When one begins to take up an interest in firearm ownership, one of the first laws to understand is the National Firearms Act of 1934 (NFA). In my personal experience, when explaining the basics of firearms to someone, I always face significant confusion on the subject of the NFA because of its convoluted nature. The whole matter is so complex that an average person can’t make heads or tails of it. Furthermore, the entire interpretation of the law could change at a moment’s notice, given the ATF’s inability to maintain a consistent opinion on what is legal, and what is a felony. In order to shed light on why this ridiculous law exists, Well Regulated is beginning a six-part series detailing the hearings held by the Committee on Ways and Means in the House of Representatives over 86 years ago. The entirety of the transcript is available for free online and will be the basis for this series.
My personal desire to more closely examine the hearings held on the NFA was spawned by a video produced by T-Rex Arms, a shooting equipment company, on the subject of suppressors. In the video, Isaac Botkin discussed the history of the NFA as well as the practical usage of suppressors, suppressor technology, etc. While certainly not extensive, the presentation was a jumping-off point to begin research on the subject. On the first page of search results for “NFA hearings” was a 2004 article by keepandbeararms.com on the testimony of the President of the NRA on the subject of the NFA. The statements made were so infuriating and outrageous that they were almost unbelievable, and a proper analysis of the full transcript was clearly necessary. This series is that analysis, and will hopefully help to better inform the reader on not only this law but on the nature of gun control.
The first part of this series is primarily descriptive, with minimal commentary on the context of the bill as it was presented to the Committee on Ways and Means. Congressional representatives heard testimony on the NFA over the course of five days, April 16, 18, and May 14, 15, 16 – it is this testimony that will be analyzed thoroughly going forward. Purportedly, the purpose of this law was to stop the crime wave faced by America during the Great Depression. Criminals such as John Dillinger made use of every available development in firearms technology to get an edge over law enforcement, just as criminals do today. It was these gangsters’ use of firearms such as the Thompson submachine gun which provided justification to seize unprecedented power for the federal government. If nothing else, this series will show that ultimately, the political struggles we face are not new. Our most fundamental right was trampled upon, out in the open, all in the name of “public safety” just as it is today.
Members of the Committee on Ways and Means
Robert L. Douohton (NC-D) Chairman
Samuel B. Hill (WA-D)
Thomas H. Cullen (NY-D)
Christopher D. Sullivan (NY-D)
Morgan G. Sanders (TX-D)
John W. McCormack (MA-D)
Clement C. Dickinson (MO-D)
David J. Lewis (MD-D)
Fred M. Vinson (KY-D)
Jere Cooper (TN-D)
Ashton C. Shallenberger (NE-D)
Charles F. West (OH-D)
John W. Boehne Jr. (IN-D)
James V. McClintic (OK-D)
Claude A. Fuller (AR-D)
Allen T. Treadway (MA-R)
Isaac Bacharach (NJ-R)
Frank Crowther (NY-R)
James A. Frear (WI-R)
Harold Knutson (MN-R)
Daniel A. Reed (NY-R)
Roy O. Woodruff (MI-R)
Thomas A. Jenkins (OH-R)
William E. Evans (CA-R)
Thomas C. Cochran (PA-R)
The following is the text of H.R. 9066 as it appeared in front of the Committee on Ways and Means in 1934. Some sections have been annotated to provide additional information or context which may be useful to the reader. These annotations are in bold so as not to be confused with the text of the bill.
A BILL To provide for the taxation of manufacturers, importers, and dealers in small firearms and machine guns, to tax the sale or other disposal of such weapons, and to restrict importation and regulate interstate importation thereof.
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That for the purposes of this act the term “firearm” means a pistol, revolver, shotgun having a barrel less than sixteen inches in length, or any other firearm capable of being concealed on the person, a muffler or silencer therefore, or a machine gun.
Currently, handguns are not regulated by the NFA, however, federal law does mandate a minimum age and background check to purchase a handgun from a dealer. The bill did not regulate rifle barrel length, but restrictions on the length of a rifle barrel would later be included, and is currently regulated by the NFA. The Supreme Court ruled in US v. Miller (1939) that short barrel shotguns were not protected by the Second Amendment. This decision was referenced by the majority opinion in Heller v. DC (2008) which also ruled that handguns are protected by the Second Amendment. Handguns were considered to be “the quintessential self-defense weapon” with the right to self-defense being the core of the Second Amendment.
The term “machine gun” means any weapon designed to shoot automatically or semiautomatically twelve or more shots without reloading.
Machine guns are currently defined as:
“Any weapon which shoots, is designed to shoot, or can be readily restored to shoot, automatically more than one shot without manual reloading, by a single function of the trigger.”
This definition is fundamentally different from that used in the bill originally, as it refers solely to the function of the firearm. Many semi-automatic firearms were in production at the time, but their limited capacity would have excluded them from the definition of a machine gun. Additionally, any fully-automatic firearm with a lower magazine capacity would be exempt from regulation, a point which was raised in the testimony of Attorney General Cummings (this will be addressed in a future installment).
The term “person” includes a partnership, company, association, or corporation, as well as a natural person.
The term “continental United States” means the States of the United States and the District of Columbia.
The term “importer” means any person who imports or brings firearms into the continental United States, for sale.
The term “manufacturer” means any person who Is engaged within the continental United States in the manufacture of firearms, or who otherwise produces therein any firearm for sale or disposition.
The term “dealer” means any person not a manufacturer or importer engaged within the continental United States in the business of selling firearms. The term “dealer” shall include pawnbrokers and dealers in used firearms.
The term “interstate commerce” means transportation from any State or Territory or District, or any insular possession of the United States (including the Philippine Islands), to any other State or Territory or District, or any Insular possession of the United States (including the Philippine Islands).
SEC. 2. (a) Within fifteen days after the effective date of this act, or upon first engaging in business, and thereafter on or before the 1st day of July of each year, every importer, manufacturer, and dealer in firearms shall register with the collector of internal revenue for each district in which such business is to be carried on his name or style, principal place of business, and places of business in such district, and pay a special tax at the following rates: Importers or manufacturers, $ [BLANK] a year; dealers, $ [BLANK] a year. Where the tax is payable on the 1st day of July in any year it shall be computed for one year; where the tax is payable on any other day it shall be computed proportionately from the 1st day of the month in which the liability to the tax accrued to the 1st day of July following.
The cost of the tax was not set in the bill originally. Determining how much the federal government would charge was an issue raised during the hearings.
(b) It shall be unlawful for any person required to register under the provisions of this section to import, manufacture, or deal in firearms without having registered and paid the tax imposed by this section.
(c) All laws (including penalties) relating to the assessment, collection, remission, and refund of special taxes, so far as applicable to and not inconsistent with the provisions of this act, are extended and made applicable to the taxes imposed by this section.
SEC 3. (a) There shall be levied, collected, and paid upon firearms sold, assigned, transferred, given away, or otherwise disposed of in the continental United States a tax at the rate of $ [BLANK] per machine gun and $ [BLANK] per other firearm, such tax to be paid by the person so disposing thereof, and to be represented by appropriate stamps to be provided by the Commissioner of Internal Revenue, with the approval of the Secretary of the Treasury; and the stamps herein provided shall be affixed to the order for such firearm, hereinafter provided for. The tax imposed by this section shall be in addition to any import duty imposed on such firearm.
(b) All provisions of law (including penalties) applicable with respect to the taxes imposed by section 800 of the Revenue Act of 1926 (U.S.C., Supp. VII, title 26, see. 900) shall, insofar as not inconsistent with the provisions of this act, bo applicable with respect to the taxes imposed by this section.
SEC. 4. (a) It shall be unlawful for any person to sell, assign, transfer, give away, or otherwise dispose of any firearm except in pursuance of a written order from the person seeking to obtain such article, on an application form issued in blank for that purpose by the Commissioner of Internal Revenue. Such order shall identify the applicant by his name, address, fingerprints, photograph, and such other means of identification as may be prescribed by regulations under this act. If the applicant is other than an individual, such application shall be made by an executive officer thereof.
(b) Every person disposing of any firearm shall set forth in each copy of such order the manufacturer’s number or other mark identifying such firearm, and shall forward a copy of such order to the Commissioner of Internal Revenue. The original thereof, with stamps affixed, shall be returned to the applicant.
(c) No person shall sell, assign, transfer, give away, or otherwise dispose of a firearm which has previously been so disposed of (on or after the effective date of this act) unless such person, in addition to complying with subsection (b), transfers therewith the stamp-affixed order provided for in this section, for each such prior disposal, and complies with such other rules and regulations as may be imposed by the Commissioner of Internal Revenue, with the approval of the Secretary of the Treasury, for proof of payment of all taxes on such firearm.
SEC. 5. It shall be unlawful for any person to receive or possess any firearm which has at any time been disposed of in violation of section 3 or 4 of this act.
SEC. 6. Any firearm which has at any time been disposed of in violation of the provisions of this act shall be subject to seizure and forfeiture, and all the provisions of internal-revenue laws relating to searches, seizures, and forfeiture of unstamped articles are extended to and made to apply to the articles taxed under this act, and the persons upon whom these taxes are imposed.
