraid to use. It is worth considering that vagueness in federal and state laws can and has been exploited in the past to advance agendas. The point that the Apple Law Firm made in their documentation accompanying my trust was that if at some point in the future the ATF decided that they wanted to cull the number of registered NFA items available to the public, this would be a great way to do it, so it is best to err on the side of caution.

Once again, where does this leave us? Well, for me, I certainly would not want to find myself in a position where I run afoul of new enforcement, so I’m going to watch this closely. It probably won’t stop me from letting a friend use a silenced weapon or SBR, but I might be careful in which venues I choose to do this. Furthermore, I’m not too clear on who would ultimately bear the liability should I choose to rent a machine gun. Chances are, the Feds would most likely go after the range that rented me the weapon, but the possibility exists that I could face a charge of illegal possession of an NFA item should a raid happen the day I’m at the range.

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17 Responses to Is it Illegal to Rent (or Borrow) a Class III NFA Item?

  1. There are too many businesses that are renting NFA items for use in their range under their supervision for this practice to be really illegal. As I understand it a “transfer” is complete once the item is no longer under your control. A rented MG at a range is still under the supervision and control of the range employees. In fact you’re not really “renting” the gun, you’re just paying a usage fee. Renting implies temporary ownership, same with loaning. When you go to a range and rent an MG the ownership does not change.

    • It is not illegal now because of an interpretation of the law, not the law itself. Point being, an anti-gun AG could decide to interpret it differently and go after rental ranges and individuals without needing new legislation.

  2. Interesting points. It seems like if you are standing with your buddy at the range and want to let him shoot your Class III item you should be able to do so assuming you are within line of site with that person. That seems like common sense to me.
    Of course letting your buddy take it home with him would be loaning or otherwise loosing possession of your class III item so it stands that would be bad.
    Maybe someone can ask for clarification. I would think that the NFA would be more than willing to try and help define specifics since it is in their best interest that those who want to be law abiding.

  3. I believe the ability for ranges to rent class 3 items is that you are basically test driving an item that is for sale. You are on their property, under their supervision, using an item they have either for sale or as a representative of product offered.

  4. While I applaud your diligence in trying to clarify this subject, I have to wonder if doing so might not light as many or more fires as it attempts to extinguish. Example: Every time the local news programs attempt to show how to burglar-proof your home by having a consultant demonstrate on camera how easy it is to break into a house, I think to myself, “Wow! If I didn’t know how to do a B&E before, I certainly do now!” Similar type of circumstance here. Not that the BATFE is watching your every move, but hey, who knows?

  5. Depends if you Dad is best friends with the Sheriff of the County and your Uncle is a Deputy. May we borrow the Thompson please?

  6. Actual attorneys always look beyond statutory language because the courts have the final word on interpretation.

    A quick search of Westlaw shows no published cases where anyone has been tried for a temporary gratuitous transfer (that’s legal terminology for a loan where no money changes hands) of an NFA firearm. Indeed, there are only a few state cases concerning loans of non-NFA firearms where the transferee was not a prohibited person. In these cases, the disposition depended upon the specific fact set (e.g., was the firearm under the exclusive control of the transferee and for how long, etc.) and the cases were brought under highly restrictive state laws.

    The most apposite (non-NFA) case appears to be Chow v. Maryland, where the Maryland Supreme Court overturned a conviction for the loan of a “regulated firearm between two adult individuals who [were] otherwise permitted to own and obtain a regulated handgun.” The Maryland statutory provisions at issue were those mandating a seven-day waiting period and state preapproval of all firearms transfers between non-dealers.

    Truly temporary loans of NFA firearms where the authorized possessor does not allow the weapon out of his immediate area of control would present a very challenging fact set for even a determined prosecutor, and any conviction would require a court to make new law.

    • I’m certainly not arguing that a conviction attempt is winnable. I’m just suggesting that if something like this were ever to go to trial, it could cost a lot of money to defend. On the plus side, I would expect that this is the kind of case that organizations such as the NRA might provide legal assistance for, but You can never guarantee it.

  7. I am ot an expert and I don’t pretend to know the answer but, isn’t a range’s Class III license different than an individuals? I guess it is called a dealer license or something? It would make it legal for them to let people “test” MGs out. Again, not a lawyer, just posing the question.

  8. Sanchanim seems to make the assumption that THE LAW has some relation to common sense. If that were true a lot of lawyers would suffer a loss of income. It is a dangerous thing to assume.

  9. I know this is going to sound silly to some but why dont we work to REPEAL the 1934NFA?

    For that matter why dont we work to REPEAL the 68GCA?

    Seems to me that would solve a lot of problems

    RESTORE the 2A sounds good to me

  10. How the F**K does paying a tax on something, then allow the taxing authority to regulate the item taxed to the point that you can’t lend it to someone….Yeah, I’m sure the founders meant that to be within the governments taxing powers……”…and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.”

  11. “he would be happy to set up a Gun Trust for me for only $500 – A 30% savings over what the Apple Law Firm wanted to charge me”

    You might want to check with Apple. Their regular price is $600 (so that’s 16% more), and for people “in the business” you get half-off. I run a local gun website and that was good enough for them, so I’m sure you’d meet their definition. And yes, this is current info, I set up my trust just a few weeks before you posted this article…

  12. naturally like your website howeever you need to take a look at the spelling on several of
    your posts. Severa of them are rife with spelling problems and
    I tto find it very bothersome to tell the truth then again I’ll certainly come again again.

  13. The author is a spineless wimp. There is no prosecutor on the map who’d dare “re-write” this law via trial, especially with no past convictions.

    Your “interpretation” of the law takes a submissive POV, and allows it to oppress you via fear of “what ifs.”

    If you loan a weapon (AT THE RANGE) to someone you can TRUST 100% with YOUR LIFE, you are going to be fine. And I don’t know bout you, but I personally don’t go shooting with folks I can’t trust with my life.

    Don’t be a wuss. Nowhere does that law you sited state range rentals or personal shooting partners are prohibited. As long as the weapon is in YOUR control, you are not “lending” it to anyone. You are “Showing it to them,” because they “may wish to own one themselves one day.”

    If you’re going to hide form laws, you may want to be sure NEVER to set your NFA weapon down within 3 feet of a friend, either. Then he/she could be guilty of “constructive possession.”

    Goober.

    • Although a bit sharper than I was going to be, I concur. Following this fear monger logic, how could a NFA Class III FFL allow anyone to touch merchandise or even hold a transfer to look it over for acceptance before having submitted and paid for their tax stamp? The ‘what if’ scenario defies logic and the entire premise of the spirit of the law. What if ATF asked you to prove that your CIA AK was compliant in having the correct number of USA made parts? You don’t have all the receipts of that the American made parts; you can’t prove your innocent; OMG your going to pound me in the rump prison! Quick list all your foreign made guns and get them out of your reach!

      Good attempt on writing on something interesting but don’t be a terrified putz.

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