I was reminded recently of the time I decided to buy a machine gun. Yes, you can still buy one if you have a fat wallet and are willing to jump through all of the many required hoops.
This was many years ago, but what I learned still holds true today. I made some mistakes and will tell you about them so you don’t have to. Let’s start off with a brief primer on machine guns and the laws pertaining to the transactions involved in buying one.
Machine guns are fully automatic firearms and, contrary to what some politicians and ignorant media members may say, in most states, you can own them. But thanks to gun control acts passed in 1968 and 1986, they’re very expensive.
Still, if you have the funds, you too can own one. Like a suppressor, the transfer requires paying a $200 tax to the federal government.
The big difference between a machine gun and a regular firearm from a regulatory standpoint is that when you buy a regular gun, you usually (in most states) get it right away. When you buy a machine gun, you fork over a whole bunch of money and you’ve literally got nothing to show for it except a receipt until your purchase is approved.
There are good transactions and there are bad transactions. The good deals go off without a hitch. The bad deals get lawyers, cops and the ATF involved. I was fortunate enough to have a good transaction when I bought mine.
Let’s start with the gun. Machine guns aren’t easy items to shop for since you can’t typically hold one before you buy it most of the time, unless you happen to have friends who own them or dealers that have them in stock. That’s not something that’s easy to find, so your mileage may vary widely.
I happened to have friends always buying/selling guns and getting their opinion on what would be a good machine gun was valuable. Plus, they let me shoot some of theirs.
It’s good to have friends. It’s better to have friends with machine guns.
Much like boat ownership, I always thought the best machine gun was the one my friend owned. I was right for the most part, but after a while I decided I wanted to take the plunge myself. I played with a friend’s HK MP5 clone with a registered full auto pack and I really liked what I saw.
What I didn’t like much was the price. At that time, a sear was $10,000, packs were $13,000 and finding a host gun – like an SBR made from LSC flats from a good gunsmith, with the parts kit was about $4500. So all told, to get a similar setup I was looking at spending just shy of $18,000.
That leads me to lesson number one: Money is the easiest part. The selection, the choices, and navigating the paperwork are the hard parts.
I happened to have a good-size chunk of cash squirreled away in the rainy day fund and the stock market had been reasonably good to me, so I called my broker, sold a chunk of my portfolio and decided to jump into the world of machine gun ownership/stamp collecting.
The reason I wanted to sell before buying instead of selling after I found a gun I want was twofold. First, I wanted to make sure I had the money in case the market took a correction. Second, it takes a few days for the money to move over after you sell. So you don’t want to find the right gun, make a deal with someone and say “I AM WAITING ON A CHECK FROM UBS.”
In guns, cash is king and there’s been more than one deal that’s fallen apart because someone was “waiting on a check” that never came.
Another thing that I didn’t realize was all the different ways that I could be separated from my money when I went shopping.
I could spend money at dealers that are dedicated to selling nothing but machine guns and their prices are usually higher than other dealers selling the same gun. They seemed to be very anxious to take my money when I said I had cash ready to spend, and one dealer actually vetted my living situation before offering to sell me something.
They asked me about my residence, if I owned a safe, etc. and if I didn’t meet their exacting criteria…no gun for me, even if I paid cash. That was stranger than fiction.
Some smaller dealers in my area popped up, but only with sporadic results. The dealers that I ran across with one or two NFA items barely dealt with machine guns and didn’t seem that knowledgeable in running the Form 4 process. I didn’t get a warm fuzzy feeling from doing business with people who didn’t really know the process.
A few individual sellers popped up here and there. Some were willing to let you try their gun before committing, others not. One thing that was interesting to me was a 50/50 deal, 50% to start paperwork and 50% on paperwork approval. I suppose this is a good way to do business to keep things equitable, but what happens if someone just runs with your 50%?
I asked a few friends in law enforcement and the response I got from the economic crimes detective was that it’s grand theft, but it’s a civil matter and the agency wouldn’t really investigate things like that typically.
That was an eye-opener. When I started working in the pawn industry just out of high school, sweeping floors and tagging merchandise and carrying out large purchases for people, I’d always wonder about things like “Why is this guy dropping $8,000 on some sports memorabilia that could be fake?”
I asked a customer one day about that. He was a longtime collector of baseball tchotchkes, and he told me something elegant in its simplicity: “You ain’t buying a ball, you’re buying the seller” – meaning that he had done business with the shop on many occasions, and he trusted them sufficiently to do business there and not be sold something that wasn’t authentic.
So my choices were: buy from a big dealer and pay big money. Buy from small dealer and pay less – with mixed results on forms. Or buy from a machine gun collector and each deal is a little different.
I wasn’t sure what to do, so I waited things out and kept my eyes open for guns for sale from friends, their friends, and dealers both large and small nearby.
