Moving Semi-Auto Rifles Into the National Firearms Act

I’m a long time responsible gun owner and enthusiast who, like many, would like to see more controls on semi-automatic weapons; particularly, what many refer to as “assault rifles”. Indeed, I’m well aware of all the Kool-Aid on both sides surrounding assault weapons, and I think both sides have some ridiculous notions about them. The extreme left seems to have developed an irrational fear and hatred of all guns and the right believes the only solution to guns are more guns. I used to drink the gun rights Kool-Aid. I’ve shot and smithed guns for over 15 years now, gotten the NRA certifications to supervise ranges and to carry concealed weapons, and have been an avid long range shooter. Up until a few years ago, when I sold the rights to it, I produced the #1 ballistics computer in the App Store, and made a very comfortable revenue off of the gun community with just a few hours a month of coding.

I’ve spent over 15 years in the gun community, listened to all of the political arguments surrounding “assault weapons”, and have met some intelligent people. I’ve met more wildly ignorant people, who don’t even know how their AR-15s work let alone have any sense of the world. The political dogma surrounding assault weapons is downright embarrassing on the gun rights side. If we really believe that guns are keeping the government in check, then they’ve quite failed at that task. If guns supposedly make for a more peaceful society, then why is our country’s gun violence worse than most third world countries, and why are virtually all other first world countries statistically safer on a high order of magnitude? Perhaps if more gun owners traveled and saw how other societies lived – many without the distrust and predisposition to violence that we hold even towards our own neighbors – they might see how sorely mistaken their mindset has been all this time. Instead, many choose to live ignorantly believing that the rest of the world is as vicious and violent as many are in the US. It’s simply not true.

Different From Any Other Rifle?

Another common bit of Kool-Aid I used to drink is the notion that an AR-15 is functionally no different than any other rifle – this is fundamentally flawed. They are quite different, as are other rifles that have been designed as weapons systems for combat. AR-15s, as is the case with many other types of infantry weapons, are designed as modular weapons systems in order to make parts easily field-replaceable, and can be easily modified into many different configurations, making them very difficult to define by features, but also very easy to modify into more lethal (and often outlawed) forms. They are chambered for high velocity, lightweight bullets (5.56 NATO, later domesticated to .223 Remington) originally designed to wound at medium range rather than kill (because a wounded soldier is more expensive than a dead one), but also over-penetrate at close-range (making them terrible for home-defense). Most such rifles are designed to cycle quickly to allow for rapid fire, and like most infantry weapons, do so without a significant risk of overheating (unlike hunting rifles, which often overheat after a small number of rounds, and lose accuracy). This is because infantry rifles are designed to withstand a larger overall number of rounds fired, and techniques such as chrome-lining of the barrel help 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. Hunting rifles often don’t incorporate such processes, because it diminishes accuracy slightly, increases weight and cost, but mainly because hunting rifles aren’t designed for prolonged rapid fire. Lastly, assault rifles accept a detachable magazine that allows for quick reloading in combat, but serves no practical purpose elsewhere. As you can see, they are very different from your average rifle, and if they weren’t more deadly, there wouldn’t be such an abundance of rednecks running out to panic-buy them to overthrow their government or society some day, or defend against imaginary societal problems that we haven’t had in this country for over 130 years.

My gun collection is a lot smaller than it used to be, but I do still own firearms, including a few of the AR-15s I’m referring to, as well as AR-10s (the .308 version of an AR-15). Most people buy them either because they’re ex-military and comfortable with the platform, or mistakenly for home defense, or for various domestic war scenarios (militia, civil war, invasion, disasters, and other paranoid delusions – you’re kidding yourself if you think you can go up against an entire SWAT team with an AR). I bought mine because they’re fun to shoot at the range, and I’m fascinated by the platform. I have extensive experience with how they work, how they don’t work, how to rebuild one, how to be safe with one, and even how to disarm someone being reckless at the range with one. Unfortunately, most assault rifle owners aren’t this well versed when they purchase an infantry rifle, and probably don’t know very much about them, or how to be safe with them. I still shock many AR-15 owners when I explain to them that their ARs can fire out of battery and kaboom if they don’t run wet – this is how ignorant most AR owners are of the mechanics of their own firearms.

