There’s going to be a lot of discussion about gun control in the next few weeks. Most of the gun control debates are going to be over varying levels of trivia. The stock type of a rifle. How many rounds of ammunition a magazine can hold. The type of handle used for a rifle.
For the wealthy, this is all bread and circuses.
What I have yet to see in any gun control debate is a discussion on how the wealthy have access to a completely different level of firearms through “taxes”, careful application of the law, and very specific turning of phrases.
To start with, the act of purchasing a “civilian” firearm is fairly straightforward. You walk into a firearm store, pick a firearm, fill out the appropriate ATF form, and depending on whether you pass the background check, walk out the door 10 minutes later with your choice from the rack.
Fully automatic firearms and “specialty” firearms are a different matter, though.
For most people who are not familiar with firearms, a gun is a gun. However there is a very important distinction in firearms: whether they are semi-automatic or fully automatic.
The difference between a fully automatic and semi-automatic firearm is what happens when you pull the trigger. A semi-automatic firearm discharges once when you pull the trigger and that’s it. To make it fire again, you have to pull the trigger again. Those kinds of firearms are (mostly) legal for most individuals to own (pistols or rifles) under the current laws of the United States and sub-laws of the states themselves.
Fully automatic firearms are completely different. There’s a lever you can set on the side of a fully automatic firearm that lets you choose what happens when you pull the trigger. One setting matches the semi-automatics: one trigger pull equals one discharge. The other setting, the full-automatic one, will let the firearm continue to fire until you either release the trigger or the firearm depletes the ammunition it has access to. Ammunition will expend quickly, but the target will be perforated with bullets far more rapidly than any single trigger pull sequence could ever achieve.
No “regular” firearm store carries fully automatic firearms on their shelves. Fully automatic firearms are generally referred to as “machine guns”, and are (mostly) not straightforwardly legal to own as an individual.
Mostly doesn’t apply to the wealthy.
Let’s say Poor John Doe wants to buy a fully automatic firearm. Since he doesn’t have a lot of money, he’s out of luck. End of story. If he ever comes into ownership of a fully automatic firearm, he’s looking at spending a very long time at a not-so-friendly federal penitentiary.
Now if Rich John Doe wants to buy a fully automatic firearm, he starts off by visiting a “specialty” firearms dealer. This won’t be a Bass Pro or Cabela’s or Academy. This “specialty” store is a firearms store specifically up and running to sell fully automatic firearms and has passed a far more vigorous owner/employee screening process than any of the “civilian” hunting stores even want to think about. They’re called Class III FFL dealers (or a Class I with a Special Occupational Tax) that deal in something called NFA firearms. (The Bass Pro or Cabela’s or Academy stores are just Class I FFL dealers with no Special Occupational Tax. The “class” legalese strictly defines the types of firearms a store can sell.)
Now all RIch John Doe has to do is pay.
Pay an exorbitant upfront fee for the firearm itself (anywhere from $10,000 to $300,000), pay a special “tax” for owning the firearm, fill out a few dozen forms, apply (any pay again) for any extra “tax stamps” the firearm requires, get approval from both the ATF and the local chief law enforcement office, and finally send in photos and multiple forms of ID to everyone in the exchange.
All that is all just a matter of money and time. Rich John Doe has plenty of both.
Ah, but it gets better!
Let’s say Rich John Doe has a fully automatic firearm he really wants to share or pass on to someone before he dies. With all the legal red tape involved in fully automatic firearm ownership, Rich John Doe just can’t hand it to someone and say “here you go!”
But Rich John Doe does have a way out. All Rich John Doe has to do is go to his local neighborhood attorney’s office and set up a “trust”.
A trust is a legal setup to allow for “company” ownership among distributed individuals. Ideally, this would be reserved for boring company assets like cars and condos, but trusts also apply to firearms. This trust rule for firearms was intentionally written into the 1934 National Firearms Act and still applies today.
Back to Rich John Doe. Rich John Doe goes to his attorney and sets up a trust and calls it HAPPY BANANAS and adds his good friend Rich Bob Doe. In a few weeks, the trust is “established” legally. Nevermind Rich John Doe and Rich Bob Doe are the only two in this trust. That doesn’t matter. A trust is a trust, no matter how many individuals are in it. Trusts meet the legal definition of a person even though they aren’t.
Clear as mud yet?
Once HAPPY BANANAS is up and running and all the paperwork is cleared, Rich John Doe goes back to the dealer and the fully automatic firearm is ready for the TRUST to pick up. His TRUST pays for the firearm and the firearm is registered to his TRUST. Not him or Rich Bob Doe because the TRUST owns it. But Rich John Doe AND Rich Bob Doe can use the firearm anytime they want.
A trust can own most any kind of firearm that is registered to it. Weapons and accessories that make the selection at the “regular” hunting store look like Nerf toys. Anyone in the “trust” can use and keep the firearm whenever they want, and more people can be added to the trust anytime with an attorney’s expert help.
There are a few caveats to fully automatic firearm ownership. “No fully automatic weapons made after May 19th 1986 can be owned by anyone (unless you are a FFL dealer and keep your license in good standing)… however, fully automatic firearms registered prior to May 19th, 1986 are. (There are “only” an estimated 182,619 machine guns that fit this criteria.) Machine guns imported after 1968 but before May 19th, 1986 can be bought and kept only by FFL dealers… and machine guns made after the May 19th, 1986 cutoff date are only available for dealers, manufacturers, military, and police.”
So, to sum up, a “new” fully automatic firearm (AKA: a machine gun) is out of the question, but you can get any of the 182,619 fully automatic firearms that meet the above criteria for anywhere from $10,000 to $300,000 each.
Not a problem for Rich John Doe.
Nobody talks about this level of firearm ownership because it is almost financially incomprehensible. Spend years and years of salary on a single firearm?
But now, Vegas happened. The shooter (at the time of this post) was supposedly a millionaire and used multiple fully automatic firearms.
Did the shooter have access to these fully automatic firearms through a trust? Did the shooter pay for each of these fully automatic firearms with the millions he had? Did the shooter pass all the criteria for owning multiple fully automatic firearms without raising any red flags?
The wealthy have access to a different level of firearms.
More detailed information about fully automatic firearm ownership is on the ATF’s website.