The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) has scrapped a controversial pilot program that expedited applications to purchase items restricted under the National Firearms Act (NFA), including suppressors and short-barreled rifles.
Knox Williams, the President and Executive Director of the American Suppressor Association, told GunsAmerica that the ATF had instituted the program to speed up wait times that in some cases have taken over a year. The program targeted individual applications (as opposed to trusts) that did not contain any errors and moved them through the system noticeably more quickly. In some cases, individuals had their items within 60 days of submitting their Form 4’s.
In order to find error-free applications and move them up the chain, however, agents often put others on the back-burner, especially applications that were submitted as part of a trust.
The ATF cut the program, according to Williams, because “they were getting a lot of negative feedback from folks who had been in the queue for a year or more.”
Williams expressed sympathy both for the program’s supporters and detractors.
“I understand. It’s not fair if people are cutting in line,” he said. “But the flip side of that coin is, if nothing is holding an application back, why should it be held up just to wait on other applications?”
The ATF did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Customer service representatives directed GunsAmerica to the agency’s Media Inquiries line, which was not answered.
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Williams and his organization believe the ATF should move to an electronic approval system rather than rely on the team of 25-35 “examiners” who must wade through the 180,000 to 200,000 NFA applications that come in each year.
Increasing the number of examiners will only go so far, he said.
“Anytime they hire more people, yeah it helps, but you hit diminishing returns. As demand increases, there’s only so much manpower you can throw at this problem. A technological solution would fix it long-term. Throwing more people at it is a short-term stopgap.”
In the National Firearms Act of 1934, the federal government highly regulated certain firearms and accessories, including short-barreled rifles and shotguns, machineguns, and suppressors. In order to own any of these NFA items, an individual or a trust must submit to the ATF a form commonly known as “Form 4” along with fingerprints and $200.
Demand for NFA items has increased over the last decade, according to Williams, and the ATF has struggled to keep wait times under a year for application approval.
A Little Myth-busting
The opaque nature of the Form 4 approval process has fostered a cottage industry of internet speculation, including a website called NFA Tracker aimed at crowdsourcing NFA approval information. As with speculation related to any federal agency, there’s plenty of keyboard warriors posting on Reddit forums with more time than well-sourced information.
Or, as Williams described one comment GunsAmerica emailed him, “There are grains of truth mixed in with a lot of bullshit.”
One popular narrative making the rounds contends that the ATF is concerned that the NFA will be challenged in court if wait times exceed reasonable limits. If a right delayed is a right denied, and the NFA isn’t supposed to ban the items under its purview, a sympathetic judge might rule that one-year wait times endanger the constitutionality of the entire NFA.
While the theory sounds promising, the ATF isn’t worried.
“I can tell you with certainty that the ATF doesn’t care about that. That has not even crossed their mind,” Williams said. “When I brought that up, they were like, ‘Oh, no we never thought about that.’ Because they are still approving forms.”
The Supreme Court ruled in the 1930s that the NFA is constitutional because it’s a revenue-generating tax, Williams explained. As long as they’re generating revenue – no matter how much or how little – the act is justified.
Another common line of thinking among applicants for NFA items imagines that wait times can be reduced if applications are made at the right time. Using tools like NFA Tracker, prospective suppressor or SBR owners attempt to game the system and get their items back as quickly as possible.
Williams acknowledged that wait times for approval do tend to be cyclical.
“As wait times decrease, demand will increase. As demand increases, more forms go into the pipeline, and the examiners get tapped,” he said. “They can only process so many forms by hand. It does create further delays. It’s cyclical. There’s a constant back and forth between wait times and demand.”
At the same time, submitting a Form 4 now will always get you your suppressor more quickly than waiting.
“The best time to buy was yesterday,” he said. “Like it or not, the NFA isn’t going anywhere in the immediate future. The wait is here to stay. Maybe your actual processing time will be down, but is it worth it to wait a year to save three months?”
Want a Suppressor NOW? Play Nice with the FBI
There’s only one way to increase your chances of getting your NFA items in a timely manner: don’t let the FBI sit on your background check.
Williams explained that the FBI background check causes the worst bottlenecks in the NFA approval process. The ATF sends all NFA applications to the FBI to conduct a NICS check, the same system used in standard gun purchases. And while ATF agents can earn unlimited overtime and holiday pay for working through NFA applications, FBI agents enjoy no such incentives.
If the application doesn’t contain any errors—nothing is misspelled, all the numbers are correct, etc.—the check goes through instantaneously and the FBI clears the application for the ATF. But if the application contains an error or the applicant has a common name or the check gets delayed for any other inane reason, it goes to the bottom of the pile to wait for an agent to figure out the discrepancy. And, since the FBI isn’t required to complete the check within any time period, there’s no telling how long it will take for the check to clear.
“The FBI will routinely just sit on anything that gets delayed,” Williams said. “If it gets delayed for any reason, they put it in a pile, and say, ‘We’ll get to it whenever we feel like it.’ And that can be months. That’s a large part of what’s holding it up.”
Williams advises applicants to cross their T’s and dot their I’s:
“Make sure you don’t have errors on your application. That’s the single biggest thing that can speed up your application. If for any reason there’s something that will delay your application, it will delay it for a while. Make your list and check it twice.”
If your NICS checks often get delayed during normal gun purchases, Williams also suggested getting a Unique Personal Identification Number from the FBI. This number allows the feds to more easily differentiate you from other people who might be prohibited persons, and the Form 4 was recently updated with a box to input the unique ID number.
The American Suppressor Association was founded in 2011 to fight for pro-suppressor reform nationwide. They lobby at the state and national level to ease suppressor restrictions and allow the use of suppressors while hunting.
Recently, the organization worked with the National Hearing Conservation Association to publish a position paper stating that suppressors are a tool that can mitigate hearing damage. Prior to this paper, no medical association had acknowledged the health benefits of suppressor use.