I had an interesting week at work last week, and I hate interesting weeks sometimes. This is one of those times. I received a message on the store answering machine from someone who started off rather grimly.
The message went, “Hey, this is Rob. Steve was my brother — can you give me a call back?” I didn’t like where that was going. So the first free moment I could, I gave Rob a call back and his tone was somber and I had a hunch I knew what was coming.
Steve was a fellow who’d been buying guns from me for more than 10 years. He liked playing with guns and motorcycles and was always trading one for the other. And he had died unexpectedly. He left a lot of small and large projects unfinished when he passed away.
The primary reason that Rob called me was he wanted to know if I had any idea where a few of his brother’s guns were. There were two storage units, and a garage filled with junk. Their family apparently has a hereditary hoarding gene and the Rob was looking everywhere for his brother’s stuff and couldn’t chase all of it down.
While I couldn’t help him with that, he had another question. He had no idea how to handle any of his late brother’s NFA-regulated stuff. I explained to him that once he rounds everything up, he can file ATF Form 5 and they’ll take care of a tax-free transfer to a lawful heir.
Rob wasn’t a big gun guy but he knew that his late brother enjoyed taking his niece out to do some plinking with a suppressed 10/22 (who wouldn’t?) and it was important to him that she be able to keep doing that. I truly hope that getting his brother’s gun collection rounded up doesn’t prove to be too difficult a task and they locate all the gear.
I checked our layaway and our pending NFA forms queue and didn’t see anything with Steve’s name on it so it was all in the clear in that department.
One NFA-specific problem is mention is that there are a few items with tax stamps that Rob knew Steve owned, but hasn’t been able to locate everything. And there’s probably more that he doesn’t know about.
This presents a unique issue because if you don’t have control over something that’s regulated under Title II, you’re obligated to immediately report this to ATF. How is Rob supposed to know everything his brother owned to begin with, and how do we know what may be missing?
There’s a cautionary tale here for all of us. We’re gun owners. That mean’s we’re probably paranoid, pessimistic and cynical. Hell, that’s why we own guns. One thing we hear about from the preppers is making sure we have a plan, and making sure that Plan B exists because Plan A won’t survive first contact. They weren’t kidding.
We all should have a plan for what to do with our firearms when we die. Laws for transferring ownership of your firearms, including the necessity of a background check can vary depending on the type of gun(s) and the state where the decedent last resided. So the answer could be a will, a trust, or a rich leather-bound portfolio that smells of mahogany, like my friend Ray has, that details every firearm he owns and how it’s to be distributed after his death (Ray has three kids and none of them get along with each other).
Knowing the law in the resident state will help an executor or the family members we leave behind to clean up our mess when we’re gone. But so will a simple organizational tool like a spiral-bound notebook. Help your heirs know where things are, who they should go to and maybe some ballpark values.
On the other side of the coin, I got a similar call from one of my neighbors. Someone had asked if anyone knew anything about guns and my name was suggested. After a long battle with cancer, Vinny’s dad had died and he left behind a big Italian family and a big Italian gun collection to boot.
Vinny asked if I could head over and help them out, and since the house was just a few blocks over I stopped by. I walked in and it was like stepping into the film “Goodfellas.”
It was a big Italian family, all drinking Chianti and eating and telling tall tales of the dearly departed. But in this case there was a will, an organized list of firearms detailing who was getting what, an insurance rider on the collection…everything was inventoried — right down to the choke tubes.
Unlike Steve, Vinny’s family was fanatical about keeping good records, and in a time like that, it really paid off. I told them they looked like they were in a good place. What did they need me for?
They asked me to sit down, have a glass of wine and eat some lasagna as thanks for coming out. Vinny’s father used to own an Italian restaurant and the garlic bread smelled divine. Who was I to argue with tradition?
I heard a commotion coming from the garage. Vinny was coming into the house holding something. It was an old burlap sack with a perforated heat shield sticking out. He handed it to me and asked me if I knew what it was.
In the sack was an old Beretta Model 1938 submachinegun! I’d never actually seen one of these before. I explained to him briefly about how the laws work in the United States — the laws governing his father’s Beretta 686 are a little different than those governing this MG.
I asked them if they had any of the paperwork for the Beretta and sure enough, there was a little folder with the will that had the original amnesty registration paperwork. It was all there.
I explained that they needed to file a Form 5 and the ATF would then do a tax-free registration change to the heir. (Remember: Possession of the firearm registered to someone else can lead to a felony or misdemeanor charge. You must do the transfer.)
They were concerned that there’d be some kind of hidden estate tax or something with the police department because it involved the government, but I told them there’s no tax on a transfer when someone dies and the gun ownership passes to a lawful heir.
Just file some forms with your favorite FFL and the ATF would call if they needed anything. They’re actually remarkably flexible in situations like this if you give them a call and tell them what’s going on.
Vinny’s situation is what we should all be shooting for. A big family where everyone gets along, a well-documented estate and although they didn’t know exactly what they had, all their paperwork was together and they knew when to ask for help.
That one important document for the Beretta makes a huge difference in getting the registration changed over, and it’s an amazing part of history to boot. It doesn’t take much effort for your heirs to have the best possible scenario over a situation like Rob was dealing with (handguns stuffed in the floorboards, no idea where things are and no clue on their value/legality/etc).
Vinny’s family had a plan and it paid off. Someone went to a lot of effort to make sure that their loved ones weren’t burdened with even more agita in their time of sorrow.
We can all learn a lot from these two departed gun nuts. It’s a great lesson to make sure we have a cohesive plan for our guns from both a practical, who-gets-what standpoint as well as how to deal with the inevitable unique legal challenges that the National Firearms Act has created.
Things to remember in estate planning:
- Fully automatic weapons, short-barreled rifles, short-barreled shotguns, and silencers are NFA items and must have serial numbers and must be registered with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Under federal law, unregistered NFA weapons can not be registered after the owner’s death and must be “abandoned,” i.e. turned over to law enforcement.
- Long guns such as hunting rifles, and shotguns, and revolvers and semi-automatic pistols can be distributed to inheriting heirs through an FFL/firearms dealer after required background checks have been run (which means you can not bequeath your firearms to felons).
In short, don’t be a Steve.
Hank is a federal firearms licensee with 12 years of experience in the business.