After about a year of looking, I had a dealer email me – we had corresponded a few months before about an item he had in stock and he (wisely) kept my contact info in case he had to sell something again later on down the road. He was an hour and a half away and had something he thought I might like.
I was sent photos of a “brand new HK” build with a registered receiver – not a registered pack – that he thought I might like. The price was $16,000 cash – no sales tax since it was coming out of his personal collection and not his business.
It was unfired since the conversion was done in May of 1986 and he would not let me try it lest he turn a PRISTINE UNFIRED gun into a USED SHOOTER.
I didn’t like the idea of not being able to make sure it worked, but it was being advertised as new and unfired. How bad could it be?
The weather was nice and I felt like taking a ride on my bike and the miles flew by until I pulled into the dealer’s parking lot. I looked at the gun and it looked just as advertised; new, unfired and shiny and black. I’ve always liked the look and the feel of HK sub-machineguns and this one just felt right.
I asked the dealer if a check drawn on my account at a local bank would suffice. He told me that he was going through a divorce and needed cash to pay some lawyers, so we worked out a deal. I’d pay him $10,000 in a check to him personally and $6,000 in a check to his law firm to put towards his legal fees.
He seemed satisfied with that arrangement. After shaking on the deal, he went to his PC and printer and asked me how I wanted the forms made up.
Registration isn’t something that just applies to cars and trucks, as I would learn. I had NO clue how I wanted to register it. I took a pass and said I would email him info after doing some research.
Back in the old days, prior to 41F, we had three ways to do things.
1. Individual registration with CLEO signature.
2. Trust registration without CLEO signature.
3. Corporation registration without CLEO signature.
To be honest – I really didn’t think that part through, but I should have. I live in a gun-friendly area, so I told the dealer to make up forms for me – individually registered to Hank.
I brought the forms down to the local PD after calling ahead and making an appointment with the chief’s secretary. I gave the forms over with a cover letter and my contact info. She said she’d send them to the chief.
After five weeks of no call, no reply, I called down to their office and asked if my paperwork was ready. No response. I guess this chief didn’t approve of civilian machine gun ownership.
That’s too bad. I liked supporting the FOP and the PD’s events and I heard him speak about individual rights and thought he talked a good game on law and order. Since the ATF’s list of people who are allowed signatories was rather long, my next call was to the county sheriff. I was in for a rude surprise.
After calling the administrative office and speaking to the secretary to the county’s top cop, I was told that I needed to get a packet of information to them. I was surprised, but I gave her my address.
Six days later, I got a large manila envelope in my mailbox. The cover letter instructed me to fill it out as comprehensively as possible and return it to the office of the sheriff. I turned the page to find a 28-sheet questionnaire binder-clipped to the cover letter. It encompassed:
Name, date and place of birth, last five addresses, driving history, employment history going back 10 years, any arrest history for any crime, any domestic violence injunctions, if I had ever been investigated for any crime, if I was involved in any civil litigation, financial judgments against me, any family law issues – divorce, separation, restraining orders, etc.
You think there’s an end to this, right? There isn’t. I kept flipping pages.
The next page encompassed a request to make a to-scale sketch of the floor plan of my current property, with an indication of where the proposed firearm was to be stored.
My eyes rolled and I turned the sheaf of paper over to reveal some more questions.
I was asked who my home insurer was, if I had a firearm policy with them, the modality of storage for said firearm, a description of the locking mechanism and whether it was UL-rated or not. I was asked if I had an alarm system and if my storage room or container would be equipped with alarm sensors, what kind of alarm (make and model that would be deployed at said residence).
The last page was an informational block that asked about my work schedule so that an investigator from the sheriff’s office could work around my schedule to meet me and verify that all the information on the document was correct, examine the residence floor plan to make sure the paper matched reality, examine the area it would be stored in, verify the presence of a working alarm system, etc.
They also wanted to personally size me up as part of the investigation and subsequent recommendation to the sheriff as to whether he should or should not sign my paperwork. How nice of them to work around my work schedule, after invading my privacy.
What on earth had I gotten myself into?
I called the sheriff’s office and asked why they wanted all this info and they said that’s what was necessary to determine my suitability to get the signing authority to approve my purchase.
This wasn’t working at all. I called every wills, trust and estates attorney in the phone book asking them to set up a gun trust for me. Nobody knew what a gun trust was, and those who didn’t hang up on me told me that they’d be happy to set up an irrevocable living trust for me for whatever estate planning purposes I had for the low, low price of $250/hour. That meant it would cost me about $500 to set up at trust to do something that would avoid the CLEO signature.
A corporation would be a dumb way to do it because the costs to keep a corporation active every year add up and a trust costs nothing in my state to maintain in perpetuity.
What should you do when you are stuck between a PD chief that didn’t want to return calls or sign paperwork, a sheriff who wants your life story and then some, and lawyers who don’t seem to know what you’re trying to accomplish because they’ve never seen any of these issues before?
