Yes, YOU can Own NFA Items Like Silencers, SBRs and Machine Guns
And it’s Probably Easier than you Think
I was shooting a suppressed pistol at the range this week when I heard the whispers from a few lanes down. Incidentally, one of the benefits of shooting suppressed weapons is that you not only retain the ability to hear whispers but you can hear them while you are shooting. “Why is that gun so quiet? A suppressor? Are those even legal to own?“
It’s a common enough question, and the answer is Yes. Well – a qualified “yes.” Per the map at SilencerCo’s www.SilencersAreLegal.com site, private civilian ownership of suppressors is currently allowed in 39 states. After shedding some light on how the process works and letting the whisperers run a few rounds through the suppressed .22, they seemed excited and were asking more questions, including ones about how to get started and how much it costs.
The ownership of suppressors (a/k/a silencers), along with other National Firearms Act (NFA) regulated items such as short-barreled rifles (SBR) and short-barreled shotguns (SBS), destructive devices, and, yes, even machine guns, is the subject of a lot of rumors, myths, and misinformation. Although heavily regulated by federal law, provided that you live in a state where their ownership is not prohibited, ownership of these items is perfectly legal.
Some of the more prevalent myths include that they are unequivocally illegal to own (they aren’t), you need a license to buy NFA items (you don’t), that the ATF can come barging in to look at your firearms whenever they feel like it (they can’t), nobody else can enjoy your NFA items even with you present (they can), and that playing the NFA game is expensive.
Ok, maybe the last one might have a ring of truth to it. Getting into NFA firearm ownership can tend to be pricey, but it doesn’t necessarily have to. Many suppressors are available on the market these days for less that what the tax stamp costs – which is a one time $200 tax (or a mere $5 – yes, five – for AOW transfers). As for the rest of the myths, the ATF can’t come in and look around your house without a justifiable warrant any more than they could before you owned NFA items; as long as you are present and in control of the firearms you can share them with your friends and family who are otherwise legally allowed to operate firearms; and there is no license required for ownership – only a transfer and registration process. And that process is easier than most people might think.
Now, before we get off onto a tangent about Second Amendment rights, gun control, firearms restrictions, registrations and the like, let’s just agree that the entire NFA and its restrictions and premise are stupid and it sucks. Human beings are born with the individual right to keep and bear arms. However, the law is the law and it has been that way since 1934, 1968, or 1986 depending on which part of this whole mess you are talking about. These are the rules and they must be followed if you want to avoid a long, unpleasant stay in prison. Don’t be cute and try to skirt the rules.
So How do I Get NFA Firearms?
There are some hoops to jump through to get NFA items, but the process is pretty straightforward. First, you have to decide if you want to register the items as an individual or to another legal entity, such as a corporation, LLC or trust. Going the legal entity route has a number of benefits (such as allowing other named individuals unfettered access to the items and not requiring CLEO sign-off, which amounts to an NFA ban when the CLEO won’t sign). A recent proposal aims to remove some of those benefits. This is why you should have been paying attention to 41P, but we may have dodged that bullet, at least for now.
A popular source for gun trusts is Gun Trust Depot, who can create a trust that meets your needs and includes a wide range of features. In addition to the above benefits, the trust route allows access by named trustees (great for husbands/wives, fathers/sons, etc) and, importantly, provides a path to ownership for your heirs that avoids dealing with probate court after your passing.
NFA items can be purchased and transferred or made on your own.
Buying NFA Firearms
If you’re ready to buy, either as an individual or other entity, shop around and decide on what you want to get. There are lots of good deals to be found both online (yes – you can order online!) and in local stores. Once you decide what you want, you pay for the item, but you don’t get it yet. You have to file a Form 4 Application for Tax Paid Transfer and Registration of Firearm (your dealer can most likely help you with this) and pay the tax – $200 for most things, $5 for AOWs. Then you wait (and wait) while your application churns its way through the system. If you are ordering from out of state, you can tack on some extra wait time as the item is transferred on a Form 3 to your local dealer before your Form 4 starts processing. After waiting a few months, your application will hopefully come back approved and you can take home your new NFA firearm (suppressors are, inexplicably, considered firearms too).
The deal is pretty much the same for machine guns – something that often surprises people. If you are not a criminal, odds are you can own one for the price of the firearm plus the $200 tax stamp – no license required. But there’s the rub… the price of the firearm. Although civilian machine gun ownership is not prohibited at a federal level, thanks to some congressional shenanigans, transfer of machine guns made after May of 1986 to civilians is currently prohibited. With no new machine guns entering the marketplace for the last three decades, the existing pool of transferrable firearms can only get smaller, making them quite rare. For those of you in Rio Linda, that means that they are usually quite expensive. Like, price-of-a-car expensive in many cases. Price-of-a-house expensive in some cases.
Building NFA Firearms
If you don’t want to buy an off-the-shelf NFA item, your other option is to make your own. To do this, you must file a Form 1 Application to Make and Register a Firearm and have the approved form in hand before you start making it. The tax for doing this is $200 for all items, including AOWs. Individuals and trusts can make most kinds of NFA items, including suppressors, SBRs and SBSs, and AOWs. However, unless you have the right flavor of FFL or government affiliation, you cannot make a machine gun (hopefully that may change in the future).
One of the benefits of the legal entity/Form 1 combination is that you can file the form and pay the tax online using the eForms system, which tends to be slightly faster. Form 4s used to be available online as well, but the system has been down for months – hopefully to return in late 2015. Many people may be apprehensive about filing their forms online for fear of messing it up. It is truly a very simple process and if you follow the instructions that are provided for you, it will likely take you less than 5-10 minutes to complete it from start to finish, including making your payment with your credit card like you would at any other online retailer.
Since this is a post about general NFA ownership, this is not the place to get into the specifics of how to make them – which can vary from simply installing a shorter barrel to advanced machining and gunsmithing.
So I Own NFA Firearms. Now What?
Although the purchasing or making process is relatively easy and straightforward, it is important to remember that NFA firearms are still heavily regulated and require some special attention that your other Title I firearms might not need.
If you registered your NFA firearm as an individual, then only you are allowed to be in control of the firearm. That means if you are keeping it in your gun safe, your wife, kids, mom, dad, trunk monkey or whoever else can not have the combination or key to the safe. If it was registered to a legal entity such as a trust or corporation, then named trustees or board members are the only ones who can be control of the firearm as laid out in the trust or organizational documents. Note that, in general, if you are within snatch-it-out-of-their-hands distance and paying attention, you are still in control of the firearm and can let others enjoy it.
There are also travel restrictions on NFA items. In general, the BATFE must be notified when you (and the firearm) move your place of residence so that the registry can be updated and they can keep track of where NFA firearms are. For many NFA firearms, there are even restrictions on temporary travel with them (e.g. visiting out of state relatives) and a Form 5320.20 Application to Transport Interstate or Temporarily Export Certain National Firearms Act (NFA) Firearms must be filed.
Hopefully this post covered most of the very basic information about NFA firearm purchasing (or making) and ownership. Of course, one would do well to read up on and understand the relevant state and federal laws.
Although recent changes in marketing and streamlining of the process has brought NFA ownership a little bit more into the mainstream, it is still a sort of boogeyman for firearm enthusiasts when it is actually a fairly straightforward and easy process that is within reach for most firearm owners. Can it get expensive? Sure, but so can any hobby. An NFA firearm can be a lifetime purchase that you pass on to your heirs or it can be a powerful investment vehicle. Serious driving enthusiasts might not bat an eye at dropping serious coin on a loaded sports car. Think of those who might drop a few thousand dollars on a transferrable machine gun or top-of-the-line suppressor in similar terms.
Through rule changes or interpretations and lawsuits, things are always changing. Sometimes they can change for the better; sometimes they can change for the worse. Hopefully some of the current movement in this arena puts us closer to having the right to keep and bear arms fully restored – but who knows? As they say – there’s no time like the present to get started on your NFA journey.
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