Have you ever noticed that laws are generally about what you can’t do, instead of what you can? This makes a lot of sense, as it would be silly to try to enumerate all the things you’re allowed to do, like dye your hair blue or put garden gnomes in your front yard. On the other hand, when politicians try to enumerate what people can’t do, things can get pretty ridiculous.
For example, I just got back from a trip to Maryland. There, thanks to new laws written by legislators with the common sense of spackle, you CAN’T have a semi-automatic .223 Remington rifle like an AR, but you CAN have a .308 Winchester semi-automatic rifle like an AR. WTF?
The idiocy of politicians isn’t a new thing. One of our more onerous, and perpetually stupid, firearms laws is the National Firearms Act of 1934. That’s the one that makes it difficult and expensive to acquire mufflers for guns, rifles and shotguns with short barrels, and machine guns. I naturally assumed this was the work of Dianne Feinstein and Michael Bloomberg, but they were still bullying other kids in the nursery back in 1934. So I did a little checking to see what exactly prompted her predecessors to enact this double-ply bill with extra absorbency and wiping effectiveness.
Our brilliant Congress Cabbages of 1934 enacted this law in response to violence related to another brilliant piece of legislative arts and crafts, prohibition. Some think additional reasoning for suppressor control was born from fear of poaching during the Great Depression. Either way, the NFA created a national registry, and associated tax, for weapons designated as particularly evil. At the time, the tax was $200, which back then would buy a lot of mustache wax. Whether it didn’t occur to the Legal Beagles that $200 would decrease in “perceived expense” over time or some forward-thinking patriotic legislator knew the law would become less onerous over the years is unclear. In any case, what was intended to be a nearly insurmountable barrier to ownership is now just an unnecessarily expensive part of buying a short barrel rifle or shotgun, suppressor, or machine gun.
What most people don’t realize is how close the 1934 NFA came to the inclusion of all handguns. In the original language of the Act, all handguns would have carried the same restrictions as machine guns. Because Freedom. Not.
Over the years, the original NFA has been amended and included in newer legislation such as the Gun Control Act of 1968, or GCA for short. That little gem added a new category of banned stuff, Destructive Devices. That would include explosives, grenades, bombs and poison gas. The tough part of the 1968 GCA was the introduction of the concept of “Sporting Purpose” to define guns that they were OK with. We all know that Sporting Purpose has nothing whatsoever to do with Second Amendment rights, but those evil baby kissers created a whole new category of pain in the neck.
What the NFA Means Now
If you want to own a gun or device covered under the NFA, like a short barrel rifle (SBR), you have to first ask for extra-special permission. You’ll fill out a form, with the help of an approved dealer, that you send to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (BATFE). As an individual, you’ll need to get a signature from your local law enforcement official and include a set of fingerprints. If you are a trustee of a legal NFA trust, you can skip the LEO signature and fingerprints, for now, but you still need to fill out a form. Then, you include $200 for a tax stamp. The tax stamp is literally that. After many months of processing and looking at your application with concerned expressions, the BATFE will return a copy of your application with a colorful stamp attached. This is your permission slip to take possession of your NFA item, whether it be s suppressor, short barrel rifle, short barrel shotgun, or machine gun. There are differences with the Any Other Weapon (AOW) category, but that’s too much detail for today.
Just knowing whether a particular gun falls under this registration process is a logic-free undertaking. An AR-15 pistol with a 10-inch barrel is perfectly legal. An AR-15, that’s exactly the same except for the addition of a plastic stock, it classified as a short barrel rifle (SBR) under the NFA. And if you really want to hurt your brain, try figuring this out on any given day. Can you fire an AR-15 pistol, with a Sig Sauer Arm Brace installed, that’s touching your shoulder? The current ruling is that the configuration is legal, but the act of raising the brace too close to your shoulder is really a process of “remanufacturing the design of the gun” so that it becomes a regulated SBR somewhere in the vertical space between your elbow and shoulder. We’re not sure if BATFE agents will be outfitted with shoulder rulers to determine if we’re being legal or not.
Lunacy of SBR Restrictions
While Al Capone was a fresh prison inductee by the time the NFA was passed, I’m pretty sure his cohorts in crime weren’t really concerned with legal technicalities. Whether or not the law required them to pay $200 to chop the barrel off a shotgun didn’t likely slow down their decision to rob banks and knock off rival gang bosses.
