April 20, 2007

Automatic For The Free People

The subject of machine guns has come up a few times of late & I thought it'd be useful to have a post to point folks to instead of retyping the same arguments repeatedly. So let's have a brief discussion on what machine guns are & why they're not only important, but vital to a free people.

In a nutshell: martial arms were the objects of the 2nd amendment. Hunting & defense against burglars & the like was seen as too fundamental to warrant inclusion, but arms for martial purposes - specifically for the people to resist an oppressive government - were the objects of protection in the 2nd article to the Bill of Rights.

Now any self contained cartridge shooting firearm (i.e. non-muzzleloaders) can have a martial value in resisting the edicts or occupation of a tyrannical government, but it would be most advantageous if the citizenry had the same types of arms available to the common soldier.

What I'm saying is that if you give me 9 rednecks armed with lever action rifles we can conduct a guerrilla operation that would tie up 100 regular troops from any military in the world, but if we had more modern weapons we could do a little more than tie up those 100 soldiers with fewer casualties on our side.

"Machine gun" has been broadly interpreted, mainly through ignorance of how machine guns function. In D.C. the local law ( 22-4501 as related here) defines a "machine gun" as any semi-automatic or automatic weapon that can fire more than 12 shots without manual reloading. That means a tube fed semi-auto .22 rimfire rifle that holds more than 12 rounds is a "machine gun" by D.C.'s definition. A good many folks mistakenly thought "machine guns" were the object of the now expired "assault weapons" ban, but it only dealt with semi-automatic firearms.

A machine gun, as defined by federal law (u.S.C. Title 26, 5845), is a firearm capable of discharging more than one bullet with a single function of the trigger. This would cover belt fed machine guns such as the Browning M2 .50 caliber as well as the Mac-10 & the few kits for converting a Ruger 10/22 to full auto (which last I checked were priced at $5,000 for just the trigger parts).

As long as each function of the trigger (i.e. pulling it back) discharges only one bullet then it's a semi-automatic firearm. To muddy things up many semi-automatic firearms look identical to machine guns except for not having a selector switch (which allows a transition from fully automatic to semi-automatic fire & in some cases adjusts the rate of fully automatic fire) added to the external controls (such as this semi-auto 1918A3 BAR from Ohio Ordnance). Some semi-auto firearms even feed from belts (such as this Browning 1919 semi-auto from U.S. Ordnance).

All of that is to point out that among the folks who aren't gun enthusiasts there is a bit of confusion as to what a "machine gun" really is. Most folks for some reason are fine with semi-automatic firearms, but the terms "automatic" & "machine gun" make them opposed to these arms for no apparent reason.

A fully automatic firearm is not easy to operate. The first shot will likely be the only one on target for most folks who try to use one as the recoil tends to elevate the barrel & send subsequent shots much higher than intended. Practice & familiarity with the weapons are necessary to use them effectively & accurately. It is for this reason that it does the national defense harm by banning them (or as the case is now, severely restricting them) because it deprives the militia as well as recruits for the standing military much needed experience with using these martial implements.

The 2nd amendment acknowledges a protection of not just muzzleloaders (some would argue everything but muzzleloaders nowadays) but every "...terrible implement of the soldier...". That would include (but not be limited to) fully automatic weapons. Machine Pistols, submachine guns, automatic rifles, (true) assault rifles, light machine guns, medium machine guns, heavy machine guns, general purpose machine guns & squad automatic weapons. They all have a definite martial purpose & the controlling precedent in u.S v Miller - well I'll quote the meat of the Miller decision:

"In 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. 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"

With that logic could you argue that a machine gun would not fall under the purview of the 2nd amendment?

