But are bazookas, mortars and other destructive devices legal?
by Peter Suciu
In December 2012, various news organizations reported that “rocket launchers” had been turned in as part of the Los Angeles Police Gun Buyback program. In the accompanying photos, police officers held up a pair of AT-4 rocket launchers, a Swedish-designed weapon that fires an 84mm unguided projectile.
There was just one problem — for the police, that is. The two were actually trainer models. It really should have been obvious to both the police and the news agencies as photos showed that the word “TRAINER” emblazoned on the side of each weapon. These were non-functioning models that were used to train soldiers. This was not one of the LAPD’s finest moments. Someone in the buyback should have figured out these things weren’t actually working versions.
FIRE AND FORGET
Another AT-4 showed up in December 2017, at a gun buyback in San Francisco. For the record, M72 LAWs (Light Anti-Tank Weapons) have also shown up at gun buybacks in Seattle and New Jersey. These should not have been an issue worth reporting.
This is because the AT-4, like the M72 LAW, is a “fire and forget” weapon — a single shot rocket launcher. Once fired, the tube is really as harmless as a long piece of PVC pipe. In the cases of the buybacks, the police gave out gift cards for what were essentially empty shell casings.
It should be noted that live AT-4 rocket launchers (or any similar anti-tank weapon) aren’t really available for civilian sale. Technically, theymight fall into the “destructive device” category according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), but Saab Bofors Dynamics, the makers of the AT-4, doesn’t have commercial sales. So, unless someone were to obtain one from the military — something that should never happen — it would be impossible to buy a live one anyway! Those that have been fired, however, do regularly sell to collectors for $200 to $300.
The same is true of the LAW: Once fired, it is just an empty tube not a weapon (unless you plan to use it as a club). Law enforcement officers should know that these weapons can’t be reused — but these items probably look good in the photos of gun buybacks as the unsuspecting public may assume wrongly that these are still capable of doing serious harm.
Understanding Destructive Devices
The lines of legality are far less clear with bazookas and similar reusable man-portable recoilless anti-tank rocket launcher weapon systems such as the Panzerschreck, Blindecide and Instalaza. These items all fall into the “explosive ordnance” category of destructive devices that are strictly regulated by the National Firearms Act (NFA) of 1934 — and revised by the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 and Gun Control Act of 1968.
The definition of a “destructive device” is found in 26 U.S.C. § 5845. It includes “ any explosive, incendiary, or poison gas, (A) bomb, (B) grenade, (C) rocket having a propellant charge of more than 4 ounces, (D) missile having an explosive charge of more than 1/4 ounce, (E) mine or (F) similar device” and further adds, “Any weapon by whatever name known which will, or which may be readily converted to, expel a projectile by the action of an explosive or other propellant.”
Thus, a bazooka and the rounds would be considered destructive devices under Title II. These are not illegal but are heavily regulated at both the State and Federal level. There are numerous federal restrictions that are imposed on the ownership of NFA firearms, and this includes an extensive background check, a $200 tax on manufacture or transfer of an NFA firearm, and registration with the NFA registry.
In addition, some states such as New York and California have provisions that prohibit the ownership of all Title II weapons and devices.
That would appear to make it cut and dried as the law goes, but everything stated above regarding the destructive devices only applies to live or working items. Most bazookas in private collections and even many in museums and other institutions have been deactivated.
Deactivated Bazookas, RPGs and Mortars
When the issue of deactivation comes up, the ATF has very specific guidelines defining what exactly a machine gun is and what it is not. The ATF has explained how a machine gun’s receiver — the key component that determines whether it is in fact a machine gun — must be cut or otherwise modified to keep it from operating.
There are no clear guidelines, however, for bazookas, RPGs, or mortars. According to several sources, a bazooka must have a round hole cut at the rear of the weapon that is at least equal to or larger than the diameter of the bore, and a bar or cap be permanently welded or otherwise attached to keep a rocket from being loaded and/or able to pass through the tube. In the case of the Soviet Bloc RPGs (which are now showing up on the market) these must be deactivated in a similar fashion with a bar preventing the loading of a round.
The same rules apply to tube artillery including mortars — except in this case the bar must be welded at the top of the tube no more than one inch from the mouth of the muzzle prohibiting a round from being loaded.
In all of the above cases, the actual round would also be considered a “destructive device” if still live.
The exception to the rules is in the case where a replica bazooka type weapon is a non-firing replica. In this case, it is simply a metal tube and lacks any internal firing components, so it isn’t necessary to cut the tube or weld a bar. However, as these replicas age and are used in re-enactments there could always be the concern that these could be confused with actual weapons. Collectors should always be cautious in purchasing, transporting, and displaying these items. Law enforcement and the public shouldn’t have to guess as whether it is real and live or a replica!
Now the legality of these items can vary from community to community. Because a “used rocket launcher tube” (the key word being “tube”) aren’t on any federal list for prohibited items, the fact that these could be confused with a live weapon may be an issue. In some cities such as New York, a bazooka, as well as a LAW or AT-4, could still be banned. Collectors are still advised to check with local laws.
None of the above information should be taken as legal advice. Again, collectors are advised to check with federal and local laws regarding the purchase and ownership of bazookas, mortars, and other destructive devices before they bring home the toys!