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Legally Armed: V21N4

By Teresa G. Ficaretta, Esq.

Short-Barrel Rifles and Short-Barrel Shotguns: Understanding Federal Regulations


Short-barrel rifles and short-barrel shotguns have been regulated under the National Firearms Act since 1934 and under the Gun Control Act since 1968. This article outlines the history of regulation of these weapons under federal law, the types of weapons subject to regulation under the statutory definitions and how to remove them from the scope of the National Firearms Act.

A. Statutory Background and History

During Prohibition, the rise of organized interstate crime led Americans for the first time to view crime as a national rather than a local problem. The Administration of then President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed a series of crime bills. One in particular would have regulated the sale and ownership of machineguns and concealable weapons, including handguns. The Roosevelt Administration included handguns in the proposed registration scheme under the logic that they are used in crime far more than other weapons. The bills encountered opposition from sportsmen and others who felt the federal government should not intrude into matters best left to the states. But a series of sensational kidnappings and machinegun battles between federal agents and public enemies in 1933 and 1934 increased public demand for federal action. Examples of the crimes in the news at this time include the Kansas City Massacre orchestrated by Pretty Boy Floyd; the kidnapping of St. Paul brewer William Hamm, Jr. by the Barker-Karpis gang; and the kidnapping of Oklahoma City oilman Charles Urschel by Machine Gun Kelly. However, the Administration’s firearms bill stalled in Congress until April 1934, when John Dillinger broke out of jail, robbed several banks and fought several machinegun battles with federal agents. Dillinger’s crimes caused a national furor, and Congress quickly passed the firearms bill known as the National Firearms Act (NFA), but only after handguns were dropped from the bill.

The NFA was enacted as part of the Internal Revenue Code, primarily because it would be a few more years before Congress discovered its authority to enact legislation under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. Congress was quite comfortable with its constitutional...

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V21N4 (May 2017)
and was posted online on March 17, 2017


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