Obviously I don’t hate guns, but I do hate that any deranged person can easily get access to them. I don’t believe that having sensible controls on access to firearms constitutes tyranny. I do believe that the nature of society will dictate how much control needs to be applied. Ben Franklin (who gun owners love to misquote), once said, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.” Much to the chagrin of gun owners, many of our founding fathers would not have supported the notions that access to weapons should be given to the vicious that roam society. Franklin would be rolling over in his grave if he saw the narrative of today’s NRA.

Many 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, however, is the ratio of random homicides between handguns and rifles. Handguns are at the top of the list of homicides in general, but I suspect a lot of the reason for this is simply that it’s what drug dealers and gangs are using to kill each other, and the vast majority of other gun crimes that involve either suicide or murder of someone the subject was targeting. When it comes to random domestic mass murders, however, more and more of these seem lately to involve an assault rifle – and these random massacres are what we should be analyzing, not the majority of other homicides that have no bearing on the public at large.

The Assault Weapons Ban

The question, of course, is how you can control access to assault weapons and do it effectively, and in a way that will matter in light of all of the panic-buying that occurs after every tragedy. The Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994 was a miserable failure, 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, an AR-15 with a muzzle brake instead of a flash hider, fixed stocks, and without a bayonet lug. While the legislation may have cut back on drive-by-bayonetings, it 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 30rd magazines (and 90rd drums) were easily imported and sold in virtually every gun shop during the ban. During the entire period of the AWB, gun owners sat comfortably with either pre-ban AR-15s or post-ban XM-15s that were identical in functionality, and with a safe full of legally owned 30rd magazines, laughing at the senators who wrote the legislation, who wouldn’t know an assault weapon if they sat on one. Should the same 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.

Therein lies the core issue: there’s no legal definition for the term “assault weapon” or “assault rifle”; it’s difficult to define, too, because of their modular platform. Outside of the legal world, gun rights activists will tell you that this term is exclusive to machine guns, but even this is simply 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 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, and the spur (“J” hook) on the trigger. 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 childish, and more Kool-Aid circulated among gun owners.

The Challenge

As I said, my main point is that those who are the most opposed to assault weapons are also the people who know the absolute least about them, and that has led to terrible legislation in the past, that has only ended up banning “scary features” that can easily be restored to a modular weapons system like the AR-15. Now I will propose a more effective means to control them; if you’ll allow an assault weapons owner to help you draft something that could actually be effective, I think perhaps we might reach some intelligent legislation.

The biggest issues we have in terms of access to assault weapons, or really firearms in general are:

  • Very little identity collected about buyer and/or false identities
  • Very little background required to pass a NICS check
  • Nearly instantaneous turnaround
  • No record of private transfers
  • Ban legislation is not retroactive (won’t affect panic buying, 3D printing, or 80% receivers)
  • Don’t want to accidentally ban certain hunting/sporting rifles

The issue with assault rifles isn’t so much ownership; it’s a matter of who’s owning them. There are certainly a large number of responsible gun owners out there who are not committing mass murders. At the same time, there are many disturbed individuals, probably many of whom are already under investigation, or have been in and out of mental institutions, indoctrinated by conspiring militia groups, or have other issues that most of society wouldn’t think should have access to an assault weapon. A handgun to protect themselves? A shotgun? A bolt action? Perhaps (depending on a case-by-case) – but an assault rifle? That’s in a different class of its own…. yet we don’t treat it like it is.

A Class of Its Own

And that’s the problem: Firearms like the AR-15 really aren’t in a class of their own, from a legal perspective, like machine guns are. The same person who can buy a shotgun for home protection can also buy an AR-15 – a combat rifle (with the exception of the full auto) – capable of killing a lot of people much faster than a shotgun.

In the 1920s and 30s, it was legal to simply buy a machine gun off the shelf, and you could order rifles out of the Sears catalog… organized crime had adopted machine guns like the Thompson Submachine Gun, and they were used in a number of violent massacres, the most famous being the Valentine’s Day Massacre, which killed seven people. This was addressed with a piece of legislation called the National Firearms Act (NFA). This was augmented over time, including in 1968 (with an import ban), and again in 1986 (banning newer registrations). Essentially where things stand now are that you can legally purchase a 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, 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.[22] The request to transfer ownership of an NFA item is made on an ATF Form 4.[23] 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,[24] Westfall v. Miller,[25] and Steele v. National Branch.[26] 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.[27][28][29]

In other words, there is already a system in place to perform stringent checks of individuals looking to own firearms that were at one point considered too dangerous to arbitrarily just sell to anyone at a gun shop. The NFA also applies to silencers, sawed off shotguns, and other types of firearms.

