I originally published this in 2016, and dust it off every time there’s a mass shooting in the news. This has been far too often.
I’ve been a long time responsible gun owner, by the old definition of what that used to mean. Like a majority of them, I’ve wanted more controls on semi-automatic rifles – particularly, assault rifles, for a long time. There’s idiocy on both sides of this debate, and both have some questionable notions about them. The extreme left seems to have developed an irrational fear and hatred of all guns and the extreme right believes the only solution to guns are more guns. Consider this more realistic perspective from someone who spent over a decade shooting and working on guns, held NRA certifications to supervise ranges and carry concealed weapons, and up until some years ago – when I sold the rights to it – produced the #1 ballistics computer in the App Store.
What much of the nation does not realize is that there is already a system in place to perform strict checks of individuals looking to own firearms categorized as highly lethal – but it isn’t being used to control most assault rifles. Introduced in the National Firearms Act legislation, this system was applied to machine guns, short barrel rifles, silencers, sawed off shotguns, and other types of firearms that individuals can still legally own today, but with more than the casual regulation of AR-15s and other such firearms. It could be changed to include semi-automatic rifles. In my opinion, it should be, and in this post I’ll argue why I’d like to see the President and legislators push for this.
If you’re already familiar with the nuances of assault rifles, then you may wish to skip to the bottom to get straight to an explanation, as I have front-loaded this post with a lot of technical background. There is a lot to chew on here, but if you follow this article to the very end, I think you’ll see how it all comes together to form a solution that would address this very complex problem should Congress ever do anything. It’s important first to lay the groundwork necessary to build up to these working points.
Some argue that assault rifles are statistically insignificant. It’s quite true, the number of people killed with rifles is much lower than handguns. What the statistics don’t show is the ratio of random mass homicides between handguns and rifles. Handguns are at the top of the list of homicides in general, but that gap is much narrower when you’re specifically addressing mass murders of a dozen or more people, and that’s because assault rifles are far more effective at murdering large numbers of people within a very short response window. It’s what made it possible for the Dayton gunman to shoot 26 people in only 32 seconds. When it comes to random mass murders in the United States, they not only increasingly involve an assault rifle, but the most heinous of all mass murders – those involving school children, public crowds, and other complete innocents – are almost exclusively committed with assault rifles. It is these random massacres that we should be analyzing, not the majority of other homicides that have no bearing on the public at large.
Different From Any Other Firearm?
Let’s dispel some myths before we move forward. One of the key claims the gun industry makes is that an assault rifle is only cosmetically different than any other firearm – this is fundamentally untrue. They are very different from a functional and design perspective, as are other rifles that have been designed as weapons systems for combat. This class of rifle is designed as a modular weapons system to make parts field-replaceable, and can be modified into different configurations based on combat needs. This makes them difficult to define by specific features, but also easy to modify into any configuration that benefits the shooter. A federal judge in California recently cited these types of firearms as “Swiss army knives”, yet the big differences in these types of firearms are not so much their modular, field serviceable platform, but the advanced capabilities the platform provides. These capabilities aren’t benign spoon and toothpick attachments for these platforms; these systems bring together a distinct combination of unusually lethal firearm characteristics intended specifically for warfare.
From a ballistics perspective, assault rifles were originally designed with military ammunition in mind; this ammunition has very different properties from typical hunting ammunition, as well as handgun ammunition. Assault rifles are typically chambered for high velocity, lightweight rounds, originally designed to wound at medium range rather than kill – because a wounded soldier is more expensive than a dead one. The rifling in the barrel is often optimized to ensure the right amount of spin for this class of bullet. They fragment and tumble inside the body upon impact, causing severe internal damage far beyond the initial point of impact. In contrast, hunting ammunition is often lower velocity, heavier ammunition designed to avoid tumbling or fragmenting, in order to ensure the necessary amount of ballistic energy is concentrated into the strike radius of the target. The ammunition commonly used in assault rifles typically over-penetrates at close-range, making them terrible for home-defense or even hunting applications, but the weapon of choice for causing severe physical trauma.
Comparison of the difference in energy between a typical military round (top) and a popular hunting round (bottom). At close range, such hunting rounds have more than twice the energy as the military round, but travel at a much slower velocity. The material composition of these rounds are designed to concentrate the energy into one region of the animal, rather than fragment and tumble, which would ruin the game. By contrast, military rounds are lighter and fragment, causing severe internal damage; their only effective use is in combat scenarios. Some attempts have been made to make the platform more hunter-friendly by chambering certain models for popular hunting rounds, such as the .308 Winchester or .300 Beowulf, however the vast majority of rifles are still chambered for, and the barrels still pressure-rated for, the original NATO-spec combat ammunition.
