1934 NFA, the Failed 1938 NFA, Miller, and the Regulation of Gun Parts

Opinion

Public Document Case heading, cropped and scaled by Dean Weingarten

U.S.A.-(Ammoland.com)- Many Second Amendment supporters have heard of the National Firearms Act (NFA) of 1934. It went into effect on 26 June, 1934.  It was the first national gun law to have a substantially limiting effect. It was the first federal statute challenged in the Supreme Court on the basis of the Second Amendment, in United States v. Miller. The story of that challenge may be read, in short form, on an AmmoLand News article from 2013.

Far fewer people are familiar with the National Firearms Act of 1938. The NFA of 1934 was passed in Franklin Delano Roosevelt's (FDR) first term. The case that challenged it was set up in 1938, it is believed, to curb resistance to the National Firearms Act of 1938, passed in FDR's second term.

The infamous National Firearms Act of 1934 required commercial manufacturers to stamp serial numbers on machine guns, silencers, and short-barreled rifles and short-barreled shotguns manufactured from that date on.

Welrod Mark II Clandestine Pistol with Integral Silencer
A rare Welrod Mark II Clandestine Pistol with Integral Silencer, 1938

Few people worried about the law because it only affected items that crossed state lines. Not many people owned machine guns or silencers; few crossed state lines with them or short-barreled rifles or shotguns. Because of concerns about constitutionality, the NFA of 1934 was a gun ban disguised as a tax. The transfer tax of $200 was equivalent to about $3,800 in 2018. It was prohibitive for all but the very well off. Consequently, it raised very little money.

Attorney General: Homer Stillé Cummings
Attorney General: Homer Stillé Cummings

The original target of the NFA of 1934 was to register and regulate the ownership of all handguns. Short barreled rifles and shotguns were included to prevent circumventing the regulation of handguns by cutting down rifles and shotguns. The National Rifle Association (NRA) was successful in stripping handguns from the bill. Because silencers, machine guns, short-barreled rifles, and shotguns were less commonly owned, the NRA did not contest that part of the law.

The progressives in the Roosevelt administration, especially Attorney General Homer Cummings, wanted to register all pistols and regulate all pistol sales. The attempt to do so in the 1934 NFA had failed. Another trial balloon to do so was proposed by Cummings in 1936 but failed to make headway.

The NFA of 1938 was different. It required federal licenses for commercial manufacture and sales of all firearms and firearms parts that were involved in interstate commerce or inside of federal territories which were not states. It was an incremental move toward federal control of all common firearms. Whether this was constitutional under the Second Amendment was disputed and debated.

In spite of thousands of objections to the passage of the NFA of 1938, it was passed and became law on June 30, 1938.

The FDR administration was looking for a test case to take to the Supreme Court, to establish federal regulation of firearms commerce as constitutional. Two months before the passage of the 1938 NFA, on 18 April 1938, two small-time criminals were arrested for “making preparation for armed robbery”, by Oklahoma and Arkansas state police. They had in their possession a short-barreled shotgun. They had traveled from Oklahoma to Arkansas. They were brought to Fort Smith, Arkansas.

One of them, Jackson “Jack” Miller, had been an informant and participant in a significant case involving the O'Malley gang. He was known to the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Arkansas, Clinton R. Barry. Barry saw an opportunity for an NFA of 1934 test case. He wired the Attorney General of the United States on 23 April 1938, explaining the importance of acting quickly, before the pair were let off on bail.

Miller was also known to the federal judge who had presided over the O'Malley case, Heartsill Ragon. Judge Heartsill Ragon was the 1930's version of Chuck Schumer, a strong proponent of restrictive federal gun law. He helped push through the New Deal for FDR before being rewarded with a federal judgeship in Arkansas.

The NFA case was given to Judge Heartsill Ragon.  He appointed the defense counsel. He refused to accept a guilty plea.

Judge Ragon had the case he wanted, the defendants he wanted and the defense council he wanted.  Judge Ragon then created the only defense for the case, his memorandum opinion.

On June 11, 1938 Miller and Layton demurred to the indictment, claiming that it presented insufficient evidence of a transfer requiring payment of a tax and challenging the constitutionality of the NFA under the Second and Tenth Amendments.  Surprisingly, Ragon immediately issued a memorandum opinion sustaining the demurrer and quashing the indictment. He held that the NFA violates the Second Amendment by prohibiting the transportation of unregistered covered firearms in interstate commerce.

This position was diametrically opposite his stated opinion while a legislator. It did not include any facts or analysis to support the proposition.

The FDR administration appealed the case directly to the Supreme Court. With only the government's side of the case presented, the Court refused to strike down the law. The Miller decision was muddy and subject to interpretation.

