In 1968, Lyndon Baines Johnson forced the gun control act of 1968 through a reluctant Congress. The act was not popular, but Johnson’s ability to twist arms and bribe Congressmen was legendary. As part of the deal making to get GCA 1968 through Congress, a provision for amnesty of arms controlled by the National Firearms Act (NFA) was included.
The Congress resolved this conflict by (1) prohibiting any information required to comply with the NFA to be used against a registrant or applicant “in a criminal proceeding with respect to a violation of law occurring prior to or concurrently with the filing of the application or registration, or the compiling of the records containing the information or evidence”; (2) establishing an amnesty period from November 2, 1968, to December 1, 1968, when persons could register unregistered NFA firearms with immunity from prosecution; and (3) prohibiting ATF from releasing any information about the registration status or ownership of any NFA firearm. During the 1968 amnesty, firearms were registered on Form 4467.
The 1968 amnesty is the first and only one the federal government has held so far. As was the case under the original NFA, fingerprints or photographs were not required to voluntarily register an NFA firearm during the 1968 amnesty period.
The original authorization for an amnesty was for 30 days. However, the statute that provided for the amnesty also provided that the Secretary of the Treasury could authorize as many future amnesties as they decided would “contribute to the purposes of this title.”
From PUBLIC LAW 90-619-OCT. 22, 1968, found on page 1236 of United States Statutes at Large Volume 82.djvu/1278:
(d) The Secretary of the Treasury, after publication in the Federal Register of his intention to do so, is authorized to establish such periods of amnesty, not to exceed ninety days in the case of any single period, and immunity from liability during any such period, as the Secretary determines will contribute to the purposes of this title. TITLE III — AMENDMENTS TO TITLE VII O F THE OMNIB U S C R I M E CONTROL A N D S A F E S T R E E T S ACT O F 1968
I do not believe this statute has ever been repealed or superseded. It appears to still be effective law. No Congressional approval, then, is required for an amnesty. Any Secretary of the Treasury may declare one at any time they wish, as long as they give notice in the Federal Register and the amnesty is for a period of 90 days or less. As a practical matter, no Secretary of the Treasury would be able to declare such an amnesty without at least the tacit approval of the President.
At the time of the bills passage, I recall it was understood that there would be regular amnesties. That would have made sense for several reasons.
First, it would continue to bring otherwise illegally owned arms into the registration system. As people who feared firearms confiscation saw that it didn’t happen, they could decide to register their arms.
Second, it would allow a mechanism for people who inherited unregistered firearms, or who obtained them in some other, unintentional way such as finding an old Thompson or M2 carbine in a barn or attic, to bring these firearms into the registration system. Current law doesn’t allow these firearms to be registered, unless it is through an amnesty.
Third, it would allow for the transfer of arms owned by police departments to individuals. Numerous NFA arms are owned by police departments without being registered under the NFA. Police departments are exempt from the requirement to register. Technologies and departmental needs change. Amnesties would allow police departments and other government entities to register these firearms so that they could be sold to individuals, benefiting both the departments and the individuals. Hundreds of vintage Thompsons, for example, were destroyed by the FBI, when they could have been sold to collectors for millions of dollars.
Fourth, new amnesties would allow discrepancies in the NFA lists to be corrected. During an amnesty period, owners of registered arms could check to see if their registration is correctly recorded by the ATF. If not, it could be corrected without legal liability or cost. From previous cases, it’s been shown that the NFA registry is incomplete and inaccurate.
I’m not a lawyer and I don’t play one on the Internets, but the authority for more amnesties appears to be there. A President, if he chose to do so, could direct the Secretary of the Treasury declare one or more amnesties for the purpose of NFA registration. Precedent has already been set.
A president might use the executive action of an amnesty as a lever to extract concessions from Congress, such as national reciprocity for carry permits, removal of suppressors, short barreled rifles or shotguns from the NFA, or other obvious, commonsense, reasonable reforms. Such reforms are long overdue.
It’s possible that previous presidents weren’t aware of this authority, or didn’t wish to exercise it for fear of criticism in the media. A President who’s elected in spite of all-out media opposition would already have shown that he need not fear them.
©2016 by Dean Weingarten: Permission to share is granted when this notice and link are included.