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Machine gun, AKA Full Auto or FA for short Short Barreled Rifles, SBR rifles with a barrel(s) less then 16 Short Barreled Shotguns, SBS shotguns with barrel(s) less then 18 Suppressors, AKA Silencers Destructive Devices, DD things like grenades, bombs, bores over 0.50 Any Other Weapon, AOW this is any firearm that does not fit above. Most common are pen guns and pistol shaped shotguns (smooth bore pistol)
Are NFA items legal?
By Federal law NFA items are legal but require proper registration and tax. You will need to check your state laws to find out if the NFA item you want is legal in your state. Some states will allow some items but not others. Here is a link to the state laws from the ATF website: http://www.atf.gov/firearms/statelaws/
In the rest of this post when I talk about legal definition they are based on FEDERAL law, which may not reflect your state law.
How can you get an NFA item?
If you want an NFA item you have 2 choices. You can either buy one or make one.
Most popular way to get an NFA item is to buy one. The normal procedure for buying a NFA item is to find a local NFA dealer that can help you since in most cases you will have to have them transfer the item anyhow. If you are buying a used NFA item IN state no dealer is required but you will still have to fill out all the paperwork and pay the transfer tax.
Once you have the item you want picked out and a dealer that will transfer it for you (if needed) you pay for your item. If it is an item the dealer has in stock you fill out a Form 4 (transfer of NFA item for private users). You can either do the Form 4 as a person or as an entity being a LLC or a Trust. If you fill it out as a person you will need to also get 2 sets of finger prints, 2 passport photos, and a signature from the head LEO where you live. If you use a LLC or Trust you and the dealer just need to sign. Once the Form 4 is filled out you mail it along with payment for the tax to the ATF. Wait time for the Form 4 varies but in recent times it is normally between 30 and 90 days. Once the approved Form 4 comes back you can pick up your item.
If you are buying an item from out of state or having your dealer order item the procedure is basically the same other then the wait is going to be longer. If the item is not in stock it will need to be transferred from the current owner to the NFA dealer. This usually takes 1-4 weeks.
If you choose to build your own NFA item it is similar to doing a transfer but happens a bit different. To build a NFA item you fill out a Form 1 (making NFA item) with the description of the item you want to build. The rest of the Form 1 is filled out in the same manner and mailed just like the Form 4. You do not need a dealer involved to do a Form 1. You cannot build your item until the Form 1 comes back approved. Wait time is the same as for a Form 4.
How much is the tax?
For all making or transfer of NFA items the tax is $200 per item. If you do 5 items even if at the same time it is $200 per item. The only exception for this is on the transfer of AOW, which is $5. Making an AOW is still $200.
How much and how hard is the paperwork?
If you have a CCW in your state or at least can pass that background check you can get an NFA item.
As for paperwork there is very little. Have you filled out a 4473 when buying a gun from a dealer? Well this is no harder. In most cases the dealer will have it filled out and all you have to do is sign. If you have to fill it out then there are electronic forms that you fill out on line and print as a PDF file. It takes about 5 minutes.
Special note about Machine guns.
While it is still legal to build NFA items it is illegal to build new machine guns for non-government/export use.
Transferable. These guns were made AND registered prior to May 19,1986. These are the guns on the open market and are legal for sale and use by anyone. Since there are a limited number of these guns, estimated at just under 200,000, they command a premium price. For price it is not out of line for these guns to command 10-20 times the amount of the semi auto version.
Pre Dealer Samples. These are guns that can only be owned by dealers. These guns were also cut off in May of 1986. When a dealer gives up his SOT license (NFA Dealer) he can still legally keep these guns. Prices of these are about 75% of what transferable guns cost.
Post Dealer Samples. These are guns made after May of 1986. Dealers only can only get these guns if they have a letter from a qualified buyer stating they want to buy or demo the gun. Cost is about the same as the semi auto version.
When it comes to Machine guns there are also 2 types. Ones that uses registered receivers and ones that use registered parts.
With registered receivers (RR) what you have is pretty much what you get. Some guns are more flexible then others. With a RR FAL, what you have is an FAL and that is it. If you have a RR M-16 you are stuck with an AR lower but you can swap uppers and have many calibers.
Some have registered parts like the bolt or a sear. Some of the more common sear guns are the HKs like the 91, 93, 94, ect. You can use your registered sear in any gun that it will fit in legally. So you could go out and buy a new one (or as new as you can get) and put your sear in it and fire FA, then pull it out and have a legal rifle again. Or if you buddy has a nice HK 94 that you wanted to try in FA you can legally drop your sear in it and have fun for the afternoon.
Is it an AOW or an SBS?
This is one of the biggest confusions about shotguns. What it is labeled will depend on how it was made. If it has EVER had a stock on it the gun has to be a SBS. If the gun has NEVER had a stock it would be an AOW, but could be made an SBS by adding a stock. Can an AOW and SBS look the same? Yes they can, but not always, so the only way to tell on some guns is to look at the NFA paperwork for the gun and see what it is labeled.
Most of the popular pistol sized/shaped shotguns are AOWs made from guns like the Mossbergs or the Remingtons that come with pistol grips and not stocks on them. But again since a pistol sized/shaped shotgun CAN be made from a shotgun that has a stock on it the label would NOT be AOW if it EVER had a stock, it would have to be a SBS.
Is one better then the other? If you want a short shotgun with a stock you have to have SBS. Some states do not allow all classes you may be legal to own an AOW vs SBS or the other way around. There is also only a $5 transfer on AOW vs $200 for the others.