Most folks believe it is illegal to own a machine gun. The truth is, it is completely legal to own a machine gun—if it is registered with the federal government. Owning and shooting fully automatic machine guns is a vibrant and active hobby in the United States enjoyed by thousands of lawful shooters and collectors.
Prior to 1934, Americans owned and possessed any firearms (including machine guns) without restriction. In 1934, the Federal Law known as the “National Firearms Act (NFA)” required individuals who wanted to own pistols with shoulder stocks, machine guns and other newly restricted firearms to register the weapons with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF). The document that is issued for qualifying weapons is referred to as the National Firearms Registration and Transfer Record (NFRTR). Today, there are more than 1,200,000 registrations on file.
The purpose of the NFA was to regulate what were considered "gangster weapons" such as machine guns and hand grenades. U.S. Attorney General Homer S. Cummings recognized that firearms could not be banned under the Second Amendment, so he proposed restrictive regulation in the form of an expensive tax and Federal registration. Originally, pistols and revolvers were to be regulated as strictly as machine guns. Conventional pistols and revolvers were ultimately excluded from the Act before passage, but other concealable firearms were not: the language as originally enacted defined an NFA “firearm” as:
A shotgun or rifle having a barrel of less than eighteen inches in length or any other weapon, other than a pistol or revolver, from which a shot is discharged by an explosive if such weapon is capable of being concealed on the person, or a machinegun, and includes a muffler or silencer for any firearm whether or not such a firearm is included in the foregoing definition.
Under the original Act, NFA “firearms” were machine guns, short-barreled rifles (SBR), short-barreled shotguns (SBS), any other weapons (AOW or concealable weapons other than pistol or revolver) and silencers for any type of firearm NFA or non-NFA. Minimum barrel length was soon amended to 16 inches for rimfire rifles. By 1960, it had been amended to 16 inches for centerfire rifles as well. That same year, Congress changed the transfer tax for all “any other weapon” (AOW) category to $5. The transfer tax for machine guns, silencers, SBR and SBS remained at $200.
For civilian possession, all machine guns must have been manufactured and registered with the ATF prior to May 19, 1968, to be transferable between citizens. Only a Class-II manufacturer (an FFL holder licensed to manufacture firearms who has paid for a Special Occupational Tax Stamp (SOT)) can manufacture machine guns after that date. These post-1968 machine guns can only be sold to Government, law-enforcement, and military entities. Transfer can only be done to other SOT FFL-holders, and such FFL-holders must have a “demonstration letter” from a respective Government agency to receive the machine guns.
After passage of the 1968 Gun Control Act, BATF began administratively removing certain specified firearms from the registration requirement of the NFA—by classifying them as “primarily collectors items and not likely to be used as a weapon” and calling them “Curios and Relics.” Many other weapons were found to be antiques (pre-1898) and completely exempt from registration. These firearms include many—but not all—pistols with shoulder stocks, some short barreled rifles, certain smooth-bore shot pistols, most cane guns, and many others in the “any other weapon” category.
Let’s not make Grandpa a Gangster
Following passage of the 1968 Gun Control Act in November 1968, the federal government initiated a 30-day amnesty to allow registration of previously unregistered firearms—no questions asked. More than 50,000 firearms were registered during that very brief amnesty period.
Bear in mind, that amnesty came only 23 years after the end of WWII and at the height of the Vietnam War. Why is that important?
As militaria collectors, we know that soldiers bring home souvenirs of their service. It is the life-blood of our hobby, in fact. While many soldiers chose less volatile relics such as medals, insignia and uniforms, countless young warriors also slipped pistols, inert explosives or other weapons into their duffle bags before returning to the United States.
Criminality was not their intent, but rather, simply “counting coup” on their vanquished enemy. Taking scalps wasn’t very popular in the last century, but grabbing an enemy’s weapon sure was! If the WWII or Korean War veterans then in their 40s and 50s or the Vietnam veterans who were mostly under 30 years old didn’t take the opportunity to register their war booty in 1968, they have been forced to live as criminals ever since. This was probably not the intent of the law, but it certainly has been the result.
Today, we are faced with an alarming rate of decline in the number of WWII, Korean War and Vietnam veterans. Families are discovering the war trophies and are paralyzed with the thought that they could be held accountable—even jailed—for possessing the weapons their veteran relatives brought home as souvenirs.
A Solution is on the Table
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) are seeking co-sponsors for the “Veterans’ Heritage Firearms Act” — S. 798 in the Senate and H.R. 420 in the House, respectively. This legislation would provide amnesty for veterans who served overseas before 1968 in which these veterans would be able to register “take home” firearms that would fall under National Firearms Act classification. The amnesty would also apply to family members of these veterans who have been given or inherited such firearms.
As of this past April, HR 420/ S798 “Veterans’ Heritage Firearms Act” was read twice and referred to the Committee on the Judiciary. No action on it has been recorded since that time.
Some will read this blog and say, “JAG…you left out the current manufacture and sale of machine guns! Forget amnesty—They should all be legal.” Many readers of the JAG File know that I am a shooter. I grew up with firearms. I went through firearms safety as a kid, was further taught by my father, a former drill instructor, hunted with family and friends and have gone through numerous safety and defensive shooting classes. I am proud to have earned a concealed carry permit and try to keep my skills sharp by shooting at least 200 rounds a month. I am not advocating an amnesty period from my stance as a gun enthusiast, however.
My role and commitment to readers of Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine is as an advocate for our hobby of collecting and displaying military relics. It is from that perspective that I encourage the passage of the Veterans’ Heritage Firearms Act. You can support it as well by contacting your representatives and encourage them to support and cosponsor HR 420/ S798 “Veterans’ Heritage Firearms Act.”
With all of the focus today on homeland security, is it really in the best—or economical—interest of the nation to prosecute veterans or their families who possess these war trophies? Rather than spending resources to criminalize these people, perhaps our lawmakers will consider another amnesty period and support the passage of the Veterans’ Heritage Firearms Act.
Until then—just like Hogan’s Heroes’ Sgt. Schultz—“I see nuh-think! I know nuh-think!”
Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine