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What is the NFA?

NFA” stands for “National Firearms Act”. This law was originally passed in 1934 and has been amended a number of times. The law regulates the import, transport, sale, distribution, and keeping of certain types of firearms, making them subject to a special NFA tax. NFA firearms are not federally illegal, and can be legally purchased, though some NFA firearms may be illegal in certain states. Be sure to check your state’s gun control laws to make sure you are able to purchase a certain type of firearm within your state. The NFA is executed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) of the Department of Justice.

History of the NFA
The National Firearms Act has its origins in the early 20th century. In cities like New York and Chicago, organized crime was running rampant. Infamous figures, like Al Capone, Bugsy Siegal, and Lucky Luciano, were ruling the streets and committing nefarious crimes. Large-scale events of intergang warfare were not uncommon. The most infamous, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929, saw seven members of gangster Bugs Moran’s gang slaughtered in a hail of machine gun fire and shotgun blast by their enemies, commonly held to be members of Capone’s gang. In short, something had to be done about this.

In 1934, Congress passed the National Firearms Act, which imposed a tax on the making, transfer, importing, selling, or ownership of a broad swath of controlled firearms. The general idea was to better control who had access to certain types of firearms, such as machine guns and concealable shotguns, and, hopefully, to cut down on gangland violence. Part of the Act was found to be unconstitutional, and received new amendments in the Gun Control Act of 1968. In addition, this act also allowed those in possession of an unregistered firearm that would fall under the NFA to properly register them with no questions asked. Many of these unregistered weapons were brought back by returning soldiers from the Second World War, Korea, and Vietnam. In 1986, as part of the Firearm Owners’ Protection Act, new machine guns were made illegal to make or purchase by individuals.

What is an NFA Firearm?
The National Firearms Act does not apply to all firearms and weapons, but certain firearms are covered by the NFA. These are commonly referred to as “NFA firearms”. The NFA applies to a variety of firearms, most notably machine guns. Other types of firearms included in the NFA are:

  • Weapons made from shotguns, with an overall length of less than 26” or a barrel of less than 18” (such as a sawed off shotgun or a short barreled shotgun [SBS]).
  • Rifles with barrels less than 16” in length, Weapons made from rifles, with an overall length of less than 26” or a barrel of less than 16” (or a short barreled rifle [SBR]).
  • Easily concealable guns like pen-guns, knife guns, or umbrella guns. (called Any Other Weapon) [AOW]
  • Weapons with combination of rifle and shotgun barrels longer than 12” but under 18” that can only make a single shot before reloading.
  • Pistols or revolvers with an added grip.
  • Pistols with smooth bores to accommodate fixed shotgun charges.

In addition to these firearms, other weapons controlled by the NFA are destructive devices, silencers, rockets / missiles, and large caliber weapons (cannons, mortars, rocket launchers, etc.).

The purpose of the National Firearms Act is to limit, rather than to ban, the purchase and use of certain concealable weapons and weapons made expressly for violent means. They are bought for a variety of reasons, including self-defense as well as recreational shooting and collecting. However, the capability of these weapons to be used for sinister purposes requires and necessitates caution and control on the part of the ATF according to the intent of NFA law.

Machine Guns and the NFA
The most infamous NFA weapons, by far, are machine guns. According to the ATF’s National Firearms Act Handbook, machine guns are “weapons that shoot, are 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” (p. 9). In layman’s terms, a machine gun is a firearm that shoots fully automatically by holding down a button or trigger.

History of Machine Guns
The machine gun is a marvel of modern ingenuity and design. Beginning with mid 19th century designs, like the Gatling Gun and the Maxim Gun, machine guns originated as field guns, used for the clearing of enemy soldiers en masse. They could be placed on carriages, like cannons, or mounted in positions or “nests”. Machine guns were used in nineteenth century conflicts, including the American Civil War and the Mahdist War. These types of machine guns are still produced and used, but, when most people think of machine guns, they think of the light machine gun or the submachine gun.