While many activists and even politicians argue that there’s no difference between combat and hunting ammunition, even the disturbed individuals committing mass murder understand the difference between the capabilities of the two. While little is known about the El Paso shooter’s motives, one article cited that the shooter “lamented that his WASR 10 rifle, an AK-47 variant, couldn’t match the lethality of an AR-15. So, to boost his weapon’s killing capacity, he sought out 8M3 ammunition, a hollow-point rifle round known for its ability to expand and fragment on impact, creating catastrophic wounds. The gunman described the 8M3 as a “bullet unlike any other.” I’ve not personally tested 8M3, but I did find a pretty informative gel test video. The kiddies in the militia forums seem to like it too for the same reasons as the shooter: the key frame of the video review touts what great ammunition it apparently is for murdering a crowd of people.
In contrast to handgun ammunition, rifle ammunition in general runs at a much higher velocity and can more easily pierce body armor as well as makeshift barriers a victim might attempt to hide behind. Police responding to an incident would require level III body armor to stop many AR-15 rounds, and level IV body armor to stop armor piercing rounds, whereas level IIIa Kevlar (6mm – less than half the thickness of level III) can vest a majority of handgun ammunition. Certain heavy jackets and denim materials have also been known to greatly reduce the stopping power of certain handgun rounds, whereas rifle rounds shoot right through such materials. There’s also something to be said for maintaining sight alignment with a firearm that is shoulder fired, where the recoil is absorbed horizontally, rather than vertically, causing handgun barrels (and sights), to often buck upward from the recoil.
Cycling and Heat Dissipation
Assault rifles are designed to cycle quickly to allow for rapid fire, and like most infantry weapons, do so without a significant risk of overheating due to their heavier barrel design. Infantry rifles have barrels that are designed to dissipate heat quickly to withstand rapid fire without degrading, and can tolerate the higher pressures needed in order to shoot high-velocity rounds. Direct impingement, one of a few popular systems used in assault rifles, uses the blowback from the round to cycle the action quickly by injecting the gas directly into the bolt carrier, allowing the firearm to be designed lighter and shorter (more compact) than conventional piston-operated rifles, and can fire more rounds over the life of the firearm with reduced wear. Both the barrel materials, as well as techniques such as chrome-lining help further lengthen life and reduce the corrosion and wear caused by high rates of fire and subsequent overheating combined with the high pressure of the round. All of these features went into the design of combat rifles specifically to accommodate rapid fire.
In contrast, hunting rifles typically overheat after a small number of rounds, and lose accuracy quickly by design due to the cost and lightweight carry needs balanced with hunting regulations often limiting the hunter to three or five rounds anyway. The action found in most hunting rifles are bolt, lever, or sometimes pump … bolt typically offering the most consistency, tightest chamber, and least amount of internal movement (all of which affect accuracy). Bolts have an action that don’t generate movement while the bullet is leaving the barrel, including the casing, which is held in place, and they don’t need to absorb energy or redirect gas to cycle the next round, allowing each shot to remain perfectly consistent. Bolts allow for a lighter trigger pull without affecting safety, and are usually considered the most reliable of all types of actions.
Recently, accurized versions of semi-automatic rifles have come into the market that can match that of a bolt action in performance, but lacking the other mentioned benefits. This has been part of a long term strategy by the gun industry to usher military style firearms into the hunting community to legitimize them.
Assault rifles accept a detachable magazine that allows for quick reloading in combat, but serves no practical purpose elsewhere. There are some low capacity hunting magazines, however even these seem to have their origins in shorter military magazines designed for prone firing. A majority of hunting rifles are direct loaded through the chamber for best accuracy, or loaded into an internal magazine, which satisfies virtually all sporting needs. Most fish and game law permits detachable magazines even though there is no functional reason to permit them, as hunting rules typically limit the hunter to a small number of loaded rounds
Fish and Game Use
Some would argue AR15s are used by hunters, however as I’ve mentioned, this is part of a larger effort to justify assault rifles by means of adoption into the hunting community. A hunting version of an AR15 could, however, be made functionally less like an assault rifle with some significant design changed, as hunters are limited to five rounds; this would look more like a California compliant AR15, in which the magazine well is welded shut, and the rifle has to be manually loaded five rounds at a time. The barrel could also be redesigned to eliminate its chrome lining, thicker construction, and other features used for heat dissipation and accuracy during rapid fire. If hunters really do believe they’re justified to use an assault rifle to hunt game, the detachable magazine should at least be eliminated from the design to accommodate good sportmanship. California has already proven this is possible, and the rifle can not accommodate a large capacity magazine, even if one were purchased or 3D printed. Fish and Game reform could easily require this, and other alterations to the design of these semi-automatic rifles without adversely affecting hunters in any meaningful way.
In spite of the industry propaganda to the contrary, military rifles have quite different functional characteristics from your average rifle, and if they weren’t more deadly than a hunting rifle, there wouldn’t be such a market for them among law enforcement, military, survivalists, militias, and even ignorant home defense users. Assault rifles are highly effective at killing en mass, as evidenced by their target market. If they were merely “ordinary firearms”, as one California judge puts it, then they would not be the choice platform for military, government, law enforcement, special weapons teams, and so on.
Some individuals purchase assault rifles because they’re ex-military and comfortable with the platform, or for military marksmanship competitions, but many more purchase them mistakenly for home defense, or for various domestic doomsday scenarios (militia, civil war, invasion, disasters, and so on). Much to the surprise of many, sportsmanship and comfort aren’t covered under the constitution. Silencers and machine guns are lots of fun, but they are heavily regulated in a way that has been established as constitutional. I have owned class III in the past, and gone through the process as a law abiding citizen. The process could easily be applied to transfers for an AR15 or AK47.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that small arms – even fully automatic ones – aren’t any good for “defending” a country against a tyrannical government, as many gun rights activists use to justify their legality. This is nothing more than good marketing – a militia man image carefully crafted by the gun industry and the NRA, much like toxic masculinity is an image often marketed by the pickup truck industry and country music stars. The United States military is the most powerful force on the planet. The US has taken down countries with large militias/militaries that have been armed with fully automatic firearms, ground to air missiles and much heavier weaponry than civilians can legally own in the US. Domestically, SWAT teams and other special forces have taken down terrorist cells and militia groups that have deployed such weapons within the borders. It is pure fiction to think that a militia group of any size could possibly keep the government “in check” or even at bay for very long with such weapons. To suggest otherwise is to suggest the US Military is weak and incapable.
Another misguided belief about firearms is that somehow assault weapons will prevent genocide. Germany’s solution to Hitler wasn’t to do away with firearms regulation. Germany’s solution to Hitler was a national reckoning, which many are still feeling, and a cleanup of the society by means of denazification through the occupation and reconstruction of Germany under the Potsdam Agreement. Society was forced to change. Against a Nazi regime, banning gun registration would have had zero impact against a force of evil such as Hitler’s, and may have actually made door-to-door confiscations more violent and cruel (if that were possible). A federal registry was a simple convenience, and not a necessity for the Nazi regime – claiming differently is merely another point of propaganda sold by people that haven’t studied history or understand the brutality of the Nazis.
Ben Franklin once said, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.” The US has become so desensitized to how violent society has become, that many think this is the peaceful norm. Travel to any other civilized country, and you will be educated in what a peaceful society is like. By contrast, the confirmation bias found in online gun forums, hate groups, and conspiracy theory groups such as QAnon only serve to indoctrinate and radicalize individuals in an alternate reality that doesn’t exist. I used to be part of the idiot fest on ARFCOM, and can testify as to the radicalization of weak minded individuals on such sites by many who were mentally disturbed, anti-government, white supremacist, or all three.
The Failed Assault Weapons Ban
The challenge is how to control access to assault weapons and do it effectively, constitutionally, and in a way that will be meaningful in light of the panic-buying that occurs after every tragedy. In spite of praise by politicians such as Nancy Pepsi and Joe Biden, the Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994 was a failure on all of these fronts, primarily because democrats are, by nature, terrible at writing firearms legislation. Future attempts to renew the ban were just as embarrassing, watching our country’s representatives completely fail to even explain the scary features they were banning. As a result of the AWB’s poor construction, gun manufacturers ended up designing slight variants of the popular firearms covered in the ban. For example, selling an AR-15 with a muzzle brake instead of a flash hider, fixed stock, and removing the bayonet lug made the rifle 100% legal to sell in just as lethal a form. None of these modifications changed the rifle’s capabilities, and if anyone really wanted to, they could easily reconfigure the rifle back into it’s “pre-ban” configuration, as nearly all parts are field replaceable. The legislation did virtually nothing to remove any of the firearms it banned from circulation. Magazine bans were a similar embarrassment. Due to loopholes in the legislation, large caches of imported 30rd magazines (and 90rd drums) were legally sold in virtually every gun shop during the ban. During the entire period of the Assault Weapons Ban, the availability of assault rifles and high capacity magazines was not affected. Only a few irrelevant cosmetic features. I was there. I bought a crap ton of ARs and magazines – legally – during this time. Democrats were too busy patting themselves on the back to walk into a gun store and notice that the legislation had zero impact.
