Iowa – -(AmmoLand.com)- Have you ever heard the reference, “murky water” before?
I typed in, “What does murky water mean?” into my Google browser.
Here is what I saw atop the page:
“A situation or circumstance that is foreign, unclear, or unfamiliar and which may be dangerous or difficult as a result.” If murky water is how you’d describe some of ATF’s regulations, then the description of what surrounds the repair of NFA items might well be called, “clear as mud…”
In all the years since I decided to add an SOT (Special Occupational Tax Stamp) to my business, Controlled Chaos Arms, I have sought to know and understand the laws and regulations that surround me and my business as often as humanly possible. I may be one of the only people in America that has actually read the NFA Handbook, from cover to cover. ATF used to give you a copy of that publication at the time of your licensing, but I understand that is no longer the practice. I hear that CDs or links to online hosting are now the gig for fresh FFL (Federal Firearms License) dealers.
I remember the first 3-day gun show I ever attended in my home state of Iowa, with some of the suppressors I was hoping to offer to the Law Enforcement community like it was yesterday. At that time, Iowa wasn’t an NFA-friendly state, and only LE could buy them essentially. A few thousand people walked by commenting either how the suppressors I displayed were illegal or they were fakes. I sighed a little each time, in hopes Iowa would change that silly restriction. They did, of course, courtesy of the Iowa Firearms Coalition.
What stands out to me more is the argument I had with the show promoter, however. He told me local ATF personnel had told him I had to either camp out overnight on a cot in my booth with all the NFA items I brought, or I had to load them all up and take them back to my ‘premises address’ for my FFL after the show closed each night.
Why, you ask? Because the show promoter had been informed that if I left them in the locked and guarded gun show facility, just like thousands of other firearms there, it would “constitute an illegal transfer” by their estimation.
Have you ever heard of anything so crazy in your life?
It was then I knew this line of work would require extensive reading and the ability to recall NFA regulations from memory, along with the ability to prove it at any given time. This prerequisite has proven to be very challenging over the years. Worse yet, my brain isn’t wired in such a fashion that tomfoolery and shenanigans rate towards the top of vital information in which to categorize and easily reference. Thus, self-contradictory regulations keep trying to leave my head, as they defy logic and my brain keeps trying to toss them into the ‘deleted items’ basket at any given time.
No NFA Repairs for You
I have fellow dealers and customers alike that at times need repairs made to their NFA items. These are no different than any other metal object. When you use it, it wears. With enough use, it’ll eventually require maintenance. Sometimes, they just break. It truly is that simple.
Here’s the problem.
The ATF hasn’t consistently given me straight answers when I’ve asked direct questions about NFA repairs. When you talk to some ATF folks, you’ll hear, “Well Michael, you’ll need to originate a Form 5 in order to do that. Both in and out of your inventory.” Or, sometimes you’ll hear, “You have an SOT, right? If so, log it in and out with complete information like any other firearm.” Those are two completely different ways to facilitate a person’s work.
In case you think this is a scenario where a few people aren’t that well versed on the rules, take a look at this letter from ATF dated, February 18, 2000, (embedded below) where ATF says, “The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) does not consider the temporary conveyance of an NFA firearm to a gunsmith for repair to be a “transfer” under the terms of the NFA. Thus, an ATF Form 5 application is not required.” That seems pretty clear to me. You’d think so, right?
Well, you only have to read two paragraphs below in the same letter to see this, “In order to avoid any appearance that a transfer has taken place, ATF strongly recommends that a Form 5 application be submitted for approval prior to conveying the firearm for repair.”
Which is it? Document thoroughly and do your work? I don’t ‘facilitate a transfer’ when I work on any other weapon for anyone. Why would welding up a damaged suppressor be magically different?
Or, ask permission to facilitate a transfer on a Form 5? In ATF’s own words above in their own letter, they claim to “not consider the temporary conveyance of an NFA firearm to a gunsmith for repair to be a “transfer” under the terms of the NFA.” So their solution to this nonexistent problem is to “avoid any appearance that a transfer has taken place” by recommending I submit a Form 5.
We’re trying to avoid a “transfer” according to the ATF. I’m curious if anyone at ATF knows what Form 5 is by chance? It literally is called the “Application for the Tax Exempt TRANSFER and Registration of Firearm.”
Let me get this straight. Just like every weapon that comes in my shop, I must thoroughly document it both into and out of my physical possession and also record it all in my bound book. No problem. This in no way constitutes a transfer of ownership with any NFA weapon, just as is the same for all other firearms through my facility. Gotcha. But I’m also supposed to turn in an application (Form 5), to ask permission to transfer something, so I can repair it, then submit an additional application (Form 5) to transfer the NFA weapon back, all to avoid a transfer?
I am confused. Are you?
I’ve been really fortunate. The ATF folks I’ve worked with locally have been top-shelf people. The inspectors and agents alike, some of which have become personal friends, have always been professional and courteous with me. But I’ll say this with no shame… These silly rules and regulations that get ‘interpreted’ based on the whims of who-knows-what are the pits. When your livelihood and reputation are on the line, you need a simple and proper rule book for all parties to grasp and adhere to. The duality we see in letters like the “February 18th, 2000 Special” as it has become known in the industry, is symptomatic of a systemic failure to honestly offer intent and context to the people bound by the often impossible mandate these letters contain.
It’s been a tough 20 years dealing with the ATF administrative swamp of ever-changing rules and multiple interpretations. This is government bureaucracy folks. I’d shrug my shoulders like so many others, but not following the “murky water” instructions leads to felonies, prison time, and fines average people can never repay. We desperately need better from ATF when it comes to things like this. This is an example of an impossible situation for FFLs. What am I to do? Which interpretation will my next inspection accept? What’ll happen to me and my business if I choose the option they don’t prefer? Are these obvious contradictions deliberate? If so, why?
This is crazy… Remember the definition of “murky water” I mentioned in this article’s beginning? Well, I find myself in a situation or circumstance that is foreign, unclear, or unfamiliar and may be dangerous or difficult. Help!
ATF Letter: Repair of NFA Firearms, February 18th, 2000 Special
About Michael Ware:
Michael is a Christian husband and father to two children. He owns and operates Controlled Chaos Arms, a premier custom weapons shop in the Midwest. He serves as Chairman of the board of Directors at the Iowa Firearms Coalition. The pursuit of truth drives him in research and his writing.
Michael enjoys shooting, hunting, and fishing throughout the Midwest and Rockies. An avid outdoorsman and tireless supporter of all Second Amendment virtues, he can be found in his gun shop, in a tree stand with his kids, or on Capitol Hill lobbying in support of Freedom and Liberty at any given time.