You thought machine guns were illegal.
It is generally believed that owning machine guns, silencers (properly referred to as sound suppressors), and other exotic weaponry is illegal, requires a license (or a Class 3 license), etc. While the validity of the these statements may vary from state to state, it is not categorically true. In Florida (where we are licensed to do business), none of it is true and there are in fact no state restrictions on the ownership of these weapons (except that ownership must comply with the provisions of Federal Law).
If you live in a state other than Florida, please see the State by State chart of NFA Restrictions and a whole assortment of rules and regulations here for full details. This information was reproduced with permission from James Bardwell’s excellent “FAQ on NFA Weapons”. If after reviewing the State by State chart of NFA Restrictions you find that your state regulates ownership of one or more types of firearms, you will need to check with your local District Attorney or other qualified individual to see what the criteria of ownership are.
If you live in Florida or one of the other many states that leaves the regulation of NFA weapons to the Feds, then all you need to know follows:
Under the provisions of Federal Law, anyone over the age of 21 who is not prohibited from owning a firearm may own NFA weapons including (but not limited to): machine guns, sound suppressors (commonly referred to as silencers), short barreled rifles and shotguns, an esoteric type of weapon classed as an “Any Other Weapon”, and destructive devices. The requirements to own are simple.
To purchase a NFA firearm, you must complete an ATF Form 4 – “Application for Tax Paid Transfer and Registration of Firearm.” Typically your dealer will provide this form to you partially completed and you will fill in the rest. An electronic version of the form is available from the “ATF Forms” section on the upper header line. The Form 4 is really nothing terribly complicated. It essentially identifies who the weapon is being transferred to, who it is being transferred from, a description of the firearm with serial number, and a section for the Chief Law Enforcement Officer (CLEO) certification. It is submitted to the ATF in duplicate with fingerprints, a photograph, and the appropriate transfer tax ($200 for most weapons, $5 for “Any Other Weapons” – see the other sections of the site for descriptions of each.) It is the CLEO certification that is the stumbling block in many localities.
The CLEO Signoff
The CLEO certification section reads:
“I certify that I am the chief law enforcement officer of the organization named below having jurisdiction in the area of residence of (your name here). I have no information indicating that the transferee will use the firearm or device described on this application for other than lawful purposes. I have no information that the receipt and/or possession of the firearm described in item 4 of this form would place the transferee in violation of State or local law.”
The general idea of the “CLEO signoff” (as it is most commonly referred to) was that the local Sheriff or Chief of Police would know whether or not possession of certain types of firearm was legal in your area, and also whether or not you were currently in trouble with the law. In many jurisdictions what it has turned into is a tool for local law enforcement to prohibit the ownership of these firearms (or at least make it more difficult). Signing the form by the law enforcement person is entirely voluntary. If they are anti gun then they will not sign it.
The best course of action is to obtain the partially completed Form 4 from your dealer, fill in the remaining information, and then make an appointment to see your County Sheriff or Chief of Police. Generally it is best to go in person and while you don’t have to wear your Sunday best, appearance is important. Be prepared to discuss why you want the item. One of the best reasons is investment. Briefly (there is more detail in the machine gun section of this site) machine guns seem to be steadily rising in value due to the fact that their numbers are limited by a manufacturing ban imposed in May of 1986. Any machine guns manufactured after 1986 can only be possessed by dealers and law enforcement/military. Since no more machine guns may be made for civilian ownership, supply is limited while demand continues to expand. Given this fixed supply and increasing demand, many people look at machine guns as collectible investments. Some CLEO’s may object to signing for fear of liability. There has only ever been one case where a registered machine gun was used to commit a crime. Oddly enough the perpetrator was an off duty police officer. In the court case Searcy vs. Dayton, it was found that the CLEO incurred no liability by signing the form.
If your Sheriff or Chief of Police refuses to sign, there are other qualified individuals whose signatures are acceptable to the BATF. Those are: the District Attorney, head of the Highway Patrol, judges who preside over criminal cases in your area, and possibly others. Generally any law enforcement agency or criminal (as opposed to civil) judge who has authority over your place of residence should be acceptable to the BATF. If you have tried every person you can think of and still can’t get a signature, then you have other options. Incorporate. A corporation can buy a gun without a signature. But you must sell the gun before the corporation dissolves. It, not you own the gun.
Only “individuals” are required by law to have the law enforcement certification section filled out. Corporations and other legal entities may purchase NFA items without submitting photographs, fingerprints, and without the CLEO signoff. This exemption is frequently used by those who are unable to obtain a CLEO signoff in their area. Many people are already an officer of a corporation by virtue of being self- employed and therefore purchase the NFA item through their corporation as a business investment. Others will form a corporation for the express purpose of purchasing NFA items. Forming a corporation is easier than you may think. While you can do it yourself, for a very modest sum of money, you can have a professional do it for you. A Trust can own the gun for you as well, see here.
Lastly, you can purchase machine guns by turning your hobby into a small business. Getting a dealers license, an FFL, is just paperwork. As long as your business is a sole proprietor and not a corporation, you can keep any guns not sold after you go out of business. This is true for guns made before May 19, 1986, pre-1986 guns. This is 99% of the guns we deal with. The only slight difficulty here it that your business location must be zoned as a business location. There are some limitations here as well. For example, some locations may be business zoned but limited to a particular type of business, like medical offices for example. You need a business location that allows for firearm sales.