Should another similar assault weapons ban be reinstated today, things like magazine bans are even less likely to succeed with 3D printing, and the industry has become much wiser in how to skirt around the “scary features” laws. No legislation will succeed if it is based on “features”, since nearly every part of a military rifle is, by design, field replaceable. If you outlaw pistol grips and collapsible buttstocks (or pistol braces, for that matter), manufacturers will only sell the platform without them, leaving a customer to be able to easily install them with a screwdriver or wrench. Any effective firearms legislation must define assault weapons by semi-automatic fire control components and the capability of the receiver to accept magazines.
The assault weapons ban was ineffective because there’s no legal definition for the term “assault weapon” or “assault rifle”, and the ban used a poor means of defining them based on their form rather than their function. Outside of the legal world, gun rights activists will tell you that the term “assault rifle” is exclusive to machine guns, but this is flat out not true. Consider the AR-15 again: while the “AR-15” is the semi-automatic version of the popular full-auto M-16 rifle (the AR actually stood for “ArmaLite”, the original manufacturer), the military also got quite sick of their soldiers wasting so much ammunition (without hitting anything), and began issuing rifles with either tri-burst mode (instead of “full” auto) or in some cases exclusively semi-auto, along with teaching better marksmanship. All three configurations have been used in combat, and all three are military assault rifles by any reasonable definition. Other than minor variations between manufacturers, the only parts that are mechanically different are the fire control components: an auto-sear, an M-16 bolt, the spur (“J” hook) on the trigger, and selector switch. These components determine whether you get one bullet per pull, tri-burst, or a spray. Gun owners often seek out the Colt 6920 because it’s closest to the milspec of the M-16, and even has the cutout in the lower receiver for an auto-sear, to be converted to fully automatic. To call one of these an assault rifle and not the others because of its configuration is splitting hairs.
What Are We Solving?
The biggest challenges of developing good assault weapons legislation are:
- Declarative background assessments. Today, there is very little identity collected about buyer and/or false identities; since the background collected on a 4473 is declarative, an applicant can simply lie.
- NICS checks presently collect very little background information. As little as a name is ever verified by the dealer.
- Nearly instantaneous turnaround provides a reward to those cheating the system with very little risk of penalty for falsifying records or lying.
- No record of private transfers is required by law. This creates a weak point in an already weak system. Criminals take the path of least resistance. Additionally, tracing after-the-fact is often times impossible in a private transfer.
- Legislation has thus far not been retroactive, so it is ineffective against panic buying, 3D printing, and 80% receivers.
- Overly broad definitions run the risk of banning certain benign hunting or sporting rifles.
- Overly restrictive legislation is subject to constitutional challenges.
Much of the problem distills down to who’s allowed to own assault rifles, and where the bar is set for having background on the individual. There are absolutely a large number of responsible gun owners out there who are not committing mass murders, and most reasonable people on both sides of the aisle have no issue with law abiding, mentally healthy individuals owning a firearm. At the same time, there are many disturbed individuals, including some with paper trails that we can track today, but don’t. Individuals already under investigation, or having been in and out of mental institutions, or those already being watched because they’ve been radicalized by extremist groups, or have other such issues that call their character into question.
But as any psychiatrist will tell you, we’re all a little bit crazy, and there are varying classes of potentially dangerous individuals that we can quantify. For example, someone with a history of mental health issues might be capable of owning a shotgun (which has a short range, limited capacity, and limited risk for collateral damage), but not an assault rifle. Similarly, someone else may be mentally capable of owning a hunting rifle that can fire five rounds a few seconds apart, but shouldn’t be trusted with an assault rifle that can fire many more rounds far faster. An assault rifle is in a class of its own… capable of killing a much larger group of people in a shorter period of time than any other conventional rifle or handgun. Yet we still don’t treat them different, legally, than a 12-gauge shotgun or a hunting rifle.
Machine guns exist in a different legal class than their semi-automatic counterparts, even though they are virtually identical in all ways to them except for a few fire control components. The core of my argument is that these semi-automatic rifles do in fact belong in the same class. Because they currently aren’t regulated in the same way, the same person who can buy a shotgun for home protection can also buy an AR-15 – a semi-automatic combat rifle, capable of killing a lot of people much faster than a shotgun. We need much better granularity in legal firearms classification.
