Time for another amnesty?

May 16th, 2009

So, the debate around Coburn's amendment to the Credit Card Holder's Bill of Rights brings up several possibilities.

The one I've heard most of is reversing the Hughes Amendment to the FOPA. If you're unfamiliar with it, I suggest reading up here. It's a long but enlightening read.

The Hughes Amendment made it "unlawful for any person to transfer or possess a machinegun except in the case of a machinegun that was lawfully possessed before the date of enactment." In plain terms, civilians cannot procure machineguns made after 1986.

The primary effect was to reduce the supply to a pre-existing pool of weapons, therefore raising prices through the roof. You want a machinegun? Find someone who already owns one and convince them to sell it to you. They can ask pretty much whatever they want.

Like many people, I'd like to see the Hughes Amendment repealed, but I know that the chances of such a thing are pretty much nil.

I'll defer to Alan Gura on this one:

The solution to 922(o) will have to be political in the end. The fact is, outside the gun community, the concept of privately owned machine guns is intolerable to American society and 100% of all federal judges. If I had suggested in any way — including, by being evasive and indirect and fudging the answer — that machine guns are the next case and this is the path to dumping 922(o) — I'd have instantly lost all 9 justices. Even Scalia.

In short, it ain't gonna happen.

922(0) refers to a subsection of US Code Title 18,922, which reads:

(1) Except as provided in paragraph (2), it shall be unlawful for any person to transfer or possess a machinegun.
(2) This subsection does not apply with respect to—
(A) a transfer to or by, or possession by or under the authority of, the United States or any department or agency thereof or a State, or a department, agency, or political subdivision thereof; or
(B) any lawful transfer or lawful possession of a machinegun that was lawfully possessed before the date this subsection takes effect.

Notice the wording, "lawfully possessed before the date." If a gun was in existence but not registered prior to 1986, there is no way to make it legal today. This presents a real problem for many law-abiding Americans.

Why? Allow me to share a story. Back in January, I was approached by a nice lady in her early 50's. She brought in a large suitcase and asked me if I was interested in purchasing the contents, as her husband had passed and she needed the money.

I opened the case and my blood went cold. It was a Streetsweeper shotgun, defined as a "destructive device," and illegal as per 922(a). However her husband had come across it, she had no paperwork to prove that it had been registered as of 1986. There is simply no way to legally possess such a weapon.

Never mind that it wasn't her gun. Never mind that, not being a gun person, she couldn't possibly be expected to know the law. If she'd been caught with it, chances are good that her life would have taken a dismal turn.

Her only two options are to sign it over to a willing gunsmith for destruction, or to surrender it to law enforcement. Both approaches have their problems.

If a gunsmith takes control of the weapon, he has to log it into his records, and for a short time, he is also in possession of it. He may not be willing to do this. He may not want to have anything to do with it, which is understandable. An unregistered NFA weapon is like a box of live snakes that eat dynamite and spit napalm.

The second possibility is to surrender the weapon to law enforcement in good faith. Theoretically, they will destroy it. Theoretically. That also assumes you don't get pulled over on your way to the police station and arrested for possession of an unregistered NFA weapon.

In her case, the only safe way to handle things is to call a lawyer and have them present while the gun is turned over to law enforcement. It's certainly not fun having this situation presented to you when all you expected to do was get rid of your husband's old shotgun.

This whole problem is playing itself out in countless ways across the country on any given day. Veterans of World War II and Korea are passing away, and many of the weapons they brought back from the front are illegal under modern regulation. Their heirs are finding them in basements and attics, and are stuck in the same quandary as the lady above.

Not only do these people have to jump through some unpleasant hoops, but they are forced to surrender their property without compensation.

In 1968, there was a one-month amnesty offered, during which people with previously unregistered machineguns could come forward, pay a $200 tax stamp, and legally register them. In effect, the amnesty was in force until 1971, when the Burger Supreme Court cut in off in US v. Freed.

We desperately need another such amnesty, preferably several. I'd suggest a rolling annual system. In such a case, we'd dictate one month out of each year during which citizens with unregistered weapons could come forward, pay the $200 and make these weapons legal.

I don't know how politically feasible this would be. My guess would be, "not very." As soon as the word "machinegun" gets uttered, the Left will come down on the bill like Harpies. Still, it seems a safer bet than getting a rider to rescind the Hughes Amendment.

I do disagree with Mr. Gura on one thing. I don't think the solution is political. NFA weapons are political kryptonite, and it's unlikely we'll ever see any progress on the matter through the legislature. No politician with any sense of self-preservation wants to go on the books as the one who tried to get machineguns legalized.

This is an issue that'll likely be settled piece by piece, case by case through the legal system. It will likely be played out over a timeframe of decades rather than years, but with a sound strategy, it can happen.

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