Progressives used the Miller case to claim the Second Amendment did not protect an individual right. Progressive judges appointed by FDR and Truman came to dominate the federal appeals courts.

U.S. v. Miller was used to prevent challenges to the NFA of 1938. While Miller clearly implied that military arms were protected by the Second Amendment, FDR appointed judges ruled it did not.

In Cases v. United States, 1942, a three-judge panel on the First Circuit ruled it was unlikely Miller meant military arms were protected by the Second Amendment: From Cases:

Another objection to the rule of the Miller case as a full and general statement is that according to it Congress would be prevented by the Second Amendment from regulating the possession or use by private persons not present or prospective members of any military unit, of distinctly military arms, such as machine guns, trench mortars, anti-tank or anti-aircraft guns, even though under the circumstances surrounding such possession or use it would be inconceivable that a private person could have any legitimate reason for having such a weapon. It seems to us unlikely that the framers of the Amendment intended any such result.

The judges did not want military arms protected, so they ruled they were not protected.

All three judges on the First Circuit in Cases v. United States, John Mahoney, Calvert Magruder, and Peter Woodbury, were appointed by FDR.

The Supreme Court refused to hear another Second Amendment case until 2008.

The NFA of 1938 established the precedent the federal government could regulate the interstate commerce of common, ordinary firearms, as well as the sale of firearms in none-state territories. It established the precedent the federal government could create classes of people who were not allowed to purchase firearms across state lines. It established the notion of a federal license to commercially sell or manufacture ordinary firearms.

The NFA of 1938 was passed before the seminal Supreme Court decision of Wickard v. Filburn in 1942, when the nation was in the middle of World War II. Wickard is recognized as an inflection point at which virtually everything in the United States was considered to be affecting interstate commerce, and thus subject to regulation by the federal government. Still, interstate commerce and the limitation on government power held meaning. In police training in the late 1970's, I was taught interstate commerce had to cross state lines; and that criminal statutes were part of state powers, while federal power was not concerned with local criminal acts.

While people were concerned with the NFA of 1938, dealer's licenses were shall issue and only cost a dollar. Individuals who were not dealers could purchase firearms across state lines. In theory, all firearms parts were regulated. In practice, the regulation was minimal to non-existent.

No serial numbers were required except on machine guns, silencers, and short-barreled rifles and shotguns. It was illegal to remove the manufacturer's serial numbers, but manufacturers were not required to place serial numbers on the vast majority of firearms.

The 1938 NFA did not require record-keeping or pre-approval of any sales or manufacture, except for machine guns, silencers, and short-barreled shotguns and rifles.

Mail Order Machine Guns Catalog
Mail Order Machine Guns Catalog

The FDR administration continued to float proposals for the registration of all firearms in the United States, but World War II intervened. AG Homer Cummings had retired in January of 1939. No one was pushing for keeping Americans from having guns in the middle of a war. After the war was won, millions of rifles, pistols, and shotguns, were purchased from powers all over the globe, and sold to the American people at bargain prices. It was a golden age for firearms collectors, hunters, and shooters. Crime was low. Guns were available over the counter for cash, and by mail order. If you wanted to purchase across state lines, from dealers, without hindrance, a Federal Firearms License (FFL) was easily obtained for a dollar. Many firearms enthusiasts obtained FFLs to ease firearms transactions.

Anti-tank cannon, anti-aircraft cannon, and their ammunition were advertised on the pages of the American Rifleman, and purchased by mail order. Only one crime was recorded where an anti-tank rifle was used. No one was injured.

The precedents of the 1934 NFA and  1938 NFA were the seeds of the infamous 1968 Gun Control Act (GCA). Again, the NRA mitigated the worst part of the bill and won a small reversal of earlier overreach.

It was argued that regulation of all firearms parts was burdensome and silly. There was no sense in regulating bolts, screws, and grips. A firearm was defined as the receiver that had the serial number. On handguns, the same part is called the frame. Firearms parts, except for the receiver or frame, could be commercially manufactured and sold without a firearms manufacturer's license. It was regarded as a commonsense approach.

Lyndon Johnson wanted full registration of all pistols. That provision was struck from the bill.

Significant new infringements were passed and became law with GCA 1968. All new firearms were required to have serial numbers. Federal dealers were required to record sales, personal information, make, model, and the newly required serial numbers. Purchases of firearms across state lines by individuals, except through federal dealers, were made illegal. More firearms and weapons were placed under strict controls. More categories of persons were prohibited from buying from federal dealers.

The NFA of 1934, the NFA of 1938, and the GCA of 1968 are all points on the slippery slope of ever more infringements on Second Amendment rights. Regarding the Second Amendment as outdated and irrelevant came with Progressive philosophy.  Progressive philosophy holds the Constitution to be outdated and limits on government to be immoral.

