So you want to buy a machine gun.

Since I’m a lawyer and a gun enthusiast, I occasionally field questions like “Can I buy a machine gun?” or “Are silencers legal?” from friends and family members. And like so many other questions, the answer is almost always “Maybe.”

Federal law prohibits certain individuals from possessing any firearms (under the applicable laws, a silencer counts as a firearm by itself, which is linguistically and logically silly). The list includes felons, fugitives, illegal drug users, those who have been convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence, and those under certain restraining orders. For the whole rogue’s gallery, see 18 U.S.C. § 922(g). States have similar prohibitions against certain people possessing firearms. And individual states may also regulate gun ownership for those who aren’t prohibited outright from owning guns. For example, New York bans the possession of machine guns but allows other guns. In Massachusetts, would-be gun owners must complete a licensing process. On the other hand, some states take a much more permissive view of gun ownership. I happen to live in a free state, and I’m most familiar with Louisiana law, so I’ll focus on it.

Louisiana law does not require a state permit for anyone to acquire or possess a rifle, shotgun, or handgun.  Certain people are still prohibited from possessing firearms, but those who aren’t are free to buy as many guns as they want without state intervention. Louisiana does not prohibit the possession of any NFA weapons—i.e., machine guns, silencers, and a few other weapon types most people don’t know to ask me about—but it does require the registration of such weapons. See La. R.S. 40:1783. Those weapons are called “NFA weapons” because they are regulated by the National Firearms Act of 1934 (“NFA”). The NFA provides the laws for registering, transferring, and taxing certain weapons. All such weapons must (already) be registered in the National Firearms Transfer Record, which is maintained by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (“BATFE”). There is no provision for adding an existing weapon in the registry, and the possession of an unregistered weapon is a serious crime.

Every time an NFA weapon is transferred to a consumer, someone has to pay a $200 transfer tax. Before the transfer can be completed, the parties must complete ATF Form 4. The form itself is fairly straightforward, but there are several potential road bumps, like providing the transferee’s photograph and fingerprints and getting the blessing of the transferee’s local chief law enforcement officer. Unfortunately, some chief law enforcement officers flatly refuse to sign off on Form 4s, and there’s nothing that can be done to make them. Those requirements can be avoided with the right legal moves, like setting up what’s commonly called an “NFA trust” or other legal entity to own the weapon instead of an individual. Anyone hoping to set up such an entity should contact an attorney familiar with the NFA and other gun laws before trying to buy an NFA weapon.

Once the paperwork is approved and the tax is paid, the transferee is free to deliver the NFA weapon to the transferor. Huzzah! Right? Yes, but the proud owner of a shiny new NFA weapon (more likely a used one since the supply of machine guns available to consumers was capped in 1986 by the misleadingly named Firearm Owners Protection Act, but that’s another post) must spend some time learning about the laws governing his new toy. For example, there are special rules requiring owners to report lost or stolen NFA firearms or registration documents to the BATFE. Some NFA weapons cannot be transported across state lines without the prior written approval of the BATFE. Knowing the rules is critically important because violating them can result in criminal charges, catastrophic fines, and forfeiture of the weapon. The BATFE offers its NFA Handbook online, and it’s a very useful tool. It covers a lot of the relevant law and provides a good overview of the subject matter. And that’s probably the only nice thing I’ll ever write about the BATFE.

So to answer the questions that sparked this post, yes, some people can own machine guns and silencers in Louisiana. Ownership comes with a lot of paperwork and other hassles. The rules are strict, and failure to abide by them can be incredibly dangerous and expensive. Anyone considering buying a machine gun or a silencer should think long and hard, get good advice from an attorney or an experienced NFA dealer, and be very careful.

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