I was confused, so I called up a few machine gun-owning friends and asked for advice. They all told me I needed to call down to a gun nut judge who loves the Second Amendment and see what he’d do for me. After all, it’s my tax dollars at work.
I went down to the courthouse in shirt and tie, went to the judge’s chambers and asked his secretary about his form 4 policy. She handed me a 28-page questionnaire…basically a copy of the one used by the county sheriff.
This wasn’t going well. I had spent $16,000 on a gun that wasn’t refundable and registering it was turning out to be a total pain in the rear end.
Finally, I said nuts to this – this is insanity. I stopped at a local OfficeMax, bought pre-packaged, prepared trust documents, had a teller at Bank of America notarize all the pertinent docs, called my dealer and said PARK THIS IN THE NAME OF THE HANK SMITH LIVING TRUST.
He mailed me form 4’s and I sent off all the paperwork to ATF as he instructed.
Three months after forking over $200 for the tax stamp, and $16,000 for the gun, I got a call from the dealer. The ATF had a problem with the submission. He mailed me the error letter.
I hadn’t sent in complete trust documents. I called ATF and informed them I would have that remedied right away and mailed them what they requested. A few weeks later, the dealer called me and said my paperwork was back and…I could pick up my gun!
Wasting no time, I jumped on my bike, went for a nice ride to the dealer, picked up my gun and got home to ogle my newest investment.
I toyed around with it and played with some dummy ammo/snap caps to check ejection and pretend I was shooting bad guys a la SEAL Team 6. All was good, and all I needed now was a place to shoot.
Thankfully, my local range allows full auto as long as you’re not being a total idiot. So I hauled my gun, some mags and a full case of Winchester White Box 9mm down to the range, anxious to finally pull the trigger as a newly-minted machine gun owner.
I got a lane, got settled in, set up an NRA B29 target, loaded up a magazine, did the HK slap and pulled the trigger. One round fired…and I found myself playing with a non-functioning gun. I cleared the gun, tried a different magazine…and same problem.
My machine gun was not a machine gun. In fact, it was barely a semi-automatic. In short, it didn’t work.
I called the dealer who had sold it to me. He had no idea what was wrong. It’s a new gun. Nobody knew if it really worked or not. Plus, as he reminded me – a bunch of guns were being registered and converted into the wee hours before the deadline in May of 1986, so QC wasn’t really a thing that existed as everyone was cobbling stuff together to beat the deadline.
Gee, thanks Billy. That was real helpful.
I shoved all my stuff into my range bag and went home, dejected and frustrated. Sure, I got a gun. And I got a tax stamp and the transfer went smoothly enough. Now all I needed was a gun that went bang more than once.
My machine gun-owning friends asked me how my gun was running and I told them about the issues I was having. Opinions, speculation, and conjecture abounded. The end result was me sending my gun out to a competent gunsmith to get running.
The only problem is that the gunsmith that was suggested to me was competent, cranky and more than a little buried with work. He told me it would be at least a month and a half before he could even LOOK at my gun to see what he could do.
I accepted the terms – what choice did I have? – enclosed a check for his first hour of labor and told him to call me as soon as he could with some information.
Sure enough, a month and a half went by and I got a call. The bolt carrier that was made into a full auto bolt carrier by being welded up in the conversion wasn’t done right. He would have to grind down the welded portion and re-do it. Four weeks until he could get to it. He gave me a price. I told him to go ahead and I put a check in the mail. The check got cashed and I waited for my gun.
When I didn’t hear anything after five weeks, I called the gunsmith and got the generic “working on it!” reply.
This repeated a few times.
Eight months later, I got a gun delivered by UPS with a note saying,”Sorry this took so long.”
Alas, redemption! There was light at the end of the tunnel and it wasn’t a train.
I took my gun to the range for the second time and cut a paper target in two right across the torso. A fantastic feeling.
Yes, that’s a long story. Here are a few things I learned along the way.
1. Cash is king. Having cash makes negotiating and putting deals together easier.
2. Have a plan as to how you want to register your NFA item. Post 41F, it’s a lot easier now, but you still need a plan.
3. TRY IT BEFORE YOU BUY IT IF YOU CAN. I’m only buying used guns from now on. I know they run. New guns are for wallhangers and for looking cool. My guns are for shooting.
4. You’re not buying a gun, you’re buying the seller. After Billy sold me a gun that wouldn’t run and was useless to me, I wouldn’t spend money with him again. Nice guy, terrible gun dealer.
5. A machine gun a lot better with friends who own machine guns to help you and for you to play around/compete with. So is a competent gunsmith.
6. A machine gun is useless without a range to shoot it. Make sure you have a place near you to shoot that won’t change the range rules three days after you send in your Form 4.
7. It’s a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll.