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Lawful Ownership of An Automatic Weapon in the USA

Charlie Flick

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Charlie Flick



The following is a slightly edited version of an earlier post by Bill In VA. Bill has provided us with a quick summary of the Federal legal requirements for ownership of an automatic weapon in the USA. It was suggested that this might be information useful enough to "pin", and I agree. Thanks to Bill for the education on this topic. As this is a summary only, it is highly recommended that further study on the topic be undertaken when one is contemplating the lawful purchase of an automatic weapon in the USA.




Machine guns are not illegal in the USA as long as they are registered and as long as the person possessing the MG is the lawful registrant. Additionally, there is no federal machine gun license. Instead, the transferor (seller) pays a federal tax to transfer the MG. If the tax is accepted, the transferee (buyer) receives a a tax stamp as a receipt/proof that the tax has been paid. (Remember the 1765 Stamp Act? Or have you ever bought a pack of cigarettes? It's the same principle with machine guns and other NFA devices...the tax stamp serves as proof that the tax was paid and the item in question is lawful.)


The Reader's Digest version of way the process works is as follows: A person buying an MG (i.e., the transferee) fills out two copies of a BATF Form 4 ("Application for Tax-Paid Transfer and Registration of Firearm.") The Form 4 has a detailed description of the firearm and identifies both the transferree (buyer) and transferor (seller.) The transferee also submits two sets of his fingerprints, a BATF Form 5320.20 ("Certificate of Compliance" wherein the transferee claims under penalty of perjury that he is in fact a US citizen), and a check payable to the US Dept. of the Treasury for $200 (the cost of the tax stamp for a machine gun.)


The BATF cashes the check and verifies several things: a) is the MG in question listed in the NFRTR (National Firearms Registry and Transfer Record)?; is the transferor the registered owner?; c) are there any state/local laws that prohibit possession of the MG by the applicant (transferee)?; and d) are the forms filled out completely and correctly? The FBI takes the fingerprints of the applicant/transferee and checks to see if he's been a good boy...no felony convictions, no domestic violence restraining orders, etc... If the answer to all of these comes back as a yes, the "Application to Transfer and Register" is accepted/approved. A stamp is then affixed to one copy of the BATF Form 4 and it is sent back to the transferor who then notifies the transferee that he needs to come and fetch his new MG. That's it.

There aren't any more "hoops to jump through" than there is to buy a handgun from a federally licensed firearms dealer. The process takes a little bit longer (up to 90 days to do the requisite checks), and there's one additional form to fill out, but that's it. The tax is a one-time-only affair, the registrant still maintains his Constitutional rights to privacy, etc... In short, if you can legally purchase a handgun from a federally licensed dealer you can legally purchase a machine gun.


If you'd like to know more about lawful machine gun ownership and the 1934 National Firearms Act you can start at:


Some of the information is out-dated (i.e., the bits about short-barreled rifles and the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban (which expired in 2004)), but all in all, it's an excellent primer on the NFA process.


Bill In Va

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  • 8 years later...
Charlie Flick

Member BMG17A1 has brought to our attention an important change in the Rules regarding transfer of NFA items effectdive 7/13/16. He writes:


There is no longer a requirement for the Chief Law Enforcement Officer, known as the CLEO, to sign a transfer application for an individual transferee. The signature is no longer required when filing either a Form 4 for transfer or a Form 1 for manufacturing any non-MG NFA item. The recent revision of the transfer application now only requires that the transferee applicant NOTIFY the CLEO of his jurisdiction of his submission of a transfer application. The new Form 4s for transfer of an NFA item to an individual includes an extra page for the CLEO notification.


The BATF website provides the following additional details on this Rule change:


Is the chief law enforcement officer required to sign the law enforcement certification on ATF Form 1 or ATF Form 4? No. Effective July 13, 2016, the final rule “Machineguns, Destructive Devices and Certain Other Firearms; Background Checks for Responsible Persons of a Trust or Legal Entity With Respect to Making or Transferring a Firearm” amends the regulations to eliminate the requirement for a certification signed by a CLEO and instead adds a CLEO notification requirement. Prior to submission of the application to the Director, all applicants/transferees and responsible persons shall forward a completed copy of ATF Form 1 or ATF Form 4, or a completed copy of Form 5320.23, respectively, to the chief law enforcement officer of the locality in which the applicant or responsible person is located. The chief law enforcement officer is the local chief of police, county sheriff, head of the State police, State or local district attorney or prosecutor. If the transferee is not a licensed manufacturer, importer, or dealer qualified under this part and is a partnership, company, association, or corporation, for purposes of this section, it is considered located at its principal office or principal place of business; if the applicant/transferee is not a licensed manufacturer, importer, or dealer qualified under this part and is a trust, for purposes of this section, it is considered located at the primary location at which the firearm will be maintained.


Thanks to BMG17A1 for letting us know about the change and suggesting that we update this sticky.

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