As it stands now the National Firearms Act of 1934 imposes a $200 tax with very strict registration requirements on the possession of (among other items) machine guns. Amendments to the NFA happened in 1968 (The Gun Control Act) & 1986 (The Firearm Owners Protection Act) respectively. The former amendment closed the NFA registry to any items covered by the NFA that were not already registered. This meant from 1968 any NFA item (such as a machine gun) had to be on the registry prior to 1968 or newly manufactured. The Hughes amendment to the FOPA declared that any item covered by the NFA & not on the registry by May 18, 1986 could never be registered, in effective freezing the supply of NFA items. (For more on the FOPA of '86 & the Hughes Amendment I highly recommend David Hardy's The Firearm Owners' Protection Act: A Historical & Legal Perspective).

This has created a 3 tiered pricing system via government distortion in the market. There's a premium on pre-68 registered machine guns as they have collector value due to their age, but also because they're transferable. The post-68/pre-86 machine guns are usually inflated far beyond their free market price would be due to scarcity (& in some cases rarity as some models came out a year or less prior to the ban) & post-86 or otherwise unregistered machine guns are contraband & therefore fairly cheap. To give an example a Mac-10 would run for $400 or $500 dollars if the government restrictions were not in place. A registered Mac-10 (made after '68) will run a few thousand. A pre-68 Mac-10 - I can only presume the price would be 5 to 10 times what a post 68 Mac would be. However an unregistered Mac will presumably run a few hundred dollars. None of those prices include the $200 tax.

As another example of the economics involved a 1928A1 Thompson ran for $270 in 1940 (by '42 it had dropped to $70 for some reason). Add to that a $200 tax imposed by the NFA. (I've read that in 1934 Thompson's were going for around $170 & were considered a very high priced machine gun for the time, but I cannot find any links that support that at the moment.)

This increase in price coupled with the regulations involved with owning a machine gun have had a chilling effect on possessing these constitutionally protected instruments. Most people assume there's an outright prohibition on owning them. In some states, such as California, state law prohibits owning a machine gun even if the NFA requirements are satisfied.

In The Nationals & Defense I point to an article examining the decline in support of civilian marksmanship efforts by the military & government. While mainly dealing with basic marksmanship skills I would also submit that the same principle (i.e. government should encourage civilian to be proficient with arms) would apply to machine guns as well.

I also submit that the decrease in the civilian market for automatic weapons has hurt the military. Most firearms designers & manufacturers make their money on the civilian market. Military contracts are lucrative & much sought after but few & far between. Prior to 1934 civilian development of machine guns produced far better & more efficient designs than anything the government did. In the 30's & 40's development took a set back but because the $200 tax was never raised by the 50's & 60's things had started to pick up again (albeit not as much as prior to 1934). That $200 dollars was a lot easier to come by in 1964 than it was in 1934 so the market in NFA items (which included machine guns) was not as depressed as it had been in years prior, therefore there was more incentive to introduce new designs into that market while hoping for a military contract to come along. But in 1986 that came to a halt. Now a designer must either hang his hopes on a military contract or design one firearm for military (& law enforcement) use & another for the civilian market, hoping the civilian design could feed him until the military contract was signed.

Does that mean machine gun development dried up? No, not by any means. But what happened is the quality of the designs seems to have been diluted. It's not a direct consequence of the law (no one makes an inferior machine gun because of the 86 ban) but an indirect one. The number of folks investing time & effort to design a better machine gun has decreased because the competition for military contracts is too great & there is no civilian market.

If the '86 ban were lifted there'd be a wider consumer base to appeal to & therefore increased competition (it wouldn't be necessary to repeal the NFA to see those effects but an NFA repeal would result in a greater amount of competition & therefore more folks striving to make a better & less expensive product than if just the 86 ban were repealed). That would result in an increased number of designers with an increased number of designs & most probably an increase in the quality & economy of said designs in order to compete with the other designers in the field. The civilian market would also be a better testing ground as firearms enthusiasts tend to put a new design through its paces rather quickly. Therefore by the time a military need was announced designers would have several models &/or variations to submit instead of the current practice of building one up from near scratch when a contract bid is announced.

