While the desire to prevent atrocities like the one committed in Las Vegas is both understandable and good, it is impossible to have a reasoned discussion on the best ways to prevent mass attacks when emotions, rather than facts, are the foundation for debate. Here are the facts on federal regulation of machine guns and fully automatic weapons in the United States.
Federal law highly regulates the manufacture, sale, and ownership of fully automatic weapons in the United States. For those unfamiliar with firearms nomenclature, a fully automatic weapon is one that is capable of firing multiple rounds with only one pull of the trigger; a semi-automatic weapon will fire only one round per trigger pull while preparing the gun to fire another round when the trigger is pulled again. The main federal law governing fully automatic weapons is called the National Firearms Act, or NFA. First enacted in 1934, this federal law regulates fully automatic weapons, suppressors, short-barreled rifles and shotguns, and destructive devices such as bombs or grenades. The NFA was subsequently modified in 1968 by the Gun Control Act and in 1986 by the Firearm Owners Protection Act.
Items included in the NFA are referred to colloquially as “NFA items,” and are highly regulated. A special license from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) is required to manufacture, sell, and own any of these items, without exception. Whereas regular gun manufacturers and dealers must obtain a Federal Firearms License, or FFL, to legally make and sell non-NFA firearms, entities who wish to make or sell NFA items must obtain an additional license on top of the FFL. These dealers are referred to as FFL/SOT (special occupational tax) or Class 3 FFL dealers. It is a lengthy and burdensome process that requires extensive investigation by ATF.
Under the NFA, it is illegal for any private civilian to own any fully automatic weapons manufactured after May 19, 1986. Only certain types of FFL/SOTs may make them, and then only for purchase by qualified state and federal agencies. There are no exceptions. According to the ATF’s official handbook on NFA laws and regulations, it’s not even legal to make new replacement parts for pre-1986 machine guns: “There is no exception allowing for the lawful production, transfer, possession, or use of a post-May 18, 1986 machinegun receiver as a replacement receiver on a weapon produced prior to May 19, 1986.”
So what about pre-1986 machine guns? Are civilians permitted to own those? Yes, with a host of exceptions. The pre-1986 machine guns may be sold only by a FFL/SOT and must be registered with the ATF. Easy peasy, right? Not really. The process of registering a NFA item with the ATF is costly, invasive, and time-consuming. Federal law requires extensive background checks of anyone wishing to own a NFA item such as a machine gun. If you wanted to purchase a machine gun today, it would take close to a year, and you would be required to submit fingerprints and a photo to accompany your background check. Each NFA item also requires its own tax stamp, which costs $200. Once the ATF decides that an individual is permitted by law to own a NFA item, it adds that individual’s name, address, and biographical information to a federal gun registry and matches it to the serial number of the licensed NFA item. This goes for every item listed in the NFA, not just machine guns. Individuals with NFA items are then required to notify the ATF when they move and any time they plan to travel outside their state of residence with the NFA item.
And that’s just the federal registration process. We haven’t even discussed the cost of purchasing a legal machine gun. If you can find a legal, ATF-stamped, pre-1986 machine gun for less than $10,000, then you’re a miracle worker. A legal NFA sear — the machined part of the trigger group that makes a firearm capable of fully automatic firing — can cost anywhere from $15,000 to $50,000. And lest you think that any random yokel can just head into the garage and cobble together functional full auto sear, think again. While it is indeed possible, the tools and know-how required to precisely mill the sear, not to mention the myriad other necessary modifications, are in relatively short supply.
Reports, like those from ABC reporter Terry Moran, that machine guns are perfectly legal in Nevada and other states are highly misleading. Federal law, after all, pre-empts state law. In fact, under Nevada state law, NFA items are only legal if they have been legally obtained and registered under federal law. You can’t just waltz into the state with an unregistered machine gun and expect to walk around scot-free. This is the case in all states which allow possession of NFA items. Legal federal ownership is a prerequisite in every case. If the NFA item is not owned, registered, and stamped in compliance with federal laws and regulations, then the item is illegal under state law.
In conclusion, fully automatic weapons are highly regulated under both federal and state law. Only licensed entities are permitted to manufacture, sell, or own them. Private civilian ownership of machine guns is illegal unless the individual has been explicitly permitted by the federal ATF to own them. All fully automatic weapons must be registered with the federal government in a central registry with no exceptions. A special tax is levied on all NFA items (machine guns, suppressors, short-barreled rifles, short-barreled shotguns, and destructive devices) with no exceptions.
These are not my opinions. They are cold, hard facts about gun laws in the United States. We all want to stop the kinds of atrocities that happened in Las Vegas, but we can’t do that unless we know and accept all the facts about the situation. The sooner we can all agree to debate the facts, rather than be ruled by our emotions, the sooner we can work together for a solution to the problem of gun violence.