The light machine gun is designed to be easily transportable and operable by a single person, and can be used and shot like any other gun, usually shouldered. A submachine gun is meant to be held in the hands. Many modern light machine guns and submachine guns trace their lineage to the designs of James Moses Browning and Isaac Newton Lewis, like the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR). Light machine guns saw their first widespread service in the First World War, but really caught on during the Second World War. Weapons from the Vietnam War and Cold War era, like the American Colt M-16 and the Soviet Avtomat Kalashnikova (AK-47), and their offspring are among the most widespread and famous weapons in human history. Indeed, the light machine gun and submachine gun are, perhaps, the most characteristic weapons of the 20th century.

NFA Definitions of a “Machine Gun”
Unlike most definitions of NFA firearms, machine guns have an incredibly broad definition in regard to the National Firearms Act. Besides being any physical machine gun, a machine gun for the purposes of the NFA also refers to among other things:

  • The receiver of a machine gun.
  • A conversion sear to make a semi-automatic weapon a machine gun.
  • Conversion kits.
  • Selective fire trigger assemblies / paks.
  • Parts kits with a receiver.

Simply put, if it is a machine gun or can readily be made into a machine gun, it is considered a machine gun under the NFA.

A machine gun eligible for transfer under the NFA, however, must meet certain qualifications. Most notably, a machine gun (whether the entire physical gun or the any variation of the above definitions of a machine gun) must have been “lawfully possessed before May 19, 1986”, meaning registered within the United States in the National Firearm Registration and Transfer Record (NFRTR) before a ban on machine guns was put into place with the Firearm Owners’ Protection Act. All machine guns made after that date are illegal to purchase, unless it is bought by a government or law enforcement entity. However, a pre-ban conversion sear added to a gun made after the May 19, 1986 cutoff is considered an NFA firearm, and is legal to own under the NFA.

Can I Buy an NFA Firearm?
The short answer is: Yes, you can buy an NFA firearm. To acquire an NFA firearm, either the seller (the dealer, manufacturer, etc.) or the buyer must pay the NFA Transfer Tax. For most NFA firearms and weapons, this is a one-time tax of $200 per transfer. In the case of weapons within the “any other weapons” category of the NFA (like pen-guns, umbrella guns, and such), the tax is $5.

According to the National Firearms Act Handbook, “the lawful transfer of an NFA firearm generally requires the filing of an appropriate transfer form with the ATF, payment of any transfer tax imposed, approval of the form by the ATF, and registration of the firearm to the transferee in the NFRTR. Approval must be obtained before a transfer may be made” (p. 58). The various ATF Forms for NFA transfers are available on the ATF’s website, and deal with a variety of stakeholders. For most purchasers of NFA firearms, this will be ATF Form 4: Application for Tax Paid Transfer and Registration of Firearm. ATF Form 4 requires the notification of the chief law enforcement officer of the purchaser’s jurisdiction, and asks for the purchaser’s reasons for purchasing an NFA firearm.

While a firearm may be legal under the National Firearms Act, this does not mean that the firearm is legal in your state. For instance, a pre-1986 machine gun capable only of fully automatic fire is legal within the State of Connecticut, as long as it is registered with the NFRTR and the Connecticut State Police Special Licensing and Firearms Unit (SLFU), with the SLFU registration re-completed yearly. If a machine gun has selectable fire rate (can shoot semi-automatic as well as fully automatic), it is classified as an assault rifle and is more strictly regulated in Connecticut; only law enforcement or military personnel or those with a Certificate of Possession may own one. In the state of Rhode Island, NFA weapons are completely banned and no one is legally allowed to own or possess in its entirety. You are encouraged and urged to check your state’s gun laws to verify your eligibility for purchasing an NFA firearm.

The National Firearms Act of 1934 (NFA) regulates the making, sale, transfer, import and export of certain types of firearms and weapons. Among NFA firearms, the most notable are machine guns. Machine guns are legal to own, as long as they were made and properly registered with the NFRTR before the ban date of May 19, 1986. NFA firearms are legal to transfer on the Federal level, though state laws can differ. You are encouraged to look into your local laws and regulations regarding the ownership of certain types of weapons covered by the NFA.

If you have questions about buying or selling an NFA firearm, you are encouraged to reach out to us at NFA Auctions. Our dedicated and knowledgeable staff is happy to assist you in navigating the sometimes confusing process of acquiring an NFA firearm.