3 minute read

National Firearms Act of (1934)

Further Readings

The first attempt at federal gun-control legislation, the National Firearms Act (NFA) only covered two specific types of guns: machine guns and short-barrel firearms, including sawed-off shotguns. It did not attempt to ban either weapon, but merely to impose a tax on any transfers of such weapons. Despite these limitations, it led to a precedent-setting U.S. Supreme Court decision.

In the 1930s, the United States faced a run of much-publicized gangster violence, led by such well-known criminals as John Dillinger, AL CAPONE, Baby Face Nelson, and Bonnie and Clyde. The sensationalistic aspect of their crimes convinced the administration of President FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT that something needed to be done to control the spread of weapons into the general population. U.S. Attorney General HOMER CUMMINGS and his staff began the process of drafting recommended legislation that would achieve this goal.

Cummings and his staff quickly determined that, rather than ban weapons and run afoul of the SECOND AMENDMENT, they would try to tax such weapons out of circulation. As originally proposed, the NFA covered a fairly broad range of weapons, but as passed by Congress, it's scope was narrowed to cover only "A shotgun or rifle having a barrel of less than eighteen inches in length, or any other weapon, except a pistol or revolver, from which a shot is discharged by an explosive if such weapon is capable of being concealed on the person, or a machine gun."

The statute levied a $200 tax on each firearm defined as above, for any transfer involving the firearm. The tax was to be paid by the transferor, and to be represented by appropriate stamps to be provided by the commissioner. It was declared unlawful for anyone to sell or receive a firearm in violation of this section, and they could be fined $2,000 and imprisoned for up to five years for violating it.

While the $200 tax does not seem like much in current dollars, it represented a very large amount in 1934—in many cases the tax was more than the cost of the firearm itself. The act also required dealers of the listed firearms to register with the federal government, and also required for firearms sold before the effective date of the act, that "every person possessing a firearm shall register, with the collector of the district in which he resides, the number or other mark identifying such firearm, together with his name, address, place where such firearm is usually kept, and place of business or employment, and, if such person is other than a natural person, the name and home address of an executive officer thereof."

The NFA did not inspire as much controversy in 1934 as gun-control acts do today, in part because of the general public perception that crime was out of control and in part because anti-gun-control groups such as the NATIONAL RIFLE ASSOCIATION (NRA) did not have nearly the strength or LOBBYING power they would later have. In fact, the NRA formed its legislative affairs division, a precursor to its powerful lobbying arm, in 1934 in belated response to the NFA. Nevertheless, the NFA did result in several lawsuits claiming the law was unconstitutional, one of which reached the Supreme Court.

In Miller v. United States, 307 U.S. 174, 59 S.Ct. 816, 83 L.Ed. 1206 (U.S.Ark. 1939), two men were charged with transferring a double barrel 12-gauge shotgun in violation of the NFA. A federal district court quashed the indictment, ruling that the NFA did indeed violate the Second Amendment. But the Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, disagreed.

Writing for the court, Justice JAMES MCREYNOLDS famously dismissed the defendants case with this statement: "the absence of any evidence tending to show that possession or use of a 'shotgun having a barrel of less than eighteen inches in length' at this time has some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia, we cannot say that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to keep and bear such an instrument." McReynolds added that "certainly it is not within JUDICIAL NOTICE that this weapon is any part of the ordinary military equipment or that its use could contribute to the common defense." He also noted that many states had adopted gun-control laws over the years.

The NFA is still in force, codified in amended form at 26 USCA § 5801 et. seq. As the first federal gun-control legislation, it set the stage for all other federal GUN CONTROL laws, and its legacy overshadows the scope of the law and the limited number of weapons to which it actually applied.


Second Amendment; Gun Control.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: National Environmental Policy Act of (1969) to Notice