Buying a Machine Gun Means Much More Than Just Picking the Right Firearm
Buying a handgun for personal defense is often a matter of finding the right firearm. It needs to feel good in the hand, be the right size and provide the necessary stopping power. Buying a rifle is another story – there are factors including comfort, caliber and shooting needs.
Then there is buying a machine gun. Yes, a machine gun as in a fully automatic firearm. It is completely legal to buy a machine gun in 37 states, but it’s not exactly easy. There are numerous factors one must consider, and it isn’t just a matter of throwing money down at a gun store.
In almost all cases – unless you have a Class III license – even once you find a machine gun to buy, you won’t be taking it home that day. Forget a three day waiting period, try 200+ days of waiting.
While commercial semi-automatic AK-47s can still be found today for $500, a fully automatic version (pre-1986) can easily fetch ten times that price.
Step 1 – Ask yourself, “Am I in the Right State?”
So you want a machine gun, and honestly, what red-blooded American doesn’t? Okay, there are probably a number of residents in states like California, New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts who are against most guns, but that’s fine because they can’t buy a machine gun.
Nor can residents of Delaware, Washington, D.C., Hawaii, Minnesota, Rhode Island, Washington, and Wisconsin buy or own a machine gun in most cases. Even Nevada and Texas, gun-friendly states, have restrictions in place that make buying such a firearm somewhat difficult.
If your state wasn’t mentioned above, then you’re in luck – the remaining states do allow ownership of a machine gun, but again it isn’t so simple as picking one up at Joe’s Machine Gun Emporium.
Instead, you either need to purchase from a licensed Class III dealer, including an auction house, or from an individual who legally owns one. This is called “papered,” as in the gun has the appropriate papers. To understand this we need to take a step back.
The National Firearms Act of 1934
At one point machine guns, notably the Thompson submachine gun, were sold to the general public and advertised in men’s magazines of the era. The weapon, as noted in this vintage ad from the 1920s, was promoted to ranchers as an alternative to Winchester repeating rifles. It’s hard to think of the Thompson as a cowboy’s gun!
If you’ve seen any gangster movie made in the past fifty years, you know that gangsters of the 1920s and bank robbers of the Great Depression loved – I mean really loved – their machine guns. Every criminal, it seemed, carried a Thompson submachine gun, or Tommy Gun, in a violin case and let loose with the bullets.
As with most movies, the truth is a bit different. In fact, the Thompson cost $200.00 back when the average salary was $1,600 a year. When it was offered to the public, Auto-Ordnance, maker of the Thompson, actually tried to market it to ranchers and cattlemen to fend off rustlers.
But this was the time of prohibition and with prohibition came gangsters. So while movies and TV would come to suggest everyone had a Thompson, this was far from the case. However, it was used in the very high profile St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, which was enough to attract the attention of lawmakers, who took notice of its potential to outgun law enforcement. That led to the National Firearms Act of 1934 and has limited the availability of automatic weapons in civilian hands ever since.
The law was enacted on June 26, 1934, imposed a statutory excise tax on the manufacture and transfer of “certain firearms,” and mandated the registration of said items. That excise tax was set at $200, which in essence doubled the price of the Thompson. The registration was done through the IRS with the actual weapon registered with the Secretary of the Treasury.
Mac 10s (top) can be found for sale for between $7,000 and $10,000, while select fire M-16s are much rarer. Few true military models were ever offered for sale, so most collectors have to settle for the semi-automatic AR-15 version.
One notable misconception in the buying of machine gun – or other NFA weapon including short barreled rifles and suppressors – is that one must have a Class III permit to own it. In truth, legal possession of an NFA weapon requires a transfer of registration within the NFA registry.
The actual law was updated twice, first in 1968 with the passage of the Gun Control Act, which is when firearms were added to the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Alcohol and Tobacco – soon to be rebranded the ATF. The act restricted certain categories of individuals from owning guns, including felons, users of controlled substances or those who were convicted of a misdemeanor crime or domestic violence. The act also made it legal for “new” machine guns to be produced with old parts. Thus many older guns suddenly came out of the woodwork under the amnesty.
The second change came in 1986 with the Firearm Owners’ Protection Act, which banned the creation of any new machine guns, including those made with old parts. Thus today it is ONLY possible to legally own a machine gun that was produced prior to 1986 with certain exceptions, such as being law enforcement or an importer who supplies weapons to law enforcement.
