What is the NFA? The National Firearms Act of 1934 – referred to in shorthand as the NFA – is one of the largest pieces of gun-related legislation on the federal books. It’s a gun control act establishing certain limitations on the ownership of some firearm and accessories. As a result, some people really don’t like it. Other folks don’t think it goes far enough.
We here at TTAG are in the first camp, but that’s a discussion for another time. Additionally, we aren’t lawyers. Nothing in this article should be taken as legal advice, but rather just a discussion about the law and its history. However, given the gun control plans of the incoming Biden administration, a lot of people who aren’t familiar with the NFA are now asking questions about it.
So, what exactly is the NFA and what did/does it do?
The National Firearms Act was enacted on June 26, 1934, with the goal of regulating certain classes of firearms. Excise taxes were placed on the manufacture and sale of machine guns, short-barrel rifles, short barrel shotguns as well as the curious catch-all of “any other weapon,” which are guns that fall in between the legal definitions of classes of guns. The NFA also covers certain devices such as suppressors.
Why did they do it? Basically to make it difficult for people to buy them. After all, letting “Vinnie Mangoes” and “Carmine The Wrench” buy a Tommy gun by mail order isn’t necessarily the best idea…at least that was the thinking at the time. The NFA mandated a $200 excise tax on each of these regulated items as well as registration using a dedicated ATF form. The registration meant that gangsters wouldn’t buy them and the $200 tax meant hardly anyone else could afford them.
You see, $200 doesn’t buy a whole lot today. In 1934, though, that was the equivalent of about $3,700 in today’s dollars. Bear that in mind next time you cringe about paying for an ATF tax stamp. It’s a relative bargain these days. Your grandpa would have had to get a second mortgage (the average cost of a home was just under $6,000), walking uphill both ways in the snow to the bank to get it, and have to pay the mill owner for permission to come to work.
Anyhow, some people are already thinking, “Oh, he means Title II!” Not so fast, buckaroos. “Title II” firearms are defined by the Gun Control Act of 1968, which amended the NFA (expanding the definition of machine guns and including “destructive devices”).
Instead, the NFA defines classes of firearms, which are called NFA firearms, and puts a tax on their manufacture and sale. Subsequent laws have regulated them further, which we’ll get into at another time.
So, what are the NFA firearms?
First is machine guns, which are defined as “any weapon which shoots, is designed to shoot, or can be readily restored to shoot, automatically more than one shot without manual reloading, by a single function of the trigger.” Any semi-automatic firearm that can be converted (“readily convertible”) into select-fire or fully automatic capability by easy mechanical means is also an NFA firearm.
Short-barreled rifles are also covered by the NFA. These are defined as any firearm with a folding, collapsing or fixed stock and a rifled barrel that is 16 inches in length or shorter, and/or has as an overall length of 26 inches or less. If the stock is removed after purchase, it still counts.
In short, your AR-15, M1 carbine or what have you falls under SBR regulation if the barrel is 16 inches or shorter, or if the firearm is 26 inches or shorter in overall length with the stock (if applicable) fully extended.
For a short barrel shotgun, the same idea applies. Any smoothbore weapon falls under NFA guidelines with a barrel of 18 inches or less or overall length of 26 inches or less.
Suppressors are regulated as the NFA also covers any portable device intended to muffle or disguise the report of any firearm.
The NFA also created the class of firearms known as “Any Other Weapon” or AOWs. This includes cane guns, zip guns and other improvised or “alternative” firearms that don’t technically fall under the conventional definitions of other classes of guns.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives occasionally updates what qualifies as an AOW. The good news here is the excise tax is only $5, so you can get that cane gun pretty cheap.
Besides defining guns and imposing a tax on them, what else does the NFA do?
Beyond the tax stamp, you also have to apply for permission to buy an NFA firearm. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t actually need a Class III Federal Firearms License (FFL) to buy a machine gun. Why you’d need a Class III FFL is to manufacture or deal in NFA firearms, not for mere ownership.
The process is the same as it is for suppressors. You fill out an application to purchase the item, send them a check for the excise and transfer tax, and undergo a background check. A copy of that application is sent to the CLEO (chief law enforcement officer) in your city or county. The ATF approves (or denies) your application, and then you can purchase an NFA firearm. This may or may not include permission to move the item across state lines. If approved, you can purchase the NFA firearm, but it must be registered with the ATF, so you’ll have to submit the make, model, serial number and so on.
To sum up, the NFA merely defines certain classes of firearms and places an excise tax on buying them. It also requires permission from the federal government to own them, and requires registration thereof after the NFA firearm has been transferred to you.
There are additional regulations covering short-barreled guns, machine guns and so on, but those were passed later. We’ll cover those in a future post.