A reader emailed the following question:

I can buy a Ar 15 but the auto sear has been removed which is what I want anyway as I do not want a machine gun just a regular semi auto Ar 15. What part or parts do I have to get to fill the space left where the auto sear used to be?? Or should I not buy it but it’s cheap?

Something here wasn’t making sense . . .

For those still not up on the issue, an AR-15 rifle is a semi-automatic firearm. That means that for every pull of the trigger, only one round of ammunition is ever fired. These rifles are legal for United States citizens to purchase and usually (in most states with “common sense” laws) don’t have any extra strings attached to the sale.

On the other hand, a “machine gun” is a firearm that will continue to fire once the trigger is pulled until it either runs out of ammo or the shooter releases the trigger. These firearms are heavily regulated by the ATF, including a registration of all machine guns and requirements to fill out all kinds of paperwork before you can sell one. They also cost upwards of $10,000. Each.

An “auto sear” is a part that, when installed, allows an AR-15 or M-16 rifle to fire in a fully automatic mode. It doesn’t exist on a semi-automatic rifle. Therefore, when he said “auto sear,” I immediately had a bad feeling about where this was going. Here’s my response, verbatim:

What exactly do you mean that the sear has been removed?

If the gun you are buying has ever been a “fully automatic” machine gun, then it will always be a machine gun in the eyes of the ATF. So you would need the proper tax stamp and ATF approval and registration to own it. It would also need to comply with all NFA related laws. Which, if the gun was manufactured after 1986, is impossible without being a properly taxed and licensed firearms dealer.

Just to clarify once again: even if the auto sear has been removed, it is still legally a machine gun. If the gun has ever been “fully automatic” then it will always be a machine gun. There is no way to legally convert it to a semi-automatic rifle. And ANY transfer of a machine gun in the United States needs to be registered and taxed by the ATF.

Just to cover my ass here, I am not a lawyer and this does not constitute legal advice. But if I were in your position, I would RUN (not walk) away from this deal. And possibly alert your local ATF office.

That wasn’t the end of the conversation, though. He came back with some information about the provenance of the firearm, and in there was this nugget:

Somebody in the early 80’s did the mods to make it auto. There is no paperwork on it.

Great. So what we have here is a rifle that was modified pre-1986 to be a machine gun, but was never registered and missed the amnesty period. So it’s now an unregistered machine gun, and I’m pretty sure that the ATF and the FBI would be very interested in the owner of such a firearm.

I may not agree with the National Firearms Act, but there is no way to ever make a rifle cheap enough where I would commit a felony instead of buying the legal version. And the same goes for advice I give to people who ask. And in this case, my advice was to walk away from the deal and buy a new AR-15. Heck, they’re cheap as all get-out at the moment. And it’s not worth a felony over a couple hundred dollars.

[Email your firearms-related questions to “Ask Foghorn” via guntruth@me.com. Click here to browse previous posts]

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86 Responses to Ask Foghorn: So This Guy Wants to Sell Me a Machine Gun…

    • No kidding. One wonders if the poor punctuation was on purpose, or the way this person actually writes an email.

    • If the other couple parts required for full auto were removed along with an RDIAS, there is no issue with the rifle

  1. Agreed. I think a lot of laws, not just firearms laws, suck channel water; but I’m not gonna pick up a felony by violating them.

    • Damn, that brought back a few memories. m16 went safe-semi-full. ak went safe-full-semi. ak had a slower rate of fire and a deeper voice. m16 went like a zipper. On the m16 you could empty a whole mag and have all the hot brass still airborne.

        • We were, for the most part, using 20 round mags. That’s mostly what we were issued. Didn’t need to be 30 feet off the ground either. 750 rpm if I remember correctly, spits them out.

    • Just so you know, the M16A1 pictured is not a Vietnam issue weapon as serial numbers that begin with 9 were police issue etc. not military issue.

  2. Once a machinegun always a machinegun isn’t always true. There are various ways an auto sear can legally convert a gun to full auto and be removed legally. DIAS, lightning links, hk auto sear, there are even some auto Uzi trigger packs out there.

    Also you can de-mill an auto gun and have it rebuilt as a semi. Moral is the NFA is complicated.

