The National Firearms Act (NFA) was originally enacted in 1934.  26 U.S.C. § 5801 et seq.; 73 P. L. No. 474; 48 Stat. 1236. Similar to the current NFA, the original Act imposed a tax on the making and transfer of firearms defined by the Act, as well as a special (occupational) tax on persons and entities engaged in the business of importing, manufacturing, and dealing in NFA firearms. The law also required the registration of all NFA firearms with the Secretary of the Treasury. Firearms subject to the 1934 Act included shotguns and rifles having barrels less than 18 inches in length, certain firearms described as “any other weapons,” machineguns, and firearm mufflers and silencers.

While the NFA was enacted by Congress as an exercise of its authority to tax, the NFA had an underlying purpose unrelated to revenue collection. As the legislative history of the law discloses, its underlying purpose was to curtail, if not prohibit, transactions in NFA firearms. Congress found these firearms to pose a significant crime problem because of their frequent use in crime, particularly the gangland crimes of that era such as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. The $200 making and transfer taxes on most NFA firearms were considered quite severe and adequate to carry out Congress’ purpose to discourage or eliminate transactions in these firearms. The $200 tax has not changed since 1934.

As structured in 1934, the NFA imposed a duty on persons transferring NFA firearms, as well as mere possessors of unregistered firearms, to register them with the Secretary of the Treasury. If the possessor of an unregistered firearm applied to register the firearm as required by the NFA, the Treasury Department could supply information to State authorities about the registrant’s possession of the firearm. State authorities could then use the information to prosecute the person whose possession violated State laws. For these reasons, the Supreme Court in 1968 held in the Haynes case that a person prosecuted for possessing an unregistered NFA firearm had a valid defense to the prosecution — the registration requirement imposed on the possessor of an unregistered firearm violated the possessor’s privilege from self-incrimination under the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The Haynes decision made the 1934 Act virtually unenforceable.

Title II of the Gun Control Act (GCA) of 1968

Title II amended the NFA to cure the constitutional flaw pointed out in Haynes. First, the requirement for possessors of unregistered firearms to register was removed. Indeed, under the amended law, there is no mechanism for a possessor to register an unregistered NFA firearm already possessed by the person. Second, a provision was added to the law prohibiting the use of any information from an NFA application or registration as evidence against the person in a criminal proceeding with respect to a violation of law occurring prior to or concurrently with the filing of the application or registration. In 1971, the Supreme Court reexamined the NFA in the Freed case and found that the 1968 amendments cured the constitutional defect in the original NFA.

Title II also amended the NFA definitions of “firearm” by adding “destructive devices” and expanding the definition of “machinegun.”

Firearm Owners’ Protection Act

In 1986, this Act amended the NFA definition of “silencer” by adding combinations of parts for silencers and any part intended for use in the assembly or fabrication of a silencer. The Act also amended the GCA to prohibit the transfer or possession of machineguns. Exceptions were made for transfers of machineguns to, or possession of machineguns by, government agencies, and those lawfully possessed before the effective date of the prohibition, May 19, 1986.

The term “transfer” is broadly defined by the NFA to include “selling, assigning, pledging, leasing, loaning, giving away, or otherwise disposing of” an NFA firearm.165 The lawful transfer of an NFA firearm generally requires the filing of an appropriate transfer form with ATF, payment of any transfer tax imposed, approval of the form by ATF, and registration of the firearm to the transferee in the NFRTR. Approval must be obtained before a transfer may be made.  See Section 9.5 for a discussion of certain NFA transactions not considered by ATF to be “transfers.”
Section 9.2 Only previously registered firearms may be lawfully transferred. ATF will not approve the transfer of an NFA firearm unless it has been registered to the transferor in the NFRTR. NFA firearms may only be registered upon their lawful making, manufacture, or importation, or upon the transfer of firearms already registered. Generally, unregistered firearms may not be lawfully received, possessed, or transferred. They are contraband subject to seizure and forfeiture. Violators are also subject to criminal prosecution.

ATF Form 3.

Transfers by FFLs/SOTs to other FFLs/SOTs require the filing of ATF Forms 3, Application for Tax Exempt Transfer and Registration of a Firearm, to register firearms to the transferees.166

ATF Form 4. Forms 4, Application for Tax Paid Transfer and Registration of a Firearm, are for use in transferring serviceable NFA firearms in the following instances: transfers by non-FFLs/SOTs to other such persons; transfers by non-FFLs/SOTs to FFLs/SOTs; and transfers by FFLs/SOTs to non-FFLs/SOTs.167 Appendix C contains a copy of the form. See also Sections through These transfers are subject to the NFA transfer tax, so the forms must be accompanied by the appropriate tax payment. Forms 4 transferring firearms to individuals other than FFLs/SOTs must also be accompanied by transferees’ fingerprints and photographs on FBI Forms FD-258. If the individual’s receipt or possession of the firearm would violate Federal, State, or local law, the form would be disapproved. In addition, an individual transferee must have an appropriate law enforcement official execute the certification on the form.

Forms 4 must be approved by ATF before the transfers may be made. The completed Form 4, in duplicate, with fingerprint cards, photographs of the transferee, and payment of the applicable transfer tax should be mailed to:

National Firearms Act Branch
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives
P.O. Box 530298
Atlanta, GA 30353-0298

Payment of the transfer tax is to be in the form of a check or money order payable to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.