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Dealer beware: is your gun collection illegal?

Many dealers enjoy the centuries-old practice of gun collecting and they take pride in displaying their collections in their stores. Who can deny the joy of possessing a classic 1911 Colt .45, or a wartime relic like a Schmeisser submachine gun or Browning automatic rifle.

Presently, however, the possession of certain collectible firearms for fun, profit or display can get you into trouble with the law if they're not registered in accorance with national Firearms Act (NFA) regulations. Even having certain weapons parts in your gun store may prove risky.

Take the case of one unfortunate California gun dealer with a sizeable collection of older, mint-condition. Thompson machine guns; some dating back to the 1920s and 30s. He had a permit to possess, and license to sell other machine guns to local law enforcement agencies, but he ran into a stumbling block at renewal time because of the Thompsons.

He dutifully listed them on his renewal application as being unregistered, but part of his inventory. The government refused to issue the permit and directed him to dispose of the weapons immediately -- the rationale being since the police wouldn't be purchasing them, they would be of value only to the dealer or other collectors. Therefore, it was against state law to possess them. Ironically this dealer had received the Thompsons in trade from the very police agencies to which he had sold state-of-the-art weapons!

California is not alone in regulating the possession of machine guns and other automatic firearms as well as "any multiburst trigger activator." Due to the proliferation of assault weapons and their high rate of fire, many legislatures have followed suit by banning their possession in orde to "protect the safety and security of the public at large." In some states, statutes give permission to possess NFA weapons for recreational, sports and collecting purposes.

What does federal law have to say about machine guns? Its definition of the term is basically "any weapon which shoots, is designed to shoot, or can be readily restored to shoot, automatically more than one shot, without manual reloading by a single function of the trigger." There are also statutes covering the possession of parts for use in converting a weapon or for assembling a machine gun or "destructive device."

The Dealer's Dilemma

A dealer can run into trouble for having (or selling) "essential parts" or "compnents" that could be assembled or converted into unregistered weapons such as automatic rifles, grenades, silencers and other destructive or explosive devices. Just as dangerous, however, can be the possession of innocent-looking parts which can be used to convert legal rifles into machine guns, such as the hammer, selector, bolt carrier, disconnector and/or trigger which are used to turn a legal AR-15 into an M-16. Without all five of these parts, the AR-15 will not operate in the full-auto mode, but with just one of them installed, the weapon is considered an illegal machine gun under BATF rules.

Gun dealers are not without defense. A Texas dealer was recently under investigation by the BATF for possession of an unregistered firearm and components that could be readily converted into a prohibited device. He raised the defense that the relevant federal firearms statute was vague and unclear, asking what constituted the ability to readily assemble. In the end, however, he was ultimately found guilty of illegally possessing unassembled prohibited components.

Many dealers stock various pyrotechnic fuses, primers, and similar components, but if they have all the necessary components to "readily assemble" something like a fragmentation grenade -- or frames, receivers, or parts for converting a weapon into a fully-automatic rifle or machine gun -- they are courting disaster.

The "vagueness" of The NFA laws can be crucial, and dealers charged with a possession offense commonly raise this as a defense. On this issue, our legal system requires an individual of ordinary intelligence to understand what is not permitted under a particular statute or regulation in order to be held legally responsible for its violation.

Dealers must distinguish this form an ignorance of the law, which is rarely recognized as an excuse. For instance, take the 1960s model Beretta 22 Alpine Carbine semi-automatic. The stock mounting bracket on the pistol automatically makes it a short-barreled rifle requiring it to be registered under the NFA.

What can the dealer/collector do short of having certain weapons stored in another state where the firearms possession laws may not be as strict? Not much but dispose of them. Keeping a few old parts in stock just may not be worth the legal consequences and expenses of a challenge in court.

What Can You Do?

These court cases illustrate that dealers must educate themselves and become familiar with current transfer, possession and registration legislation, as well as other laws affecting the industry in order to save their personal inventory from confiscation or disposal. Here are some additional tips from longtime Las Vegas, Nev., dealer Gene DeFlorentis:

If you don't understant a particular NFA regulation, call the BATF for an interpretation. Be especially wary of possessing or acquiring foreign weapons manufactured before 1968. DeFlorentis also said, "Don't have anything around you don't understand! For example, NFA weapons manufactured prior to 1898 are considered antiques but must still be registered. The requirements are less strict than for more modern weapons, but they exist nonetheless."

Customers can be the source of NFA weapons or parts, so be careful what you buy or take from them. If you have employees or friends with access to your parts bins who occasionally swap parts for their AR-15, be aware of the parts which get thrown back into the bin. If a customer brings in a Russian AK war trophy from the Persian Gulf or a German Schmeisser from dad's attic, get the BATF's help in disposing of the firearm. Keep in mind that your duties are not those of a police officer, but of a licensed dealer. If someone has an illegal weapon and wants to turn it in, contact your local BATF office or police agency for help. If your customer knows it's an illegal weapon and they are not cooperative, just report the details to BATF or your local police. Don't place yourself in jeopardy!

The bottom line is that you must be careful what you have in your collection or your shop. Be very careful!

To learn more about the weapons and parts covered under the National Firearms Act, contact the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms NFA branch at (202) 343-0332.
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Article Details
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Author:Wenner, Joan
Publication:Shooting Industry
Date:Dec 1, 1991
Previous Article:The ups and downs of firearm production, imports, and exports.
Next Article:Selling guns: where there's no right to bear arms.

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