    • Wrong dude. Federal Felony Wrong. An AR-15 lower receiver with an Auto Sear hole IS considered a machine gun by the ATF. Once that hole is drilled it falls under the NFA, period. If you tack weld over the holes it’s still considered a machine gun. If you cut the thing up with a band saw it’s still considered a machine gun. Until it has been destroyed according to ATF regulations, usually with several torch cuts or crushed into pieces, it’s a contraband NFA piece of hardware. That’s just the lower with no parts in it at all. That’s enough to get a free 10 year trip to Club Fed.

      You can easily look up cases where manufacturers, importers, and misguided individuals got their butts in a sling for having “bright ideas” on how to sneak around a gun having a full auto capable receiver by “deactivating” the full auto feature by removing parts or even tack welding up the pin holes.

    • So does the NSA pay you guys or is this just like an unpaid intern type of deal? How stupid do you have to be to believe you’re going to bait law abiding people with such simple nonsense? Will you freaking people just go after actual criminals for once? It sounds shocking I know, but they are the ones who do actual harm in the world.

  3. ATF has been pulling this stuff for decades but today there are a dozen of Leftist Soros fronts that are paid do it for them. But just for giggles I would forward the e-mail to BATF for their perusal. I would not be shocked to discover that it came from Bloomberg’s Office

  4. Wait a sec. If the MG was never registered, and now no longer has the components that would make it a MG, why would it be a problem? It may legally be a unregistered MG, but no one will ever know or be able to provide any proof.

    • Point. An M-16 stays a light machine gun irrespective of mods, but ths was an improvised automatic gun, not an M-16.

      Should be legal, although I’d not really trust its innards.

    • Aren’t there extra holes needed in the receiver for the pins that hold the auto sear in place? I recall there are two holes on a semi only AK for example, but a third would be required to add the extra pieces to make it full auto. Isn’t the AR series the same?

      • Yes, there is an extra hole(s) needed as well as some material (sometimes called the “shelf”) that needs to be removed in order for the sear, correct trigger, correct disconnector, correct hammer and correct safety lever to be installed. You also need the correct bolt carrier to actuate the sear.

        If the holes for the sear are drilled, the ATF considers it a machine gun even if the the “shelf” is still intact. Possession of which, without either an approved Form 4 or an FFL/SOT will garner you $250,000 in fines and 10 years in a federal prison. Your state and locality may also have a few things waiting for you as well.

        Once an MG always an MG….and with as many WWII and Korea vets dying, I get a lot of calls about this “thing” they found in grandpas shop, wrapped up in oil paper and hidden behind the shelf.

    • Would you rather:

      A) Take the chance that the gun is actually “under the radar” in exchange for a shot-out rifle that is a couple hundred bucks cheaper

      OR

      B) Buy a new gun that will be more accurate and has no chance whatsoever of being tainted?

      • Please allow me to be a devil’s advocate but if a law was passed saying that you could not speak badly of or criticize, I don’t know let’s say the president, and the minimum mandatory sentence for violating the law was 10 years in federal prison, what would you do?Shut the fuck up or say fuck you? I hear people complaining about how antigunners “support the second aamendment, but” however, when it comes to NFA stuff people act like somehow the second says the right to keep and bear arms EXCEPT for machine guns, silencers, sbrs, sbss, and AOWs. Anyone who thinks this is just another butter.

        • Legal disclaimer: Please also allow me to say that I do not own an unregistered NFA item, I just hate the NFA with an undying passion.

        • I think the whole point is that the sale itself was likely a setup to an arrest. There’s a huge difference between, say, making a full-auto yourself to “stick it to The Man,” and allowing yourself to be duped into buying an unregistered MG directly from an ATF agent. The first might be considered ballsy, but the second is just plain stupid.

      • Just wanted to know your thoughts on the correct ammo for a Mossberg 100 ATR .308 for shooting 500-600 yds??????
        I have Federal 175g Sierra Matchking BTHP and I just wanted to hear your thoughts on that???? I’ve been using Remingtom Core-Lokt 150g for shooting 50-100 yds!!!!!

