As ScienceBlogs’ resident firearms enthusiast (I might own more guns than the rest of the SB writers combined – and I don’t own very many), I’ve occasionally written about gun rights and related issues. One of the things I’ve noticed is that a lot of people aren’t very familiar with what gun laws actually are in the US. Here I’m going to take you on a tour of what’s legal and what isn’t in the US. I’ll try to do so in a mostly neutral way, but for full disclosure I’d generally want to change the law in two directions – fewer restrictions on use, greater penalties for misuse. When my personal opinion creeps in, I’m going to try to set it apart from the main text. The point of this guide is to focus on is rather than ought, and to serve as a handy reference for when I write about the topic in the future.
First, each state may set its own firearms laws. All US citizens regardless of state must follow federal gun law. Most states do not set restrictions on purchase or ownership which are more restrictive than the federal government standard. Others – California, Illinois, New York, some New England states, etc – have their own significantly more stringent requirements. But these are the exception. For most states, if you’re in compliance with federal law you’re in compliance with the laws of that state. Here I won’t be treating laws regarding carry, as those are almost entirely a state-by-state issue. Federal law is primarily concerned with ownership and purchase.
Let’s take our tour law-by-law:
National Firearms Act: Established in 1934, it’s the oldest of the major federal firearms laws. This regulates machine guns, sawed-off (or short-barreled) rifles and shotguns, suppressors, and “any other weapon” where the last includes pretty much anything other than “normal” guns – things like fake lipstick with a .22 round in it, that sort of thing.
You can own anything regulated by the NFA by going through a particular process. You must pass a stringent background check, obtain law enforcement signatures, register with the ATF, and pay for a $200 per item tax stamp.
We need to pause for a moment and define “machine gun”. So far as the law is concerned, a machine gun is any firearm that can fire more than one shot with one trigger pull. Legally the term includes any weapon that can easily be modified to do so, and it includes the parts used to make a regular weapon fire more than one shot per trigger pull. If you even have a broken double-barrel shotgun that fires both barrels with one trigger pull, you had better get it fixed because it’s a machine gun.
Now this is important: everything in the NFA can still be manufactured for sale or even home-built so long as you follow the process. The exception is machine guns. In 1986, an amendment to another law closed the NFA registry for machine guns. There are no legal machine guns in private hands in the US manufactured after 1986. This results in increasing demand for fixed supply – the cheapest NFA machine guns are in the vicinity of $10,000 simply because there are no new ones on the market.
Crime with legally owned NFA weapons is effectively nonexistent. This was true even before 1986 when machine guns were nearly the same price as regular guns. If you hear of a criminal using a machine gun, it’s either smuggled, converted, or sloppy reporting. Even with illegally owned machine guns such crime was and is uncommon. Movies notwithstanding, a small pistol is much more practical for the average criminal than a machine gun, if the statistics are any indication.
Gun Control Act: Passed in 1968, it created a federal standard for the purchase of firearms. You must be 18 to purchase a rifle or shotgun. You must be 21 to purchase or possess a handgun. You can’t purchase or possess a firearm if you fall into any of several prohibited categories of person including convicted felon, adjudicated mentally incompetent, fugitive, etc. The act prohibits most interstate sales, and the importation of “non-sporting” firearms from overseas. It sets the restrictions, regulations, and licensing requirements that gun dealers must follow.
Private sales between persons not otherwise prohibited are perfectly legal, no paperwork or record keeping required. However, it is very illegal to deliberately sell a firearm to a prohibited person. It is very illegal to buy guns for the purpose of resale.
The “gun show loophole” is sometimes discussed in this context. Long story short, it doesn’t exist. At gun shows, firearms dealers must comply with every record-keeping and background check they have to do at their own stores. Private sales between individuals don’t – just as they don’t have to anywhere else. It’s sort of a moot point anyway; the dominant sources of criminal guns are straw purchases made at a licensed dealer, and theft.
Firearm Owners Protection Act: 1986. This act primarily consisted of regulatory reforms rather than changes to the intent of the previous laws. In practice the main changes to the law include allowing transport of legally owned guns through more restrictive states so long as they are unloaded and inaccessible, allowing ammunition to be transported by post, and prohibiting the federal government from keeping a registry of non-NFA weapons. [Brief polemic break: registries do almost nothing to prevent crime. Ask a Chicagoan or a Californian.] An amendment to this act is what closed the NFA machine gun registry.
Now there is a sort of de facto partial registry. The gun store that sells you a gun must keep the ATF form 4473 you fill out and make it available for inspection or investigation by duly authorized law enforcement. If the store goes out of business, the forms are sent to an ATF storage facility. Thus there is a permanent federal record, albeit one that does not track the secondary market of private sales.
Brady Handgun Act: Passed in 1993, it did very little despite the sound and fury on both sides. Effectively it required a 5-day waiting period for handgun purchases and altered background check requirements. Over time most of its provisions expired, were struck down, or became obsolete with the creation of the NICS background check system. This system is what you’ll encounter if you decide to buy a gun today. You’d go to the store, say “I’d like to buy that gun”, pay the money, fill out an ATF form 4473, hand over your driver’s license, and wait for the store to use the NICS system to carry out your background check. If it shows you have a clean record, you walk out of the store with your new gun.
Federal Assault Weapons Ban: A small part of one of the largest omnibus crime bills ever created, this 1994 act banned the sale of new assault weapons. What’s an assault weapon? Not a machine gun. You’ll recall that machine guns have been heavily regulated since the 30s, and the sale of new machine guns outright banned since 1986. An assault weapon is defined as any rifle with two or more of the following: folding or telescoping stock, pistol grip, bayonet mount, flash suppressor, or grenade launcher. Slightly different but very similar restrictions were placed on pistols and shotguns.
“Hold on,” you might be thinking, “grenade launchers? Those were legal?” Sure. The actual grenades (defined as pretty much anything with more than 0.25 ounces of explosive) are already covered under the NFA as one of those “any other weapon” weapons. “Grenade launchers” are just tubes, which were and are used for things like signal flares or fireworks. The other items on the list are cosmetic. At worst a telescoping stock makes a rifle slightly more portable but then again a simple pistol accomplishes that goal more effectively.
Weapons such as the AK-47 and AR-15 were banned by name, excepting the ones legally owned before the law took effect. These were of course already semi-automatic only; machine guns were as noted already covered by the NFA. [Brief polemic break: It's worth noting that the common idea of the AK and AR as "high-powered" is quite misleading. Your average deer rifle round is much more powerful. The AK and AR fire fairly anemic rounds by rifle standards since portability of ammunition is a vital concern in the military. A platoon is much more effective maintaining lots of suppressing fire with small rounds than it is taking single potshots with large rounds. Which isn't to say the AR and AK aren't very effective weapons. They clearly are.]
The law also banned the sale of new regular capacity magazines, and required that new magazines hold 10 or fewer rounds. [Brief polemic break: magazines and clips are two different things. Unless you're shooting an old M1 Garand, the thing that holds the bullets is almost certainly a magazine. Also, normal magazines with more than 10 rounds were generally referred to by the law and in the press as high-capacity magazines. This coinage is inaccurate - there are high-capacity magazines and they're something different.]
The assault weapons ban expired in 2004. Crime rates remained wholly unaffected.
And that’s the major US weapons laws. I have striven for accuracy, but of course you should check for yourself before doing anything involving these laws. Also check your state and local ordinances. Memorize and follow the four rules every time, without exception.