Think about it in another way. If cars made prior to 1986 were outlawed except for government sales then how far & fast do you think advances would have been made in the automotive industry? The same reasoning applies to machine guns, except that while cars may be very advantageous to every day commuting, machine guns are essential to our national defense.

I have heard it argued that machine guns have no place in society because they are not efficient at home defense from the common burglar. This is untrue. while a belt fed .50 may not be suitable for an apartment dweller a machine pistol would be very effective in the hands of someone familiar with its use. For example the Vz-61 would be an ideal home defense weapon for an apartment dweller. The .32 ACP cartridge it uses is usually considered too weak to be a very effective defensive round, but therein lies a benefit; it will not penetrate as much as more powerful rounds. Therefore a miss is less likely to go into a neighbors apartment (depending of course on what it has to pas through on the way) & a hit is more like to not exit an intruder's body. Plus the round does not generate very much recoil which is a factor for those that are sensitive to such things. Since the Vz-61 is capable of automatic fire a practiced user can put 3 or 4 rounds into a torso-sized target in under a second, thereby multiplying the effects of the bullet. While I wouldn't recommend the .32 ACP as a defensive round in a semi-auto pistol, in a machine pistol it enters the realm of effective. I can see this being a very effective solution for those with an aversion to recoil (such as the elderly or those with wrist problems) who wish to have an effective means of home defense.

More powerful submachine guns & machine guns definitely have the potential to be used effectively in larger areas, such as very spacious homes or large tracts of property. Any place a pistol, carbine or rifle could be used there's a similarly powered machine gun that could be as, if not more effective in a defensive role if a person has sufficient practice & familiarity.

Most importantly are the constitutionally implied reasons for owning & possessing firearms. A Browning M2 .50 caliber would be a bit much for keeping your apartment safe, but should the day ever come when foreign tanks (or domestic ones) roll down our streets then the Ma Deuce will be worth its weight in gold. The same would apply to any automatic weapon, be it a machine pistol being used to clear buildings & other spaces where rifles & carbines would be awkward to maneuver or an assault rifle for neighborhood defense.

It is necessary for any weapon to be used & practiced with by its owner in order for it to be utilized in an effective manner. This is especially true with machine guns. Because of the ban on newly manufactured machine guns & the distortion in the free market on the supply of "legal' machine guns many people who would otherwise opt for an automatic weapon do not pursue that option. They are simply too expensive &/or the paperwork & registration requirements (which include getting ATF approval before changing residences) viewed as too burdensome.

In the highly unlikely event that a foreign or domestic government try to use force to impose tyranny on the people of the united States en masse, the use of machine guns will make resisting such efforts easier than they otherwise would have been. But because of the chilling effect of the laws & the artificially inflated expense of owning such weapons, few Americans are familiar (let alone well versed) in the operation & maintenance of machine guns. These factors coupled with the decreased profit in designing machine guns (which could be used by citizens & military alike) have had a detrimental effect on our national security. While unlikely that the average American will ever have to face down a military unit to protect his freedom it is not impossible or given enough time even improbable. (What is more likely in the near future is a situation such as experienced in New Orleans after Katrina or during the 1992 L.A. Riots where citizens could not count on police for protection & had to rely on themselves.) Further it increases the amount of training needed when a person joins the military. Some would argue that current military training in the use of machine guns is adequate I must argue that it is always better to have someone familiar with the operation of a tool than to have to teach them from scratch. (again think of cars - would you find it easier to teach a 16 year old whose father had been letting him drive the car around the block for the past 4 months & work on the engine for the past year or a 16 year old who never had been behind the wheel & thought cars ran on fairy dust?)