    • Are you willing to risk playing drop the soap with Big Bubba in the group showers at the pen on no one ever finding out?

    • Yeah here goes a scenario:
      Dude buys a Semi-auto rifle, never says anything to anyone (key point here), then takes it all out, now no more auto. Now it’s back to what it was.

      If nothing permanent was done to the rifle I see this being an illegal gun as being awefully contrived law & worth amending..

      • Hmmm… I don’t knw if the filing, drilling or whatever constitutes anything illegal without the giggler present.

        That said, provenance. Is he certain that it’s not in fact a neutered M-16?

        Either way, I’d not touch it with a ten foot chiclé.

  5. A quibble: all machineguns are automatic, but the reverse isn’t true. It’s like turtles and tortoises.

    A machine gun is a mounted or crew-served automatic gun, whereas the smaller weapons are sub machineguns (handgun caliber) or light machineguns.

    Machinegun by itself is the wrong word for an M-16, an assault rifle and (barely) a LMG.

    • In terms of military terminology you’re accurate, Russ. In terms of NFA terminology, you’re wrong. Words sometimes mean different things in different contexts, and ‘machinegun’ is one of them.

    • In technical terms, yes. But in legal terms (which is what is being used here) “machine gun” refers to LMGs, HMGs, SMGs, machine pistols, assault rifles, full-auto capable battle rifles, etc.

        • The only defense to having a full auto malfunction would be to immediately stop firing and take steps to properly repair the gun. If you say ‘wow, that was neat,’ and keep reproducing the same malfunction, then you have a problem.

        • Yeah, no one whose had an SKS “slam fire” in their hands would ever intentionally repeat the experience.

          When that happens, even letting go of the trigger doesn’t stop the fun. Fortunately, the magazine isn’t huge.

          It’s like trying to stop a train with your tongue.

  6. Walk away from the sale? Sage advice.
    Report the seller? That’s f****d up dude.
    Why report someone for a “crime” that was invented by gun-grabbers, and is completely victimless? Just leave them be. Jesus man, what are you thinking?

    • And if the sale or attempted sale was a set-up? I think it would be almost as bad in the eyes of the BATFE to know of an attempt to sell this “machine gun” and not report it as it would be to go ahead and buy the thing. Pretty sure they could find some way for prosecuting you for not reporting the attempted or suspected illegal transfer.

      • You’re not an accessory unless you either, (1) intend to hinder apprehension or prosecution, or (2) actually aid in the form of either (a) harboring the criminal, (b) providing specified means (such as a disguise) to evade arrest, (c) tampering with evidence, (d) warning the criminal of impending arrest, or (e) using force or deception to prevent the arrest.

        You might be compelled to testify in an existing case, but you can’t be charged with anything for failing to report something like this. At least there’s no precedent for it.

        No, reporting them would just be a dick move.

        • The problem with not reporting them is that when the first attempt fails, they move on to harder attempts, including going as far as planting evidence on your property. This isn’t speculation — they’ve done it before. Remember how far they went to justify murdering Randy Weaver and his family.

          Sunlight is the only thing that kills this scum.

      • “I think it would be almost as bad in the eyes of the BATFE to know of an attempt to sell this “machine gun” and not report it as it would be to go ahead and buy the thing.”

        You thought wrong. It’s not a crime, even though I’m sure a few of them would like it that way.

  7. SOP for ATF and Bloombergs goons is to create an entirely artificial case. Starts out with the worm and hook hanging off the pole. You sir, were in my eyes being teased in hopes of reeling you in. What a trophy indeed for these guys to arrest on some pretense a main contributor to TTAG. Beware….

    • Sounds a lot like a lot of the “terrorism” cases that make the news now & again.

      Some broke and lonely guy gets sucked in with talk of doing big things to advance the faith or save the nation or some such. Maybe hell make some big money or maybe that gorgeous woman will want him.

      He meets with a guy and a couple of his buddies, takes a ride to their place, picks up SOMETHING, goes somewhere, does something, and it hits the TV news as “FBI foils terror plot.”

      Those cases often get lost in the sands of time & almost never seem to make it to court. The only people who know anything about anything are the FBI guys who set it up, and the defendant is a total patsy.