It was dozens of Progressive judges appointed by FDR and later presidents which cemented the progressive view of a “living Constitution” into the American legal system.

President Trump is appointing dozens of originalist and textualist judges. Originalist and textualist judges believe in enforcing the original intent of the Constitution. As such, they will likely remove many “living Constitution” constructs and restore limits to federal power.


About Dean Weingarten:Dean Weingarten

Dean Weingarten has been a peace officer, a military officer, was on the University of Wisconsin Pistol Team for four years, and was first certified to teach firearms safety in 1973. He taught the Arizona concealed carry course for fifteen years until the goal of Constitutional Carry was attained. He has degrees in meteorology and mining engineering and retired from the Department of Defense after a 30-year career in Army Research, Development, Testing, and Evaluation.

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Savage
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Savage

The whole damn thing needs to be thrown out. There are rules and regulations that make no sense at all, take for instants: I can take a 8″ 5.56 barrel put a “support” brace on it and it’s a “pistol”, on the other hand I take a 9mm put a standard stock on it and it’s a “rifle” and its considered a SBR and requires a $200 tax stamp. WTF.

Mike Carbine
Member
Mike Carbine

Mr. Weingarten very informative article. AT guns and small AA, those were the times. Too bad so many Greatest Generation did such a lousy job raising the Boomers…is it any wonder our inner-cities resemble Mogadishu and half the voting populace is trying to elect an avowed communist…

Dragonfly
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Dragonfly

We need all the conservative judges President Trump can nominate and get approved by the Senate. It is becoming more clear by the day that the progressive Soc/Libs will ravage the constitution if given a chance. Only a strong judicial branch and more conservative supreme court judges can maintain the strengths and continuity of the constitution’s Bill of Rights and the rule of law.
DF

Bubb
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Bubb

Love it…excellent article.

Considerthis
Member
Considerthis

Sometimes when I think about our history, it just seems like a series of unfortunate events. Woodrow Wilson,was a president who had previous work experience as college president. The first World War broke out and he brought the first income tax to pay for it. Up until that time alcohol taxes pretty much paid for most of government. The temperance movement ( no alcohol rights) and women’s voting rights ( the sufferage movement) led to women getting the right to vote.. In the meantime the first world war was over ,war debt retired, income tax no longer needed. But now… Read more »

KenW
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KenW

Dean could have mentioned that the Gun Control Act of 1968 had its basis in the German Gun Control Act of 1938, who’s main author was Senator Dodd who was an Army Intelligence officer in WWII, who just so happened to come across it after the war.

So the NRA prevented handgun registration in the 1930’s as well as the 1960’s but I read posts here that claim the NRA has done NOTHING, but was responsible for ALL gun laws passed in the USA.

Wild Bill
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Wild Bill

@Ken, yeah, the NRA opposed part and failed to oppose the entirety of each of those statutes. In other words, the NRA compromised a little of our rights away each time. I call that failure.
Half a clic up for your first paragraph. Half a click down for your last paragraph.

MilitaryArms
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Jacob337
Member
Jacob337

Tim Harmsen –

Tim. You blocked me off of your YouTube channel a while back (none of your business 337). You hated that I called you out for your Rolex and constant selling your ass for shekels instead of ACTUALLY making a difference by speaking about the Felon ban and trying to get your viewers to write their Reps and repeal the Schumer appropriations rider off FOPA 86 so all non-violent felons can get back in the fight legally and cast votes in the right direction to get the ball rolling.

Jacob337
Member
Jacob337

Tim Lifetime Gun Prohibition for Non-Violent Offender Shows Need for Restoration Reform Here’s the article I’ve sent to you previously On YouTube. letting you know about my personal story as written by David Codrea. You didn’t read it then and you probably won’t now. I’m not asking for you to say my name or give praise here. I want you to speak to your viewers about the non-violent felon ban that may potentially be heard by the US Supreme Court this coming fall if they take the case on as well as asking everyone to hurry and write their congressman… Read more »

MajorMike
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MajorMike

I soiled my linen when I looked at the $150 price of a Browning machine gun (tripod included)!

Sigh . . . . .

Ryben Flynn
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Ryben Flynn

And that price today is about $50,000 if you can find somebody willing to part with theirs.

Bill
Member
Bill

With simple inflation, that would be around $3,000 today, or slightly less. Respectably expensive, but not prohibitive to everyone.

UncleT
Member
UncleT

I’ll believe it when I see it.

What we consider Constitutionalists they consider we support the Constitution BUT.

When I see the 1934,38,68 etc ruled unconstitutional by SCOTUS, then I will believe it.

