Legal Brief: Origins of the NFA
Legal Brief is a series where the ins and outs, the dos and don’ts of the firearms world are covered. From popular topics to more niche subject matters, the Legal Brief tries to help our reader be the best gun owner out there. Venture Out is an Ohio based outdoor social channel, so therefore most of our articles, videos, and posts, lean towards that fact. Legal Brief is no exception. The things discussed here are geared towards Ohioans. Please, if residing in a different state, follow all the laws and regulations regarding that state. Furthermore, Venture Out is not legal counsel. So please, if you have further questions, seek the appropriate legal authorities on the subject.
Have You Heard of the NFA?
As consummate gun owners, many people are familiar with the overarching bureaucratic branch that regulates firearms. Of course that is the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco, and Explosives, or BATFE for short (fun fact, the BATFE fell under the Department of Treasury until the Homeland Security Act of 2002, which transferred certain functions to the Department of Justice; no, this can’t be made up). However, there are additional branches and subdivisions that exist both in name and legislation that further clog up the machine.
The National Firearms Act (NFA) of 1934 both exists as legislation and as a separate division of the BATFE. The NFA requires special occupancy tax on certain types of firearms that include short barreled rifles and shotguns, machine guns, silencers (though not silent or a firearm), “any other weapons” (AOWs), and destructive devices. Furthermore, the NFA created a formal registration of transferees, with each serialized item being associated with an individual. The cost of the special occupancy “tax stamp” was and still is $200 –adjusted to modern inflation, equates to $4,356.12 in 1934. Some may have you believe that the NFA was created to add tax revenue, however that is just byproduct of the original function. The $200 was meant to fundamentally put a ban on types of firearms that were thought to be a menace to the public.
Zoom In: 1934 United States
To further understand the passage of the NFA, a quick look at the events surrounding the time period is also important. To quote BATFE’s website directly, “Congress found these firearms to pose a significant crime problem because of their frequent use in crime, particularly the gangland crimes of the era such as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.” The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre took place on February 14, 1929 and saw the death of seven members of George “Buggs” Moran’s gang. They were shot and killed by disguised uniform officers that were presumably part of Al Capone’s network. This was one of several examples of organized crime that shocked the nation. To prevent it, congress thought it necessary to place certain types of firearms on a marked list to make it near impossible for the general public to get. Contrary though, the NFA ONLY made it difficult for law-abiding citizens to attain these firearms, and not the criminals that the NFA supposedly targeted. (Criminals are in fact, criminals, following laws and regulations is not their strong suit).
The addition of suppressors to the NFA is another questionable subject. William T. Hornaday, director of the Bronx Zoo, was an advocate for the banning of silencers. He deemed that the vanishing of game animals in North America was a direct result of over hunting by guns that were too accurate and by hunters who were using silencers to prevent the scattering of game animals. See his book Our Vanishing Wildlife: Its Extermination and Preservation to further try to understand his insanity (he also thought that immigrants from Eastern Europe should not be allowed to hunt or own firearms until reaching 10 years of citizenship). This added fuel to the congressional fire on adding suppressors to the NFA. Another reason that many consider is that during the Great Depression members of the government thought people were poaching off federal land in order to provide food for their families—an act that was possible because of their use of silencers. This claim was not substantiated by congress, but more an assumption.
To sum all of this up, a perfect storm led to the creation and implementation of the NFA. Remember, this is the same era that thought prohibition was a good idea (1920-1933). Coincidently, bootlegging became big business in organized crime, which the NFA was directly targeting. Maybe one congressional act led to another?
Zoom Out: Implications Today
The NFA continues to persist as a thorn in the side of law-abiding-gun owners who wish to purchase and collect the very things that are restricted. Attempts have been made to retool the NFA legislation, and the closest in such an attempt was the 2017 Hearing Protection Act (HPA). Congress and the Whitehouse were controlled by the GOP, signifying the first time in over a decade that pro-gun legislation could be passed. Tragedy then struck. The 2017 Las Vegas shooting effectively ended any hopes for the passing of the HPA that would have removed suppressors from the NFA (conspiracy theorists can now enter the room). Today, as citizens await ATF’s ruling on arm-braced pistols, Oklahoma Senator James Lankford introduced the Pistol Brace Protection Act to protect the millions of gun owners that possess these types of firearms. It seems that the ATF uses the NFA as a way to “define” items in order reclassify them (bump stock and forced reset triggers for example) in order to control and hinder rights of the people.
This has been a brief overview of the NFA. Its history is murky and difficult to understand. Its existence has not evolved as gun culture has. Loopholes, such as arm braces, binary tiggers, “firearms” (the Mossberg Shockwave), are all lengths that people have gone to circumnavigate the NFA. Even though these items were originally approved for production (by the BATFE, changing administrations means changing decisions. The NFA today exists as an arm of the BATFE to attack law-abiding-gun owners into registering their legally possessed items or become a criminal in the eyes of the law. The NFA was created out of an era of organized crime, because congress was fearful. Congress then utilized their power to tax to create a special occupancy tax on specific items, effectively banning them from the general public. From that point it has evolved into what it is today, an over reaching government bureaucracy.