The totally arbitrary nature of SBR restrictions reminds me of, wait for it, the arbitrary nature of magazine restrictions. Seven rounds is legal, but eight? You’ve got to be kidding! That’s dangerous to the public! Think of the children! It’s no different with the NFA. 16-inch barrels? Fine. 15.5 inches? Fuhgeddaboutit. 10-inch barrel AR pistol? Sure! Imagine if similar legislation was passed in a non-gun-related scenario, like, oh, say, fast food. Can you even imagine a scenario where a 15-ounce soda is legal, but a 16-ounce one is not? Oh, wait…
Interestingly, one of the arguments we use in favor of adjustable stocks for AR rifles applies to the SBR debate. As we know, adjustable stocks don’t make a rifle more dangerous-er. They simply allow easy and proper fit of the rifle to the shooter, regardless of size and what they’re wearing at the time. Smaller shooter? Bring the stock in. Wearing a heavy jacket? Bring it in a notch. Shooting from a bench? Open it up. For an LE or military user with body armor? Adjust accordingly. It’s simply a feature that helps the shooter use and control the rifle properly.
A similar argument can be made in favor of losing the restriction on short barrel rifles and shotguns. With a proper stock, they’re easier to control and shoot accurately. Pistols and especially AR-type pistols, are not nearly as easy to use accurately. If you want to be sure that shooters are hitting their intended targets, don’t try to restrict the features that facilitate safety and accuracy.
Maybe I’m missing some stories, but I have yet to hear of a wave of criminal atrocities stemming from the use of short barrel rifles as defined by the NFA. It’s not like the law is preventing criminal use. All it takes to make an illegal SBR or SBS is a hacksaw. Last I checked, hacksaws are readily available in all 50 states.
Repeal of the entire NFA at once, while technically constitutional, is virtually impossible. Look at all the current hysteria over “automatic assault weapons” that aren’t even automatic. A realistic approach would be akin to a long and thoughtful chess game. Plan a strategy to execute over a period of time, one move at a time. As much as I’d love to launch a campaign called “Repeal the NFA or we’ll impeach your sorry @ss” that won’t realistically succeed.
The easy answer is to start by abolishing the whole process for less controversial items like suppressors. They’re mufflers! Heck, the government REQUIRES mufflers on cars because noise exposure is dangerous. Even the hoplophobes in Europe encourage the use of suppressors on guns.
I’m not optimistic about politicians simply nuking the NFA status for suppressors anytime soon without some smart work on our part, however. Because government loves money. At $200 a pop and somewhere in the neighborhood of 800,000 silencers already floating around, suppressor tax stamps represent serious pocket change for politicians.
But seriously, it could happen if packaged correctly. While some will always freak out over any return towards unrestricted gun rights, it’s conceivable for Congress to remove silencers from the NFA category. There are two keys to victory. First, the act has to be called something politically attractive, like the Hearing Safety Act. It would be even better to tack a “Hearing Safety” clause onto another non-controversial bill, like a Congressional pay raise. Those always sail right through on Friday evenings. Second, the money shortfall has to be addressed, even if it’s only tens of millions of “lost revenue” per year. Yes, if applications are no longer required for suppressors, then fewer people will need to work at the BATFE to gaze at stacks of waiting paperwork with concerned facial expressions, and the BATFE will save money. Realistically, though, that argument won’t be easy. We’ll have to pitch an equivalent savings plan elsewhere, or a proposal to replace the lost tax stamp fees. Maybe we can implement a 20% hypocrisy tax to all those in political office. Just an idea.
Once mufflers are removed from NFA status, the next step would, of course, be to stop pretending that a 15-inch barreled rifle is somehow more dangerous than an 16-inch barreled one. This stage two step is not quite as easy as the Hearing Safety Act, but the logic is solid and we’ll have broken ground, so to speak, with the politically palatable suppressor movement.
There’s just no evidence whatsoever to support the claim that short barrel rifles and shotguns somehow cause more crime. Perhaps an effective argument in favor would focus on the home defense value of such guns. With Heller and McDonald rulings, we’re standing on pretty firm ground when it comes to unrestricted rights of defense in the home. Yes, unrestricted concealed carry is still a battleground, but we’re making progress there too. Hey, we could name the Bill something politically palatable like the Gun Control Act, right? A more compact rifle or shotgun is easier to control safely, hence Gun Control Act! Low information voters would support this like crazy. You gotta love the potential irony, right?
The last step is machine guns. While I fully support private ownership without NFA restriction, it’s gonna be a tough sell. Yes, you and I know that aimed semi-automatic fire is generally more effective and efficient, but average Jane and Joe listen to the hysteria on CNN. I fear we’ll need a grass roots awakening where people start paying more attention to current affairs than affairs on reality TV. Maybe that’ll happen, but I’m not holding my breath.
In the meantime, let’s start the push to chip away at the NFA. Remember, write your Congress Cabbages about your support of the Hearing Safety Act. That’s the grease on the skids to get rid of the equally ridiculous SBR and SBS restrictions with our Gun Control Act. It can work if we push it.