“Black Guns” such as Uzis, H&Ks and other submachine guns are legal to own in 37 states – provided the buyer goes through the proper Form 4 process and the firearm is pre-1986.
Now that you know the history, here is how you actually go about buying a machine gun today.
A few Class III dealers throughout the country offer machine guns for sale, and weapons do come up at auction. However, it is really a matter of networking. You need to find someone looking to sell.
The cost of a machine gun can vary greatly, but none are cheap. The reason comes back to the fact that every legal-to-own machine gun is papered, and there is a limited supply with reasonable demand.
Fortunately, there are many firearms from the 1970s and 1980s, including Mac 10s, M-16s, Uzis and similar weapons, which were favored by militaries around the world and often come up for sale around the country. These types of firearms will generally set you back anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000 and other weapons can cost even more. For example, a rare World War II German-made FG-42, an automatic weapon used by Nazi Germany’s paratroopers, sold at auction in 2016 for a record $330,000.
Once you find a gun that fits your budget, make sure it is papered. If not, there is almost no way to have the gun papered today, and even with a pro-Second Amendment President in the White House, it doesn’t look like an amnesty is on the way anytime soon. So no papers should mean no sale.
Once you find a gun for sale, you become the “transferor” on the ATF’s Form 4, which can be downloaded from the ATF website. As of July 12, 2016, a new form was introduced, so anyone who’s gone through this process will note a few changes. In addition, all the old forms are now invalid and will not be accepted.
Carefully read the questions on Form 4. This is just part of the ATF’s background check process.
This form can be printed out, or filled out online and then printed out. It needs to be filled out in triplicate with two copies going directly to ATF while the third copy will go to your Chief Law Enforcement Officer (CLEO) – your local police chief or sheriff. It’s worth noting that until last year the CLEO had to sign off on the ATF forms, essentially requiring you to ask permission to buy something that’s protected by the Second Amendment. Today, you don’t have to ask – you just need to let your CLEO know you’re buying a machine gun.
It’s also worth noting that if you live in a state or city that doesn’t allow machine guns, the ATF will deny the transfer – so don’t waste your time or theirs. It won’t slip through, you won’t get lucky, and there is no such thing as a gimme.
Before you put pen to paper or actually begin typing, read the instructions carefully. Mistakes will only further slow the process. You need to fill out the form and have the seller (“Transferee”) sign all three copies. The forms will require that you provide a detailed description of the firearm, the name and address of the maker, and the manufacturer and/or importer of the firearm.
The type of firearm needs to be described and in most cases “machine gun” should suffice. The caliber or gauge will be indicated as will the model, plus barrel and overall weapon length. Your social security number, address, phone number and other relevant information is required for Form 4, so those trying to stay off the grid or keep this on the down low will be out of luck if they want to ensure everything is 100% legal.
The next step is akin to filling out a National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) form 4473 for a firearm. Some of these questions, if answered honestly, could disqualify a person from acquiring or possessing ANY firearm. This includes such points as whether you’ve been indicted or convicted of a crime, are a fugitive from justice, or use unlawful drugs. It is noted clearly on Form 4, “Warning: The use or possession of marijuana remains unlawful under Federal law regardless of whether it has been legalized or decriminalized for medicinal or recreational purposes in the state where you reside.” That’s actually in bold type, so heed that warning carefully!
One key question you’ll have to answer is why you “have a reasonable necessity to possess the machine gun, short-barreled rifle, short-barreled shotgun, or destructive device described on this application for the following reason(s).” In the case of collectors, it has been suggested that stating, “for the purpose of historical research and for all other legal reasons” is sufficient.
After filling out the form, you must have the seller (transferee) sign the document. Then you’ll need to attach two (2) current passport-style photos, as well as two (2) FBI Forms FD-258 (Fingerprint Card with blue lines). The fingerprints must be clear for accurate classification and must be taken by someone properly equipped to take them. Most police stations or sheriff departments can accommodate this requirement.
Two copies are mailed to the ATF, along with a payment of $200 by either credit card or personal check – that is for the aforementioned transfer stamp, which by the way, were printed back in 1934.
As of this date, the original stamps have never been used up, so once the card comes back, you’ll be able to finally take your machine gun home!
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