What makes a clip a clip, or a magazine a magazine? What the heck is a milsurp, and why are there all these online forums about it? These are a few of the questions I asked myself when I began to get serious about owning, collecting, and shooting firearms several years ago. But the most persistent questions in my mind always revolved around one topic in particular: machine guns.
One of the first things I was surprised to learn about firearms and firearm ownership in the United States was that I could legally own a machine gun. For clarity’s sake, let’s lay out what exactly a machine gun is. According to the ATF, a “machinegun” (they present it as one word) is:
- 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
- The frame or receiver of any such weapon
- Any part designed and intended solely and exclusively or combination of parts designed and intended for use in converting a weapon into a machinegun, or
- Any combination of parts from which a machinegun can be assembled if such parts are in the possession or under the control of a person.
That first bullet point describes what is probably the most commonly-encountered form of machine gun in the American gun world. If you’ve got a gun that fires more than one projectile every time you pull the trigger, you’ve got a machine gun (or a malfunctioning semiauto that needs repair ASAP).
To understand American machine gun ownership, there’s a few laws one must familiarize themselves with. Machine guns are regulated under the National Firearms Act (NFA), which was originally passed in 1934. Items that also fall under the jurisdiction of the NFA include short barreled rifles (SBRs), short barreled shotguns (SBSs), suppressors, and “any other weapons” (AOWs—under which things like cane guns and other unique items fall). All of these “NFA items” must be registered with the federal government and are subject to a $200 tax (which was a substantial sum in 1934 dollars).
The Gun Control Act of 1968 (GCA) introduced further federal-level regulations for gun owners and the American firearms industry as a whole. Grossly simplifying its stipulations, the GCA introduced the Federal Firearms License (FFL) system all American gun owners are familiar with, restricted the interstate sale of long guns, laid the foundation of the modern “background check” and prohibited persons system, and placed severe restrictions on the importation of foreign small arms (the much maligned “sporting purposes” test and handgun points system came from the GCA). After the passage of the GCA, foreign-made machine guns could no longer be imported to the United States for “civilian” ownership.
In 1986, Congress amended the GCA with the Firearm Owners Protection Act (FOPA). While that seems like an appealing title for gun owners, the ostensibly pro-gun law took an Orwellian turn in the form of the Hughes Amendment. Amongst FOPA’s GCA-curtailing provisions, a ban on the “civilian” ownership of machine guns was added onto the law by New Jersey Representative William J. Hughes that created the modern American machine gun world as we know it.
To make a long story exceptionally short, the Hughes Amendment banned the ownership of machine guns manufactured or imported after the date of FOPA’s passage except by those dealers specifically licensed to do so under the FFL system, and specific government agencies.
Although I had learned through Internet hearsay that you could own certain machine guns, the details around said ownership were still unclear to me and remained that way for quite some time. That is until recently, when I decided to get in contact with the National Firearms Act Trade & Collectors Association (NFATCA) and get a little enlightenment. John Brown, the organization’s president, was more than happy to answer my novitiate questions. He explained to me that in the wake of FOPA, there are three “types” of machine gun in the United States: fully-transferable guns, pre-May dealer samples, and post-May dealer samples.
Fully-transferable machine guns
FOPA mandated that machine guns manufactured before May 19, 1986 (the date that President Ronald Reagan signed FOPA into law) could be lawfully owned and transferred between unlicensed “civilians” who are not felons following the completion and approval of an application to the ATF, along with payment of the $200 “tax stamp” fee. Without exaggeration, every single registered machine gun owned by a non-dealer suddenly became much more valuable overnight—no “new” machine guns could be introduced to the “civilian” world after May 19, 1986.
Brown told me that there were an estimated 250,000 registered machine guns at the time of FOPA’s passage. Now, there are roughly 182,000 items on the registry. Wear and tear weigh hard on most select-fire guns.
As there are no new fully-transferable guns being added to the registry, the value of these firearms is ever-increasing. Entry into the “low end” of the transferable machine gun world in the form of something like a MAC-10 submachine gun will cost anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000. Higher ticket items like pristine M16 lowers and Thompson submachine guns can cost around $20,000 and up.
Pre-May dealer samples
Pre-May dealer samples can only be owned by Federal Firearms Licensees who pay a specific Special Occupational Tax (SOT) to take part in the importation, sale, and manufacture of NFA items. Pre-May dealer samples are machine guns that were registered and owned by dealers prior to the May 19, 1986 cutoff, and are only transferable between dealers with the appropriate licenses.
However, if a dealer opts to cease paying their SOT in a given year, a pre-May dealer sample may become part of their private collection. This “feature” of pre-May samples makes them particularly attractive to dealers, and the market for pre-May samples is effectively hyper-limited to dealers alone.
Information is scant and incomplete regarding the number of pre-May dealer samples in circulation, though it is likely very low.
Post-May dealer samples
After May 19, 1986, new machine guns could only be made and imported by appropriately licensed dealers and manufacturers and government agencies. These post-May guns can only be owned by dealers who have paid the applicable SOT, and only after providing to the ATF a letter from a law enforcement or military unit explicitly requesting a demonstration of said guns (a “demo letter”).
Post-May guns may not be retained by dealers in their private collections after they stop paying their SOT and must be transferred to another dealer, surrendered to the ATF, or destroyed.
The long and short of it
The history of machine gun ownership in the United States is a long and complex one, and this article serves only as an introduction to the topic. They are available to Pat Gun Owner, as long as they can pay the several-thousand-dollar entrance fee, pass a background check, and deal with a whole lot of bureaucracy. As anyone who has ever had the chance to fire one will tell you, they’re also simply fun to shoot. Do yourself a favor and stop by a range that lets customers “rent” one, and you’ll be glad you did.
Alternatively, become good friends with a dealer—whichever’s less expensive for you.
Images by Charles Norton unless otherwise noted