Skip to main content

The National Firearms Act of 1934

Posted by attorney Richard Ham

Over the last few years, talk of gun control measures has dominated the media. Discussions of increased background checks and the banning of assault weapons have acquired a prominent place in the political landscape, with impassioned advocates on both sides.

Many people are therefore surprised to learn that private citizens may legally own fully automatic machine guns. A machine gun ban was not passed until 1986, and then it applied only to machine guns registered after that date. Possession of pre-1986 automatic weapons is therefore still legal.

Nevertheless, machine guns are heavily regulated and strict requirements exist for those who wish to possess such weapons. The National Firearms Act of 1934 was one of the first gun control efforts undertaken by the United States government, coming in response to the rampant gang violence existing during prohibition.

The National Firearms Act

With some modifications, the National Firearms Act as passed in the 1930s is still essentially the law of the land. This act imposed an excise tax on the manufacture and transfer of certain notorious weapons, such as machine guns and suppressors, requiring that they be registered with the ATF. In order for a private citizen to purchase such a weapon, he or she must submit an application to the ATF, obtain the approval of the Chief Local Law Enforcement officer—generally the sheriff or chief of police—pass a background check, and pay a $200 excise tax.

It is worth nothing that $200 was a very large sum of money when the bill was passed. The tax was never adjusted for inflation.

Acquiring a Title II Weapon

When seeking to acquire a Title II weapon—as weapons regulated by the National Firearms Act are generally called—problems may arise where the chief local law enforcement officer refuses to provide consent.

Most states do not require this individual to provide the necessary consent, and so the whims of the individual chief local law enforcement officer may affect the ability of an individual to acquire a Title II weapon. Gun trusts have become a popular method of circumventing this requirement, as the law does not require such consent for weapons being acquired by a trust (or corporation).

The entire process to acquire a Title II weapon generally takes between three to six months.

Costs and Potential Sanctions

Acquiring a Title II weapon can be an expensive undertaking. Since only pre-1986 weapons are legal, the cost of these weapons has increased dramatically, given the limited supply.

Violations of the National Firearms Act come with significant penalties. Failure to adhere to the requirements of the law may garner the perpetrator up to 10 years in jail and a $10,000 fine with even greater fines available for those who willfully seek to evade the imposed excise tax.

It is important to note that the National Firearms Act does supersede state possession laws. If a state forbids possession of Title II weapons, a citizen of that state may not possess one, even if otherwise allowable by federal law. Most states, however, do not impose separate requirements beyond that required by the National Firearms Act.

Additional resources provided by the author

Author of this guide:

Was this guide helpful?