A Legal Class of Its Own
In the 1920s and 30s, it was legal to buy a machine gun off the shelf, and you could order rifles out of the Sears catalog. Organized crime adopted machine guns like the Thompson submachine gun, which were used in a number of violent massacres. The most famous of these was the Valentine’s Day Massacre, which killed seven people. It only took the death of only seven individuals to pass a sweeping piece of legislation called the National Firearms Act (NFA), which forced registration of machine guns. This was augmented over time, including in 1968 (with an import ban), and again in 1986 (effectively banning new manufacturing).
Where things stand today, you can legally purchase a (fully automatic) machine gun manufactured prior to 1986, but must go through a rather rigorous process to demonstrate that you are a law abiding citizen, allow certain information to be collected about you, be fingerprinted, obey certain transportation rules, and essentially register the firearm with BATFE. Wikipedia does a good job explaining the process:
All NFA items must be registered with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Private owners wishing to purchase an NFA item must obtain approval from the ATF, obtain a signature from the Chief Law Enforcement Officer (CLEO) who is the county sheriff or city or town chief of police (not necessarily permission), pass an extensive background check to include submitting a photograph and fingerprints, fully register the firearm, receive ATF written permission before moving the firearm across state lines, and pay a tax. The request to transfer ownership of an NFA item is made on an ATF Form 4. Many times law enforcement officers will not sign the NFA documents. There have been several unfavorable lawsuits where plaintiffs have been denied NFA approval for a transfer. These lawsuit include: Lomont v. O’Neill, Westfall v. Miller, and Steele v. National Branch. In response, fourteen states have enacted laws which require the CLEO to execute the NFA documents, including Utah, Kansas, Arizona, Alaska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, West Virginia, North Carolina and Maine.
There’s no way to simply lie your way through this check. It doesn’t hinge upon the applicant declaring their background; it is a true background check, and requires a local chief law enforcement officer’s signoff.
In other words, there is already a system in place to perform strict checks of individuals looking to own highly lethal firearms that were at one point considered too dangerous to arbitrarily just sell to anyone at a gun shop. It has enough case law around it to establish that it is constitutional, too. So what’s the problem? The NFA only applies to fully automatic rifles (e.g. machine guns) and other types of firearms – not semi-automatic assault rifles. That could easily change with legislation.
The alleged bump-fire components used in Las Vegas were, at one point, controlled by the BATFE under a 2006 decision labeling one such device (the Akins Accelerator) as a machine gun. Why the BATFE didn’t continue to aggressively pursue these newer devices as such is a mystery; ATF agents I know have never even heard of the Akins Accelerator, and it seems lost to history. When the Akins Accelerator was ruled a machine gun, BATFE went after the customer list and owners were forced to surrender the springs that made them work. Because military rifles are such modular platforms, however, any new such devices to assist with fully automatic fire can easily be developed and attached to an otherwise semiautomatic rifle. 3D printing makes it even easier to create such a bump-fire device. So you can’t fully control civilian access to fully automatic fire without first controlling access to semi-automatic fire.
The NFA provides a system that is already functional and funded for what could serve as a central point of regulation of semi-automatic firearms (and possibly high capacity magazines), and once in place for semi-autos, could be optimized to provide better background checks or other much needed inspections.
Reclassification Under the NFA
Instead of banning assault rifles, which historically hasn’t worked in the US, placing semi-automatic long guns onto the NFA registry would cause the same NFA process that’s used for machine guns, short barrel rifles, and other such weapons – to be applied to semi-automatics. To be specific, the NFA should be expanded to cover firearms with these characteristics:
- Long gun
- Accommodates semi-automatic fire control components
- Either accepts a detachable magazine, or has a fixed magazine holding more than five rounds
Here, “long gun” needs to also be defined in such a way as to include receivers (the part of these firearms that is legally considered ‘the firearm’) whose design can accommodate a long gun platform, such as AR-15 receivers, to ensure that AR-15 pistol conversions, etc., are covered.
Reclassifying these under the NFA, instead of a ban, would resolve the shortcomings of assault weapons legislation. You wouldn’t be banning scary configurations of the same rifle, or trying to fit firearms into a specific taxonomy (which we know is a futile effort). Instead, we’d address the current problems in legislation.
Declarative background assessments
Today, there is very little identity collected about buyer and/or false identities; since the background collected on a 4473 is declarative, an applicant can simply lie.
