By Dan Shea

(Written 19 May, 2014)

“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.” -- President Ronald Reagan

It was 19 May, 1986 - In a very different United States: Ronald Reagan had America back on its way to strength because it was “Morning in America.” There was no World Wide Web, the Internet was just a big thought in a small group of minds… fax trees were just starting up and wouldn’t really affect anything until the 1992 Presidential elections… communications that were not part of the big picture for the media were done by word of mouth and U.S. Mail.

MACs cost only hundreds of dollars, so did M16s. HK machine guns were the expensive ones at $700, and there were virtually no factory parts for them. Machine gun collectors gathered at small shoots around the country, and were basically ostracized by the rest of the firearms community; the crazy old uncle you tried to not introduce to anyone you cared about. ATF ran rampant and harassed gun dealers and owners at many levels. To buy ammunition, well, you had to register in a book dealers kept and show ID.

The FOPA (the Firearms Owners Protection Act), as it was named by Congress, was passed, signed by President Reagan and became law on 19 May, 1986. It’s often described as the only Act of Congress passed specifically to protect the public from a government agency, and ATF institutionally will never use the FOPA title.

There were some great things in the law: the right to travel unmolested through areas that had onerous firearms laws, as long as you were legal at your start and finish and kept the firearms locked up, was a huge deal. Travelers lived in fear of local laws, and were in fact jailed. Second, we won the first “give back” on a firearms law that anyone could remember - the silly ammunition record books had been proven to be pointless, having helped solved no crimes and only been used to annoy and impede ownership. We got rid of that 1968 dinosaur, yet, many of us realized that in a lot of ways it was a Paperwork Reduction Act thing to save trees in the eyes of Congress, more than a victory for us. Typical.

ATF was forbidden to harass gun dealers by having multiple inspections in one year; only one was allowed unless there were special problems found. There were many allegations that ATF was targeting firearms dealers and harassing them with frequent “Compliance” inspections for the purpose of wasting so much time the dealer went out of business. The government was also forbidden to create registries of Title I firearms, not that this has stopped them from trying. Much has been written about the treachery of the Hatch Amendment, banning the further manufacture of machine guns for private ownership. Most is pretty accurate, some a bit hysterical, some glosses it over. Basically, at the last possible second, machine gun owners were tossed under the bus by the regular firearms owners and there’s still a lot of resentment on that count. Absolutely unconstitutional, but it stands as the law until fully, properly challenged.

So today, 28 years later, where are we?

Machine gun values have skyrocketed due to the artificially created tight supply of pre-1986 registered machine guns, and the popularity driven by the Internet. Owning NFA firearms is almost expected in most areas, or at least “Black Rifle” ownership is. The old way of doing business - having a store, going to gun shows and showing your customers the machine guns they can buy, has gone away. The vast majority of sales are done online, and the few remaining of the large old MG dealers have gone online or been replaced by a new generation of NFA dealers that usually function without a store, and work entirely online. The arcane rules and regulations that were understood by few, have been parsed so many times on the Internet, and get-arounds figured by outhouse lawyers dispensing advice, that it seems like we have a flushing of deluded dealers/collectors about every 18 months or so. Meaning, someone thinks they have a loophole, they use it for a while, then it gets promoted online, lots of people do it, and finally it gets enough traction that the government stomps on it.

Now, we dealers are restricted to one “dealer sales sample” of a model due to the massive abuse in 1998-99. It’s also now almost impossible to do minor, sensible changes to firearms because a small group set up a wholesale operation to turn cheap MACs into expensive, rare machine guns by simply moving the serial number onto newly made receivers- read that “contraband ones.”

We’ve come close to having an Amnesty several times, but it always gets killed by politics - a change in President, a change in focus at ATF; simple things stop us from getting our rights back. Most of us want to go back to pre-1986, or pre-1968, or pre-1934. However, we never get the funds, the opportunity, or the momentum to drive it. We seem destined to fight for little things, to stop one out of ten of the “Death by a thousand cuts” that we face.

I’m personally not encouraged by the signs I see politically and in the courts - at least not for a major sea change. I still don’t think of NFA Firearms as an “investment” even though they have enriched many with their increasing values: they are a speculation if you want to make money. I still feel the way I always have: buy them because you want them and can afford them and if the value drops you have something you wanted anyway and if it goes up, you’re pleasantly surprised (or your heirs are, at least).

That is not a reason for not continually working hard for change, but as noted by many old soldiers; “Hope is not a Plan.” We can’t just sit and hope that things will change, we have to plan, and work for it.


This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V18N5 (October 2014)
and was posted online on July 18, 2014


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