      Good advice, the walk away part, but I don’t know that I’d rat him out. Don’t you have a good attorney on retainer and speed dial? It would be worth a few bucks to find out you’d be in the clear not selling his soul to the Feds, but these days, they might come after you anyway.

      You might not have called soon enough.

  8. Heck I’d still buy it, but if it had anything resembling a 3rd hole drilled in it I’d make the seller srip it down and destroy the receiver under my supervision before I left with every part except the receiver. Obviously the price would need to be pretty good.

    • My thoughts exactly. Just tell the owner to take a hack saw and cut across the receiver. Then i’ll buy the rest.

    • d00d. The actual phrase goes,
      “All your (insert thing here) ARE belong to us.”
      Its a cultural joke lifted from an old arcade game with poor dubbing back in the day. Later famously incorporated into techno samples as “All your bass, are belong to us.”
      If you are going to spam, do it right you donkey.

  9. , if the gun was manufactured after 1986, is impossible without being a properly taxed and licensed firearms dealer.

    You can license a class 3 gun made after 1986??????

    • If by “you” you mean a class 7 FFL holder with a class 2 SOT (special occupational taxpayer) then yes. It can then only be sold to other 07/02’s or govenment/police which realistically never buy full autos anymore. So the value is pretty low (look on gunbroker for “post sample” and see for yourself). Sadly they can never be sold to you and me.

    • What I take away from that article: in order to own a machine gun and not get screwed by the ATF, you have to be a lawyer. You’re still screwed, but at least you won’t have to pay for a defense attorney.

  10. “For those still not up on the issue, an AR-15 rifle is a semi-automatic firearm.”
    Not quite. The first AR-15s manufactured were select fire rifles (Safe, Semi, Auto). Even the early select fire black rifles used in Vietnam were marked AR-15.

    • Absolutely a setup. The bad grammar gives it away. If he really knew what he was buying, and was interested enough to get your opinion, he could at least form a proper sentence.

      You post here, you’re a target.

  11. So what justifies a 10K$ price tag for a full automatic? Why isn’t there somebody making them for 2-3K and essentially cornering what limited market there is? Is the 10K$ price tag comprised of 8K$ of taxes?

    • As a civilian you are my allowed to purchase what is classified as a “machine gun” if it was manufactured after the update to the NFA became law in 1986. So the supply of “machine guns” which are available for private sale/ownership is finite. Law of supply as demand. Many people want, but there aren’t too many out there.

      However, I heard that from 1934 to 1985 there were something like a total of 300,000 registered machine guns manufactured…but in the period before the amended NFA became law an additional 200,000 were made. Seems like there should be a bunch out there.

        • Numbers definitely could be high…was going off my terrible memory of an article I read when all this was happening…been a while. 🙂

  12. I asked at a local gun store why the AR-15 on the wall behind the cash register was priced at $30,000. Seemed excessive for the addition of a MagPul PRS, scope and a nicer quad-rail, even back in the panic of January.

    “That rifle was made in 1985.”
    “Well, is it, or has it ever been a registered machinegun?” I asked.
    “No, but it was made in 1985,” the guy behind the counter (half my age) explained.
    “And?” I countered.
    “Well, it was made before May 1986. So it can be legally converted into a machine gun. I can go buy M16 parts and convert it any time I want.”
    “I would really advise you not to do that,” I said. “Creation of a machinegun by a private citizen is a felony and by submitting paperwork you’re just making the prosecution’s job a lot easier. The rifle or the key parts have to be registered before the May 1986 deadline or they’re illegal. That rifle isn’t worth $30,000 to me or anyone else.”
    “No, that’s convertible. It was made in 1985.”

    I left. Haven’t been back since. There are over 10,000 federal crimes. I don’t need advice from someone trying to talk me into violating the laws that I know, and overcharging me by a factor of 30 for the privilege.