Under NICS, you provide only very basic info, and it’s easy to get around a background check if you use a fake ID. Since the gun shop is responsible for taking that information down, fake identification (just like straw purchases) go a long way. The checks are mostly declarative as well; that is, the buyer has to disclose whether they are disqualified from purchasing a firearm, as the information is simply not available to NICS. Even if an individual is using their real identity, there is such little information provided (no fingerprints, no photo, no social security number), that it is incredibly easy to pass. This is why disqualifying items such as dishonorable discharge (as in the case of the recent Texas shooter) often don’t show up.
Under NFA, you submit a photo, fingerprints, and have an extensive background check to purchase or transfer an assault rifle. One would be subject to the same lengthly background check upon registering a firearm under an initial registration window. In many cases, one would also require a letter from the chief of police, and other background check requirements. Such a check is resilient to fake identities, and there is also a transfer fee creating a paper trail for payment, which can be tied back to the individual’s identity.
NICS checks presently collect very little background information
As little as a name is ever verified by the dealer.
The NFA process involves a more in-depth background investigation, but can be made even more so on background checks by opening up mental health records and tying into a number of federal databases that NICS presently isn’t very well tied into. NICS checks only go to the feds for long guns purchases, and goes to the state for handguns. This is why you can buy a long gun in any state, but can only buy a handgun from your home state. Information sharing isn’t so great between the two either, from what I’ve heard, and there have been attempts to rectify that.
By looping in the local CLEO (chief law enforcement officer), you have additional local background that can become part of the background check. Were the police called to the applicant’s home 30 times in the past year? Are there criminal complaints against the subject? Was the individual expelled from school for violent behavior? The CLEO can address this before the applicant is ever allowed access to the firearm.
Nearly instantaneous turnaround
Provides a reward to those cheating the system with very little risk of penalty for falsifying records or lying.
NFA takes 6-12 months on average, as it is a real background check. The applicant won’t be able to take possession of the firearm until after the background check has concluded. This is what happens with machine guns already when purchased from class-III dealers. Those planning terrorist attacks, such as in Orlando, are going to have to plan well in advance – in many cases, they don’t, however, and used the weapons available to them at the time. Also of note, those with escalating violent tendencies may already be on the edge by the time they purchase the firearm, leading to a lesser crime or other event prior to the check concluding, that would disqualify them from ever taking possession.
Since the NFA system doesn’t run at light speed, like NICS does, the time is there to interface with investigatory agencies so that they are made aware when someone under investigation or on a watch list are looking to purchase an assault weapon. This would also result in a mandatory waiting period for assault rifles, but not affect other firearms intended for hunting or self-defense.
At the moment, NICS is insufficient for information sharing: it’s instantaneous, giving no preparation time, and in many cases, the law forbids the information from NICS to be forwarded to investigative agencies.
No record of private transfers is required by law
This creates a weak point in an already weak system. Criminals take the path of least resistance. Additionally, tracing after-the-fact is often times impossible in a private transfer.
Legislation has thus far not been retroactive
Ineffective against panic buying, 3D printing, and 80% receivers.
When the NFA went into effect, machine gun owners were provided with a registration window. Once that window closed, any unregistered MGs became illegal (unregistered machine guns), and there are stiff penalties for possessing an unregistered machine gun. You can’t bring such a gun to the range because you have to carry it around with the ATF form and a stamp. Many ranges check these if they see a machine gun, and there are also a number of ATF stings / monitoring going on at many ranges. In other words, that gun will have to move completely underground, and will lose all of its value in legitimate markets – and most gun owners hate that idea. Within half a generation, unregistered assault weapons will end up in the hands of the owners’ children, but they will be in the same boat – subject to prison if they do not turn it in or have it destroyed, simply because they weren’t registered as required by law. This also snuffs out private sales of unregistered assault weapons, as there would be no legal way to register it outside of the initial registration window. In other words, once that window closes, if you don’t register a rifle, it turns into a stolen car – it’s a hot item, and very few are likely to touch it. There is a significant financial incentive for gun owners to register existing firearms, in this case, as all of their panic buying will lose considerable value otherwise. Given that most mass shooters either obtained their guns legally (which doesn’t mean much in today’s NICS system), or stole them from someone who did, concerns about black markets here are marginal.
An all-out ban does nothing to address the millions of firearms already owned, nor the panic buying that ensues whenever new legislation is proposed – however, reclassifying under the NFA forces all of them to be accounted for, or the owner risks criminal prosecution if they’re caught with an unregistered assault rifle. Sure, there will be some that end up buried to rust out over a few decades; within one generation, however, they won’t be able to legally transfer to a beneficiary.