Banning vs. Reclassification

Instead of banning any firearms, classifying any semi-automatic long gun under the blanket of the NFA would cause the same NFA process to be mandated in order for gun owners to own or possess them. If you wanted to be more specific, infantry rifles should be identified with these characteristics:

  • Long gun
  • Semi-Automatic fire control components
  • Accepts either [a detachable magazine] or [ a fixed magazine holding more than five rounds ]
  • Centerfire (optional)

You may also choose to only include centerfire rifles, rather than rimfire (such as little .22 plinker guns). On the other hand, a .22 is all too often treated like a toy when it is lethal as well. There are too many gun owners, in my opinion, who treat .22 like a lollipop and let their kids shoot them in the backyard, when in reality they can do a lot more than put an eye out.

Resolving the Shortcomings of Another AWB

Going the NFA route 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 problems of ownership:

  • Very little identity collected about buyer and/or fake identification

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 goes a long way. But even if they’re not using a fake identity, there’s very little information given; no fingerprints, no photo – the only thing that goes to NICS is a name and address (even social security number is optional).

Under NFA, you also submit a photo, fingerprints, have an extensive background check to either purchase an assault rifle, or to register an existing one during an initial “amnesty” window. In many cases, one would also require a letter from the chief of police etc). To help ensure that the identity is not fake, there is also a transfer fee which requires a payment, and so a check, credit card, or other paper trail will have to exist tying to the individual’s identity.

Here is the link to the ATF Form 4 and the FD-258 fingerprint card.

  • Very little background required to pass a NICS check

The NFA system is more extensive, 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, from what I’ve heard, and there have been attempts to rectify that.

  • Nearly instantaneous turnaround

NFA takes 6-12 months on average, so your new assault rifle will just have to wait at the gun shop until you receive your stamp. This is what happens with machine guns already when purchased from class-3 dealers. Those planning terrorist attacks, such as in Orlando, are going to have to plan well in advance.

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 on a terrorist watch list is looking to purchase an assault weapon. This would also result in a mandatory waiting period for assault rifles, but not affect other firearms.

I won’t attempt to address the debate about whether those on terrorist watch lists should be allowed to buy an assault weapon; there are good arguments on both sides. One thing is for certain, reclassifying semi-autos as NFA items would provide the freedom to treat them as more highly controlled, and deny purchases to those under investigation (perhaps with a judge’s approval) without preventing them from purchasing other firearms for protection. Even if you don’t use the terrorist watch list at all, though, the time for the NFA process to conclude would give investigative agencies enough of a heads-up that they could act on whatever evidence they do have, or step up their efforts to prevent another tragedy. Love it or hate it, this is what the FBI did with the Playpen/Tor investigation; they feared some subjects were imminently going to act on murdering or raping children and decided to make arrests.

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
  • Ban legislation is not retroactive (doesn’t affect panic buying)

The Assault Weapons Ban made the mistake of grandfathering rifles. When the NFA first went into effect, however, machine gun owners were given a window where they could register their machine guns. Once that window closed, any unregistered MGs were considered illegal, and there are stiff penalties for possessing an unregistered machine gun. You can’t even 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 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. 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.

An all-out ban does nothing to address the millions of firearms already owned, however going the direction of the NFA forces all of them to be accounted for, or the owner risks the change of criminal prosecution if they’re ever caught with an unregistered “assault weapon”.

As personal, private transfers go, those of machine guns are also illegal, 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.

3D Printing and 80% Builds

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 over the counter (or mail order) without pesky 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 that NFA restrictions are structured, it prevents gun owners from arbitrarily building their own restricted firearms (for example, machine guns or short barreled rifles) 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 that poor-man’s panic buying will have served no little 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.