Bill
Member
Bill

Dean, this is the BEST and MOST ENLIGHTENING story I’ve ever read here. It shows that these leeches have been using the same template for almost 100 years! 100years, and most people have not caught on yet, and the ones who have have not found a way to beat them yet?
Dirty, dirty judges. Those are the real animals.

MilitaryArms
Member

I agree with the exception of the part where the NRA valiantly tried to save our rights and was only able to get handguns off the registry. All BS even by the NRA’s own account in their own publication, the American Rifleman. http://jpfo.org/articles-assd02/nra-supported-nfa34.htm

nrringlee
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nrringlee

Learning point: Progressive equals anti liberty.. Any time you hear that word associated with a person or policy you must immediately turn on your defenses. To progressives and other leftists the law is what they say the law is dependent not on principle but upon their particular needs at the time. That changes over time, and they do not feel compelled to explain it to you. So, over night your liberty disappears in the name of popularly supported common sense solutions. Constitution and justice be damned. And that is how it has worked for over 100 years in America. While… Read more »

Green Mtn. Boy
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Green Mtn. Boy

Bottom line all gun control laws past, present or future are unConstitutional, it’s about something every tyrant covets, Control.

Jacob337
Member
Jacob337

The irony here is had the NFA kept with inflation and an individual today need pay $3,500+ for one tax stamp the NFA laws would have already been repealed due to being a restrictive nuisance. But, as is always the case. Gun owners are compliant and weak, cowards that take the path of least resistance and therefore pay out $200 to daddy gubbmint because it’s “not that big a deal”. Because it’s affordable for most gun owners to pay $200 for a stamp – no one actually does anything about the law itself. They pay it and go off to… Read more »

Finnky
Member
Finnky

@Yak – Like at least one other poster, you seem to be insisting that others start violence on your behalf. You will need dramatically better leadership skills to convince anyone to fight for you. Step one might be to stop insulting those who you wish to have do your bidding. Difficulty in rescinding NFA is that too small a fraction of the population desires to own the restricted devices. Also too many of the sheep figure those devices are regulated or illegal for a reason – and are thus scary and dangerous. Tough to win votes outnumbered a hundred to… Read more »

Jacob337
Member
Jacob337

FUNKY (your new name – get used to it)

I am not for anyone doing my battles for me. Not at all. My stance is if you don’t like what’s happening stop with the endless ballot box attempts and ranting about it on ammoland. Instead, do what the 2nd says or just enjoy what you got while you have it because it’s all going away.

AWB up next if Trump is elected in 2020. Count on it.

Wild Bill
Member
Wild Bill

@Finnky, Good observations.

Link
Member
Link

How about you lead from the front ??

Instead of crying like a bitch saying people should use there guns.
Nobody is impressed with your comments.

tetejaun
Member
tetejaun

Franklin D. Roosevelt was following his master & mentor, Woodrow Wilson. Wilson was a rich elitist. When Jews and Italians started joining his exclusive Men’s clubs, he decided that an unconstitutional income tax, just as the Communist Manifesto recommends, was in order to keep American citizens, those peasants, from acquiring wealth. Wilson implemented segregation in the federal government. At each turn, the American people sat quietly as the harness was placed, tighter and tighter, on their necks. Meek submission to their master…government. In 2016, there was unconstitutional spying and wiretapping against American citizen Donald Trump. The unconstitutional coup continued against… Read more »

Wild Bill
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Wild Bill

ttj, Most of the American public did not even know what was going on. But you correctly identify that government corruption and elitism goes back at least one hundred years.

hippybiker
Member
hippybiker

I agree. Just one thing. It was Jefferson who mentioned refreshing the tree of liberty. Not Patrick Henry.

Finnky
Member
Finnky

I would say the founding fathers understood popular reticence to begin the fight. They had spent years pushing the idea of revolution, attempting to convince people that t was possible, winnable, moral and beneficial. I suspect many of these flowery quotes were developed during that effort. They insured the best would be retained for history because they understood that once we had peace, we would be very reluctant to rise up again. They well knew that each generation must learn for themselves, grow a spine, and find their own leaders. I believe this is a primary reason for the first… Read more »

Wild Bill
Member
Wild Bill

@DW, That is an outstanding review of anti-Second Amendment history, and your best article that I have ever read! This is no less that a public service. I am printing it and putting it in one of my horn books.

Nanashi
Member
Nanashi

You cover Ragon’s bias, but you forgot to mention Hugo Black. Hugo Black was ALSO in Congress to vote for the NFA and was a known member of the KKK. He also wrote the Korematsu decision.

Wild Bill
Member
Wild Bill

@Nan, Yeah, Hugo Black was the worst! He corrupted the meaning of the First Amendment and pushed God out of the schools.