As personal, private transfers go, such transfers of machine guns are presently illegal today, unless they go through the NFA process for the new owner. In other words, there’s a paper trail now any time an assault weapon is sold, and the government is aware of who is in possession of it, as well as has their prints, photo, and other information. Today, you aren’t required to give any account for where a gun came from, whether it was purchased legally, whether a background check was done – a gun could literally show up on the street, and there is no accountability at all. NFA items have a full accounting and paper trail built into the system.
As far as 3D printing and 80% builds go, today pretty much anyone can legally build their own semi-automatic rifle today. The gun industry manufactures 80% receivers, which are lower receivers without final machining, just to keep them legal enough to where they don’t constitute a firearm. They can be purchased mail order without criminal background checks, then completed into final firearms with minor machining. All of the other components of the rifle can then be purchased and assembled into a working rifle, skirting NICS or any other safeguards in place, just like a private sale. They have the added benefit of not needing to be registered (or even engraved with a serial number) unless you sell them; only when you sell them do they require an ATF Form 1. Gun owners have stocked up both on complete lower receivers (which are traceable and engraved) as well as 80% receivers (which are not usually traceable or engraved) in the event of an all out “ban” to eventually build out into complete rifles.
The way NFA restrictions are structured, it prevents gun owners from building a restricted firearms without approval from the ATF (and only manufacturers are ever allowed to build new machine guns). By classifying semi-auto rifles under NFA, the same restrictions get applied to AR-15s (or other semi-automatic rifles), forcing registration of existing, complete stripped lowers, and banning home-brew builds without registration. All the panic buying that’s already occurred will have served no purpose, as every lower receiver will ultimately need to be registered just as a complete rifle would, otherwise it becomes a worthless, unsellable unregistered firearm that the owner can’t even take to the range.
Overly broad definitions
Run the risk of banning certain benign hunting or sporting rifles.
The BATFE has the ability to isue rulings and make exceptions for specific hunting / sporting rifles they don’t want to consider fall under NFA. Their ruling process occurs in writing and they’ve handed down a number of specific rulings as new products are introduced (they’ve done this with machine guns, silencers, and other items already covered under NFA). This allows legislation to be drafted broadly, so that it can be imprecise enough to cover all semi-automatic long guns with detachable magazines (for example), but grant the power to the BATFE to make exceptions for any rifle they believe falls more into a “hunting” category. In other words, it lets people who actually know about guns make decisions about their taxonomy, rather than politicians, who are generally quite ignorant of them.
Overly restrictive legislation
Is subject to constitutional challenges.
Lastly, as I mentioned, the NFA has already been established as constitutional, so rather than pass some heavy handed ban that will be dragged out in the court system for years, legislation to adopt semi-autos into the NFA isn’t likely to see such challenges, or if it does, are not likely to succeed.
Would it Have Made an Impact?
Based on what facts are available, it would have likely prevented the use of an assault weapon in the most recent school shootings such as that in Parkland, FL at a number of different points (including likely the local CLEO from signing off). It would have prevented a number of other recent shootings where there were signs of mental health issues, dishonorable discharge, and other trails on record that the BATFE would have seen during their background check.
Legan, the Gilroy Garlic Festival shooter, purchased an AK-47 variant in Nevada while seemingly holding residency in California. An NFA background check would have had this information, and could have set off a flag given that this type of rifle is banned in California. If Legan or a similar individual had established residency after taking possession of the firearm, a well-connected system could have even cross-referenced the residency change with NFA records and been able to raise a flag.
The more thorough background check element of the NFA would have prevented the Texas church shooting; the shooter had already been denied a concealed carry permit due to such a background check, yet was still able to purchase the rifle. Had the rifle been under NFA, he wouldn’t ever have been allowed to take possession of it. Obviously, there’s something in the system about him that was enough to fail a background check had he been put through a real one.
Paddock, the Las Vegas shooter, bought 33 guns in the 12 months leading up to the shooting; some reports suggest he made a bulk purchase in 2016. The NFA process is slow and often takes six months or more to obtain a single tax stamp; along with a $200 tax stamp fee, fingerprints for every application, extensive background check, and other delays, it’s likely Paddock would have been able to only transfer a small number of semi-automatic rifles within that time frame assuming he passed all checks and wanted to go through the hassle and not raise a flag. He obviously didn’t want to go through the hassle, though: Paddock chose a low budget means of obtaining full auto fire; a means that the ATF had flirted with outlawing, but didn’t follow through on. He could have purchased real (and more reliable) full auto machine guns lawfully under the NFA, but he didn’t, and neither would any of the other recent shooters – the NFA would have kept them from being invisible. Had anyone made these types of purchases on NFA regulated firearms, it would have put him on BATFE’s radar. Instead, Paddock stayed off the grid by “hacking” together a less reliable, and slower fire version of a full auto. If semi-automatic rifles had been placed under the NFA program, there’s a good chance many shooters who share the same aversion to government visibility would have avoided assault rifles entirely, which means the number of casualties would have been dramatically lower. Their goal is to avoid detection, and the NFA would not have afforded anyone that.
The economics of the NFA could have also had a powerful effect on most recent mass murders. During and after machine gun registration under NFA, and particularly after new registrations were closed off in 1986, the prices of those firearms were driven up substantially to 10-20 times their original price. A full auto machine gun today costs tens of thousands of dollars simply due to supply and demand. Semi-automatic rifles, had they fallen under the NFA, could become an issue of supply and demand too, making them more difficult and more expensive to get a hold of. In other words, assault rifles end up being an exclusivity. By this alone, the NFA would have unquestionably prevented several other mass murders from occurring, likely including Sandy Hook.
Even without the economic effects, however, the simple fact that the process requires both (reasonable) government visibility and accountability would have prevented a number of criminals from otherwise taking possession.
The result of reclassifying certain semi-automatic rifles as NFA firearms is that you apply much more effective background controls on them, without denying gun owners what they perceive as their right to own these firearms, nor do you have to be concerned with the widespread panic buying that happens every time there is a massacre. The NFA works in a fully retroactive way, as it does with machine guns. It requires no attempt at confiscation (which would fail miserably), and gives responsible gun owners a window to decide whether they want their assault rifles enough to submit to reasonable accountability. Those breaking NFA rules forfeit their ability to sell them, travel freely with them, and within one generation, most will be forfeited as they cannot be transferred.
The far right in the gun community will argue that this is tyranny, and that the people should be given absolute power. I disagree. What you are describing is Hitler’s Germany, not America, and if we were living in Hitler’s Germany, that mindset would have been on the wrong side of history. If you’re going to possess an infantry rifle, you ought to be subject to adequate controls and accountability by those entrusted with governing the people. The ones who don’t think they should be accountable to anyone are the ones who shouldn’t own guns.
I’ve watched the gun community dramatically devolve over the years, and today’s gun culture is alien to the once even-keeled, responsible gun owner that is its heritage. Today’s gun community is largely much more radicalized and emotional than I can ever remember. The beliefs that gun owners hold as truths today are not rightfully the values of the founding fathers, but rather a product of good marketing. While the NRA has long spent hundreds of millions selling the freedom loving “militia-man” image to gun owners, founding fathers like Ben Franklin took the position that the more vicious people became, the heavier regulation they required. A recent study concluded that the people who feel most empowered by guns are white, socially alienated, financially unstable individuals who have a strong belief that violence against government may be necessary, and oppose mental health checks. This is exactly the crowd today’s NRA and gun industry are resonating with, and nails the profile of those that stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021.
The gun industry, meanwhile, manipulates the weak minded into buying more of their products to protect themselves from the gun crimes that the same gun industry helped create. They’ve lobbied to make sure criminals can get firearms so that they can sell to others to protect themselves against the criminals they’ve helped enable: this is not far from how organized crime operates.
The belief that our identity as a country somehow has to be intertwined with the right to kill each other is the biggest fallacy we’ve ever been sold by capitalism. This faulty belief system is largely why nothing has moved in legislation for decades, even in light of ongoing random acts of mass murder in this country. Sandy Hook was the point of no return for our country. As we watched our government and NRA’s non-response to the murder of 20 school children, I knew then and there that we’d never do anything meaningfully human or morally right to control mass murder in this country. Sandy Hook was the day politicians and the gun industry alike demonstrated they had no soul. At the end of the day, this is not a patriotic battle we’re fighting, it’s a battle of industry dollars and lobbyists.
More people have died from gun violence in this country than in all of our major wars combined. Think about it: This means more people have died because of gun rights than all the people who ever died for gun rights. What’s even more unacceptable is that it only took the murder of seven (7) individuals in the Valentines Day Massacre to get the ball rolling for the NFA and its sweeping gun legislation… yet 58+1 died in the Vegas massacre, 28 in Texas, 17 in Florida, 22 in El Paso, 10 in Dayton, and we’ve lost whatever humanity we once had to even bat an eye.
The fact that we are discussing mass shootings yet again, with nothing different this year is a sign of just how apathetic our government has become. The fact that politicians are dodging the issue yet again is evidence to just how soulless.
God will judge us all if we continue to allow this.