  13. I am a legal owner of a sub-machine gun. Thompson SMG
    I had to fill out a 1 page(2 sides) form from the ATF Not much more difficult than puchasing any gun
    I had to have a firearms trust in which it was entered
    I had to pay a $200 tax to the US Treasury
    I had to wait 6 months for the ATF to approve the transfer. They only have a few agenst working very slowly apparently
    I bought it from a Class III dealer
    Anyone named in the trust as trustee can use, handle, and travel within said state with it
    If I want to leave the state with it and go to another state I have to file a form with the ATF ahead of time.
    The Chief law enforcement officer of the county does not have to sign form due to trust
    The Approved tax stamp and form or copy must remain with gun
    I can rock and roll as much as my wallet allows
    The value of said sub-machine gun has increased more than gold in the same time frame.
    Thus it is registered with the ATF. If I pass away anyone in the trust can handle the transfer of keep it.
    The ATF cannot come in my place to check on it.
    I hope this answers some questions about legal Machine Guns made before May 1986.

  14. Yeah… I would have bought it. Screw the ATF. Could replace the receiver with any of my stripped lowers. POOF – machine gun is now legal semi-auto.

  15. Nick, Your heart is in the right place, and you definitely gave the right advice, but you got a number of facts wrong.

    “For those still not up on the issue, an AR-15 rifle is a semi-automatic firearm.” There are several full auto AR-15 variants.

    “On the other hand, a ‘machine gun’ is a firearm that will continue to fire once the trigger is pulled until it either runs out of ammo or the shooter releases the trigger.” Not strictly true. All that is required is for more than one bullet to be fired per trigger pull, thus burst weapons are considered to be “machine guns.”

    “Just to clarify once again: even if the auto sear has been removed, it is still legally a machine gun. If the gun has ever been ‘fully automatic’ then it will always be a machine gun.” Not true for all guns. Depending on the setup, it may be perfectly legal to remove a DIAS or LL and (assuming no modifications to the receiver), it is not considered a machine gun.

    “There is no way to legally convert it to a semi-automatic rifle.” Actually, it is really simple to convert a NFA item to a non-NFA item. Simply do the conversion in a permanent and not easily reversible way, and then send a letter to the ATF informing them of the conversion. Informing the ATF is not strictly required, but is a really good idea.

    “I would RUN (not walk) away from this deal. And possibly alert your local ATF office.” Amen, brother!

    “I may not agree with the National Firearms Act, but there is no way to ever make a rifle cheap enough where I would commit a felony instead of buying the legal version. And the same goes for advice I give to people who ask. And in this case, my advice was to walk away from the deal and buy a new AR-15. Heck, they’re cheap as all get-out at the moment. And it’s not worth a felony over a couple hundred dollars.” Again, AMEN!

  16. Clearly the sender of that email is ignorant about many many things, but it’s sad to see the paranoia (justified paranoia) that tyranny has created. We’re all so terrified of a criminal and aggressive so called “government” that we’re terrified to buy an item of property that is specifically protected in the bill of rights. We all need to do some deep thinking and soul searching about this. There are those here who remember when the NFA was a “harmless law” and all you had to do was register and pay a bunch of $$. The super aggression from government wasn’t there. Now look at similarly satanic legislation like the “patriot” act and ask yourself where our grandkids will be in 50 years with it. Will they be equally terrified of violating some provision of the “patriot” act, for fear of ultra aggressive “government,” in the same way we are too terrified of even LOOKING at a gun in this situation? Pretty scary. The federal entity is the true terrorist syndicate.

  17. I really don’t understand when the term “shall not be infringed” took on a new meaning. All government gun laws do is protect government not the people. But in the real world I would walk away and forget the gun, but I would never help the government enforce illegitimate laws. 30 years ago a guy approached me with a 50 cal machine gun and a fully auto shotgun. I asked him to leave and never darken my door again. I never knew what he did with that stuff, furthermore I don’t care.

  18. What we need is someone who has an “illegal” unregistered pre-86 machine gun to get caught. And then have them show that they legally filed to have it registered under the amnesty; but the ATF failed to issue the registration.

    • An acquaintance of mine, a Class 2 SOT, tells me this has occurred and because of errors in the Federal Firearms Registry the defendants are in prison. The ATF claims there is no need for, and will not allow, outside scrutiny (audit) of the Registry because it is 100% accurate. You know, like the NSA Terrorist Watch List, No Fly List, and everything else the Gov’t does.

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