With the nomination of David Chipman and some proposed new regulations by the ATF, there’s been more talk lately about the National Firearms act. If Chipman gets the top job at ATF and gets his way, he’d regulate all “assault weapons” (which he can’t seem to define) under the NFA, just like machine guns.
And a proposed ATF rule would instantly convert lots of brace-equipped AR pistols into short barrel rifles in the eyes of federal gun law enforcers. That means they’d be regulated under the NFA, too.
But what is the NFA? The National Firearms Act of 1934 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. But a lot of people who aren’t familiar with the NFA and what it means 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 “Jimmy Two Times” and “Johnny Roastbeef” 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 the payment of 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, but back in 1934, though, that was the equivalent of about $3,700 in current 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 take out 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.
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 (hang in there).
So, what are the NFA firearms?
First are 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 technically 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 cheaply.
Besides defining guns and imposing a tax on them, what else does the NFA do?
Beyond buying the tax stamp, you also have to have for permission to buy an NFA firearm. Contrary to some popular belief, you don’t actually need a Class III Federal Firearms License (FFL) to buy a machine gun. You’d only need a Class III license to manufacture or deal in NFA firearms, not to own one.
The only real requirements for buying NFA items are . . .
— Be at least 21 years of age
— Reside in one of the states that currently allows civilian ownership of the NFA item you want to purchase
— Be a resident of the United States
— Be legally eligible to purchase a firearm and pass an FBI NICS background check
— Pass a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) background check
— Pay a one-time $200 transfer tax per item
The process for acquiring an NFA item is the same as it is for buying a suppressor. First you pay for the item. You also fill out the required paperwork and provide the documents, send the ATF a check for the excise and transfer tax, and undergo a background check. The good news is, most good retailers have this process down to a science and will walk you through it. There’s no reason to be intimidated. Thousands of people buy suppressors every day.
A copy of your application is sent to the CLEO (chief law enforcement officer) in your city or county. You no longer need their permission, as you once did, but they are required to be notified. The ATF will (eventually) approve (or deny) your application. You’ll be notified and then you can take possession of the NFA item.
Be aware that if you want to take your NFA item across state lines, you’ll have to notify the ATF by filing a form before you do so. The good news is that suppressors are exempt from this requirement.
Also, be aware that the ATF requires that you be able to provide proof of registration for NFA items on demand. If you’re at the range or on a hunting trip and are asked for your paperwork by a police officer, game warden, or ATF agent, you’ll need to produce it. Some ranges even ask for this before allowing customers to shoot NFA items at their facilities. In short, always carry copies of your paperwork including your tax stamp.
Subsequent laws passed in 1968 and 1986 changed some of the definitions involved and and eventually banned the transfer and possession of post-1986 manufactured machine guns, but all of that came later and wasn’t part of the original NFA.
To sum up, the NFA — and its subsequent add-ons — defines certain classes of firearms and other items and imposes an excise tax when you buy them. It requires you to get the federal government’s permission to own these special items, and registers your ownership of them…something that’s illegal on the federal level for standard, non-NFA firearms.