  • Don’t want to accidentally ban certain hunting/sporting rifles

The BATFE has the ability to issue rulings and make exceptions for specific hunting / sporting rifles they don’t want to consider assault weapons. Their ruling process occurs in writing and they’ve handed down a number of specific rulings as new products are introduced. For example, a butt-stock with a spring was once productized to use the recoil from “bump fire” to “legally” make a rifle fully automatic without modifying its fire control components. The ATF eventually ruled these as machine guns and forced owners to remove the springs.

Paying For It and Funding Mental Health

The NFA originally started the same way most controls in this country does: taxes. A $200 transfer tax is paid when a machine gun is transferred… every time. If even a $100 tax was assessed per transfer, and a registration window were opened, the revenue generated from retroactive taxation of registration would likely be more than enough to pay for the additional resources. Since the system is already in place, it’s really more of an expansion of personnel than anything.

Future revenue from this could be used to help fund mental health, another big piece of the puzzle in America that’s been starving for decades.

Summary

A good starting point for legislation would be to define an assault rifle as any long gun with a semi-automatic fire control, and either [ a detachable magazine ] or [ a fixed magazine holding more than 5 rounds ], perhaps centerfire only. This would avoid a majority of semi-auto hunting rifles and plinker guns, but also classify just about every other semi-automatic rifle (as it should). Perhaps this can be fine-tuned. I say five rounds because many fish and game rules limit hunters to 3 or 5 rounds. Again, we’re only talking semi-automatic long guns here – pump shotguns, bolt rifles, lever guns, and most other hunting firearms are largely unaffected.

The end result is that you are not denying gun owners what they perceive as their right to own these firearms, nor do you have to care about all of the panic buying that happens every time there is a massacre. It can be made fully retroactive, make no attempt to force confiscation (which would fail miserably), and give gun owners a window to decide whether they want their assault rifles enough to submit to reasonable accountability.

The far right in the gun community will argue that this is tyranny, and that the government doesn’t have the right to know who owns an assault weapon. I disagree. We are not living in Hitler’s Germany, and if you’re going to possess an infantry rifle, you ought to be subject to some accountability. The gun community has enjoyed a long history of freedom from accountability in this country, however it has also evolved from responsible gun owners into an anarchist organization. I do believe it’s time to start holding people to at least more accountability for purchasing a semi-automatic firearm than we do to buy over-the-counter Sudafed. If the gun community were effective at educating their own, and creating a generation of non-violent gun owners, they would have done so by now. If the answer to guns was really “more guns”, we would be a safer country today… it is very clear that this has not been the outcome.

This is not tyranny under any definition, nor is it a potential infringement on rights like an all-out ban would be. As a gun owner, I personally support this legislation, and I believe many other gun owners would. This will not create a Hitler-esque roll, as there are still plenty of other firearms out there that are not so heavily controlled. Just as we control access to prescription medication vs. over-the-counter, there are some firearms that require tighter controls.

Additional Thoughts

I’ll add to this my personal belief that any NICS or NFA check should also require that the buyer has completed a gun safety course in the last ten years, and this could probably help us reduce the number of ignorant gun owners that both sides hate to see out there. This would help address another core problem: accidental deaths. Rifle safety classes are offered by NRA, Sig Arms, and many other non-government organizations. Similar classes are required in order to obtain your concealed carry permit in some states, so the infrastructure is already there, along with a list of approved classes. You can obtain training from a number of private organizations you choose, and only need provide a certificate. If you’re going to own a semi-automatic rifle, you ought to be educated in how to be safe with it, unlike the vast majority of owners I’ve seen at the range who are beyond ignorant. If the “well regulated” in the 2nd Amendment simply means “proficient”, as many gun rights activists claim, then there’s even a constitutional basis to expect that gun owners will be educated.

This article covered assault weapons specifically, but I still believe wholeheartedly that the much broader problem with gun violence requires us to heavily fund mental healthcare in this country, and with deep pockets. A majority of all gun deaths are still suicides, or murder-suicides. While we must do something to prevent the string of massacres we’ve seen with assault rifles over the past few years, we’d be sorely mistaken not to address the grave mental health problem in our country. This is a separate issue from domestic terrorism, but is definitely where this discussion needs to go.

We will be happy to hear your thoughts

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