By Dan Shea

Since the close of the poorly advertised and little-known (at the time) 30-day “Amnesty” in 1968, there have been movements to have another one. It’s been over 40 years since then, and the language is still in the law that the Director may call for additional amnesty periods as the ATF sees fit, each period to not exceed 90 days.

There have been periods in the past where it has seemed close and I have personally worked on this for most of my adult life - in one form or another. At first with stars in my eyes thinking that just because it’s the right thing to do for all the Americans, veterans and collectors alike, who never knew about the Amnesty, or were afraid it meant confiscation, that it would happen. In the last 25 years my understanding grew significantly, and what is possible and what is just plain unlikely under any law became a lot clearer to myself and other knowledgeable people involved.

There isn’t space here to go into all aspects of this, but the one thing that has stood out to almost all involved, is that there is not a likelihood of an Amnesty covering every illegal, unregistered Sten tube or drop in sear someone hacksawed since 1968, or of any potential Amnesty allowing for opportunities to register massive quantities of new transferables. Wishful thinking aside, it is a very difficult case to make.

The case for an Amnesty that is difficult to deny, is that any NFA type firearm that could have been registered by 30 November, 1968, deserves to be added to the NFRTR as transferable. This is due to the fact that these were in existence in the United States at the time, and that the original period was far too short and not very well known. The fast cut-off date left many of these veteran bringbacks and family heirlooms at peril, and their owners facing felony counts. People are terrified of being arrested, so these firearms stay in attics, or underground, with all involved facing possible felony charges: simply because Grandpa didn’t register his MP40 or Maxim.

Almost everyone involved agrees that an Amnesty of pre 30 November 1968 NFA items is the right thing to do. The case against an Amnesty is now focused on the belief of some that 18 U.S.C. §922(o), the law from 1986 that banned putting any more machine guns into the NFRTR, thus the “Amnesty” language was over-ridden. Well, that’s not how our laws work. If Congress removes a section of law, which is what the 1968 GCA is, it usually removes it or specifically references that it is over-ridden. It is the opinion of almost all that the Director, or his modern equivalent, still has the authority to call for an Amnesty of up to 90 days.

Why should anyone other than collectors be concerned? It’s not just about saving some old guns; it’s about the legal jeopardy that the government placed many Americans in back then. ATF’s own estimate at the time was that 10 times as many machine guns did not get registered as did, due to either simply not knowing about the Amnesty, or distrust of a government registration scheme. That in no way infers that a massive influx of machine guns would appear in the NFRTR: what it does indicate is the size of the problem that still exists. Many otherwise innocent Americans are left in legal jeopardy due to this 40 year-old incident. A legally called for Amnesty period of 90 days, well advertised, and properly conducted, allowing for the registration of any NFA type firearm that could have been registered before 30 November, 1968, is the proper solution. It would not place any current court cases in jeopardy, from most accounts, because these firearms are extremely unlikely to be used in crimes - other than by simply existing outside of the NFRTR.

It might surprise some to learn that this has been worked on heavily by many people inside the ATF, who see this problem. The other people involved on negotiating an Amnesty are the members of the NFATCA who have been quietly working this issue for years, attorney Jason Wong, the people here at SAR, and numerous others I don’t have space here to acknowledge and thank.

How can you help? Join the NFATCA for one, and second, don’t contribute to any panic or wild public speculation. We haven’t been discussing this too openly because IT HAS NOT HAPPENED YET. What I mean, is that more harm can be done to everyone’s hard work by wild Internet speculation than can be imagined. This is a long, slow process that has delicate balances and diverse interests. In many ways, this is a gun control action in the interest of anti-firearms people - to get these guns registered and controlled. On the other hand, those same people might oppose an Amnesty for reasons of their belief that these guns should not be legitimized.

It is NOT a time for action; it is still time for negotiation in a long, difficult, tangled situation.

If you are a collector, you might have the initial thought that “What will happen to the value of my firearms.” There won’t be that many cherry 1921 Colt Thompsons or Brass Maxims that enter the NFRTR, values will find their own level quickly after people realize that. Rather, consider the relief of many Americans when they no longer have to worry about whether they are guilty of a felony or not, and... in the spirit of enlightened self-interest, what new wonders might turn up for you to add to your collection.

- Dan

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V13N3 (December 2009)
and was posted online on May 18, 2012


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