SEC 7. Each manufacturer and Importer of a firearm shall identify it with a number of other identification mark approved by the Commissioner of Internal Revenue, such number or mark to be stamped or otherwise placed thereon In a manner approved by such Commissioner.
SEC 8. Importers, manufacturers, and dealers shall keep such books and records and render such returns in relation to the transactions In firearms specified in this act as the Commissioner of Internal Revenue, with the approval of the Secretary of the Treasury, may by regulations require.
SEC 9. (a) No firearms shall be imported or brought into the United States or any territory under its control or jurisdiction (including the Philippine Islands), except that, under regulations prescribed by the Secretary of the Treasury, any firearm may be so imported or brought in when
(1) the purpose thereof is shown to be lawful and
(2) such firearm is unique or of a type which cannot be obtained within the United States or such territory.
Current federal law heavily restricts the importation of so called “non-sporting” firearms into the United States. This is despite the Supreme Court’s decision that the core of the Second Amendment is the right to self-defense, not “sport”.
(b) It shall be unlawful
(1) fraudulently or knowingly to import or bring any firearms into the United States or any territory under its control or jurisdiction in violation of the provisions of this act; or (2) knowingly to assist in so doing; or
(3) to receive, conceal, buy, sell, or in any manner facilitate the transportation, concealment, or sale of any such firearm after being imported or brought in. knowing the same to have been imported contrary to law. Whenever on trial for a violation of this section the defendant is shown to have or to have had possession of such imported firearm, such possession shall be deemed sufficient evidence to authorize conviction unless the defendant explains such possession to the satisfaction of the jury.
SEC 10. (a) It shall be unlawful for any person who has not first obtained a permit as hereinafter provided, to send, ship, carry, or deliver any firearm in interstate commerce. Nothing contained in this section shall apply—
(1) To any manufacturer, importer, or dealer who has complied with the provisions of section 2;
(2) To any person who has complied with the provisions of sections 3 and 4 in respect to the firearm so sent, shipped, carried, or delivered by him;
(3) To a common carrier in the ordinary course of its business as a common carrier;
(4) To an employee, acting within the scope of his employment, of any person not violating this section;
(5) To a person who has lawfully obtained a license for such firearm from the State, Territory, District, or possession to which such firearm is to be sent, shipped, carried, or delivered;
(6) To any united States, State, county, municipal. District, Territorial, or insular officer or official acting within the scope of his official duties.
(b) Application for such permit may be made to the Commissioner of Internal Revenue at Washington or to such officers at such places as he may designate by regulations to be prescribed by him, with the approval of the Secretary of the Treasury, for the Issuance of such permit. Such regulations shall provide for a written application containing the photograph and fingerprints of the applicant, or employee, the serial number and description of the firearm to be transported, and other information requested by the Commissioner of Internal Revenue or his agent.
(c) Such permits shall be issued upon payment of a fee of $ [BLANK], provided the Commissioner of Internal Revenue is satisfied that the proposed transaction is lawful.
(d) Any person found in possession of a firearm shall be presumed to have transported such firearm in interstate commerce contrary to the provisions hereof, unless such person has been a bona fide resident for a period of not less than sixty days of the State wherein he is found in possession of such firearm, or unless such person has in his possession a stamp-affixed order therefore required by this act. This presumption may be rebutted by competent evidence.
SEC. 11. The Commissioner of Internal Revenue, with the approval of the Secretary of the Treasury, shall make all needful rules and regulations for carrying the provisions of this act into effect.
SEC. 12. This act shall not apply to the sale, assignment, transfer, gift, or other disposal of firearms (1) to the United States Government, any State, Territory, or possession of the United States, or to any political subdivision thereof, or to the District of Columbia; (2) to any peace officer or any Federal officer designated by regulations of the Commissioner of Internal Revenue.
SEC. 13. Any person who violates or fails to comply with any of the requirements of this act shall, upon conviction, be fined not more than $ [BLANK]or be imprisoned for not more than [BLANK] years, or both, in the discretion of the court.
SEC. 14. The taxes imposed by paragraph (2) of section 600 of the Revenue Act of 1926 (U.S.C., Supp. VII, title 26, see. 1120) and by action 610 of the Revenue Act of 1932 (47 Stat. 169,264). shall not apply to any firearm on which the tax provided by section 3 of this act has been paid.
SEC. 16. If any provision of this act, or the application thereof to any person or circumstance, is held invalid, the remainder of the act, and the application of such provision to other persons or circumstances, shall not be affected thereby.
SEC. 16. This act shall take effect on the sixtieth day after the date of its enactment.
SEC. 17. This act may be cited as the “National Firearms Act.”