Federal Law on Registration of Firearms

Posted on May 21, 2012

There is no comprehensive national system of gun registration. In fact, federal law prohibits the use of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (“NICS”) to create any system of registration of firearms or firearm owners.1

A limited system of federal firearms registration was created by the National Firearms Act, 26 U.S.C. § 5801 et seq. The National Firearms Act (“NFA”) was enacted in 1934 to impose an excise tax and registration requirements on a narrow category of firearms, including machine guns, short-barreled shotguns or rifles, and silencers.2 The Act also includes, in a category defined as “any other weapon,” certain smooth-bore handguns.3 The vast majority of handguns are excluded.

In 1986, Congress banned the transfer and possession of machine guns not already in lawful circulation.4 Machine guns that were lawfully owned prior to the ban’s effective date may continue to be owned and transferred provided they are registered in accordance with requirements of the NFA.5 The NFA requires each importer, manufacturer, or dealer in firearms covered by the Act to register annually with the Secretary of the Treasury.6 In addition, anyone wishing to manufacture, make, import, or transfer such weapons must first register them.7 The transferee of any of these weapons cannot take possession until the Secretary approves the transfer and registration of the weapon to the transferee.8

The National Firearms Act Branch of ATF maintains the registry, known as the National Firearms Registration and Transfer Record.9 The registry includes: 1) an identification of the firearm; 2) the date of registration; and 3) the identification and address of the person entitled to possess the firearm.10

It is also unlawful for a licensed dealer to sell a short-barreled rifle or shotgun to any person, except as specifically authorized by the Attorney General consistent with public safety and necessity.11

With its provisions effectively limited to pre-ban machine guns and transfers of short-barreled rifles and shotguns that are specifically authorized by the Attorney General, the registration system created by the NFA falls far short of a comprehensive registration system.

Click here to view additional information about the registration of firearms, including background information and state and local laws on the topic.

  1. 28 C.F.R. § 25.9(b)(3). []
  2. 26 U.S.C. § 5845(a). []
  3. 26 U.S.C. § 5845(a), (e). []
  4. 18 U.S.C. § 922(o). See also 18 U.S.C. § 922(b)(4). []
  5. Id. []
  6. 26 U.S.C. § 5802. []
  7. 26 U.S.C. § 5841(b). []
  8. 26 U.S.C. § 5841(c). []
  9. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, U.S. Dep’t of Justice, Brochure of the National Firearms Act Branch (Feb. 23, 2006). []
  10. 26 U.S.C. § 5841(a). See also 27 C.F.R. §§ 479.101, 479.105. []
  11. 18 U.S.C. § 922(b)(4). []