Constitutionally machine guns are protected instruments which fall under the scope of the 2nd amendment. SCOTUS has implied that reading of the 2nd amendment but no other court save the 9th circuit in u.S. v. Stewart (which was remanded back to the court following the Gonzales v. Raich decision) has upheld a civilian's Right to own machine guns (though Stewart was decided on commerce clause, rather than 2nd amendment grounds). But given the opinion in Miller it is not unreasonable to conclude that any weapons (& attendant instruments) wielded by a soldier are the objects alluded to by the term "arms" in the 2nd amendment.

It is unlikely that Americans within the next 5 years will have need of any martial arms to use against an organized military force (though in individual instances this may be more probable). In 20 years it's not quite as far fetched & by the time we attempt to project 50 years into the future it is impossible to say that it will be as unlikely as it is today that Americans will have to take up arms to defend their freedoms. But if &/or when that day does come when Americans once more must use force against their enemies on their own soil the use & possession of machine guns will play an important part in determining the outcome. As it stands now the home field advantage does not go to the people, but toward a foreign or domestic military power.

It would not be impossible to forcibly resist tyranny without machine guns, but it would be much easier if the learning curve the people would have to deal with was not as steep as it is today. The framers (& particularly the anti-federalists) realized that a free people must be on equal footing militarily as a martial force in the service of a government. While the destructive potential of machine guns was likely not envisioned in the 1780's neither was it conceived that a government's forces would wield such power. The simple theory behind the 2nd amendment is that if it's good enough for the King's soldiers then it's vital that the people possess such weapons. I cannot see how the framers would view machine guns as being outside the scope of the 2nd amendment when their intent was that the citizenry be able to resist as efficiently as possible an oppressive martial force.

Machine guns are perhaps the most misunderstood instruments protected by the 2nd amendment, often damned by those who have only seen them on TV or read about them in novels written by people who have only seen them on TV. Until the ban on post-86 machine guns is lifted & the burdensome, chilling & market distorting NFA is repealed, then we will not be as capable of our own defense as the framers intended. Quite simply, if the thought of your neighbor having a machine gun bothers you, then move or repeal the 2nd amendment. Any action in between those two options is dangerous to the public liberty as well as disastrous to personal liberty.

Posted by Publicola at April 20, 2007 05:20 AM | TrackBack

"To give an example a Mac-10 would run for $400 or $500 dollars if the government restrictions were not in place. A registered Mac-10 (made after '68) will run a few thousand. A pre-68 Mac-10 - I can only presume the price would be 5 to 10 times what a post 68 Mac would be."

Pre-'68 only matters with respect to imported guns. It's why you see so few actual transferrable MP5's: they're all either HK94 sear guns or "pre samples", which are pre-86 but post-68 imports, and are only ownable by SOTs.

Posted by: Tam at April 20, 2007 05:31 AM

Highly informative and well done.


Posted by: USCitizen at April 20, 2007 06:04 AM

Tam - I meant that pre-68 the value would be increased (in Mac's case & a few others) because of scarcity, not the direct legal implications. I mean that there were presumably fewer Mac's made between 64 & 68 than there were made between 69 & 86. Hence more collector value. Perhaps not the best example but i'm working on way too little sleep lately for my own good, & Mac is easy to type :) I do recall something about pre-60-something FAL's but not enough to really even make mention of it.

Course the damned law itself is the thing that made a discussion of the collectors value of a freakin Mac something other than an asinine joke done in bad taste. & the prices of a STEN? Lord have mercy - the ancestor who first developed the "cheap bastard" gene in my family would have a case of the flame throwing vapors to see a piece of metal tubing with delusions of grandeur going for the low 5 digits. (don't misunderstand - I really like STEN's - but 5 digits???

USCitizen - tanks.. er, I mean thanks. :D

Posted by: Publicola at April 20, 2007 08:09 AM

So, Jim Webb's pistol is a machine gun under DC law?

Posted by: jack at April 20, 2007 04:33 PM


Posted by: Publicola at April 21, 2007 03:03 AM

Great info and very well explained. Thank you for sharing!

Posted by: Tom H at April 21, 2007 07:46 PM