[Disclaimer: Firearms laws change frequently, and vary from state to state. None of the information here should be considered legal advice or a legal restatement of any Federal firearms laws or regulations. Consult a lawyer, your local law enforcement, and/or the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms for further information regarding firearms laws and taxes in your area.]
A fully automatic weapon (a machine gun) is one that fires a succession of bullets so long as the trigger is depressed or until the ammunition supply is exhausted. In addition, any weapon that shoots, is designed to shoot, or can be readily restored to shoot automatically, more than one shot at a time by a single trigger pull, is legally considered to be a machine gun.
Submachine guns are fully automatic weapons that fire a handgun cartridge and can be operated by one person. Sometimes they are referred to as machine pistols.
A machine gun can normally fire between 400 and 1,000 rounds (bullets) per minute, or between 7 and 17 rounds per second.
Federal Firearms Regulations
It has been unlawful since 1934 (The National Firearms Act) for civilians to own machine guns without special permission from the U.S. Treasury Department. Machine guns are subject to a $200 tax every time their ownership changes from one federally registered owner to another, and each new weapon is subject to a manufacturing tax when it is made, and it must be registered with the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives (ATF) in its National Firearms Registry.
To become a registered owner, a complete FBI background investigation is conducted, checking for any criminal history or tendencies toward violence, and an application must be submitted to the ATF including two sets of fingerprints, a recent photo, a sworn affidavit that transfer of the NFA firearm is of "reasonable necessity," and that sale to and possession of the weapon by the applicant "would be consistent with public safety." The application form also requires the signature of a chief law enforcement officer with jurisdiction in the applicant's residence.
Since the Firearms Owners' Protection Act of May 19, 1986, ownership of newly manufactured machine guns has been prohibited to civilians. Machine guns which were manufactured prior to the Act's passage are regulated under the National Firearms Act, but those manufactured after the ban cannot ordinarily be sold to or owned by civilians.
(Sources: talk.politics.guns FAQ, part 2, "FAQ on National Firearms Act Weapons", and from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms,and Explosives (ATF) National Firearms Act FAQ. See also, "The Firearms Owners' Protection Act: A Historical and Legal Perspective" [Hardy, 1986]) )
Twenty-five states have no further restrictions on civilian ownership of machine guns (some require registration with the state) than what is required by federal law. Other states have either placed further restrictions or outlawed operable machine guns to civilians entirely. For further details see NRA state firearm law summaries.
ATF's machine gun definition.
Crime with Legally Owned Machine Guns
In 1995 there were over 240,000 machine guns registered with the ATF. (Zawitz, Marianne,Bureau of Justice Statistics, Guns Used in Crime [PDF].) About half are owned by civilians and the other half by police departments and other governmental agencies (Gary Kleck, Targeting Guns: Firearms and Their Control, Walter de Gruyter, Inc., New York, 1997.)
Since 1934, there appear to have been at least two homicides committed with legally owned automatic weapons. One was a murder committed by a law enforcement officer (as opposed to a civilian). On September 15th, 1988, a 13-year veteran of the Dayton, Ohio police department, Patrolman Roger Waller, then 32, used his fully automatic MAC-11 .380 caliber submachine gun to kill a police informant, 52-year-old Lawrence Hileman. Patrolman Waller pleaded guilty in 1990, and he and an accomplice were sentenced to 18 years in prison. The 1986 'ban' on sales of new machine guns does not apply to purchases by law enforcement or government agencies.
Thanks to the staff of the Columbus, Ohio Public Library for the details of the Waller case.
Source: talk.politics.guns FAQ, part 2.
The other homicide, possibly involving a legally owned machine gun, occurred on September 14, 1992, also in Ohio (source).
In Targeting Guns, Kleck cites the director of ATF testifying before Congress that he knew of less than ten crimes that were committed with legally owned machine guns (no time period was specified). Kleck says these crimes could have been nothing more than violations of gun regulations such as failure to notify ATF after moving a registered gun between states.
Crime Involving Illegally Owned Machine Guns
Again in Targeting Guns, Kleck writes, four police officers were killed in the line of duty by machine guns from 1983 to 1992. (713 law enforcement officers were killed during that period, 651 with guns.)
In 1980, when Miami's homicide rate was at an all-time high, less than 1% of all homicides involved machine guns. (Miami was supposedly a "machine gun Mecca" and drug trafficking capital of the U.S.) Although there are no national figures to compare to, machine gun deaths were probably lower elsewhere. Kleck cites several examples:
- Of 2,200 guns recovered by Minneapolis police (1987-1989), not one was fully automatic.
- A total of 420 weapons, including 375 guns, were seized during drug warrant executions and arrests by the Metropolitan Area Narcotics Squad (Will and Grundie counties in the Chicago metropolitan area, 1980-1989). None of the guns was a machine gun.
- 16 of 2,359 (0.7%) of the guns seized in the Detroit area (1991-1992) in connection with "the investigation of narcotics trafficking operations" were machine guns.
A Good Argument for Gun Registration?
An observant reader would think the strict registration requirements and extremely low rates of crime committed with legally owned automatic weapons are powerful arguments for "sensible" gun control. However an even keener reader notices that despite the sterling record of auto-weapons owners for over fifty years, and despite: registration, police approval, state approval, special taxes, waiting periods, and extensive background checks, in 1986, ownership of newly manufactured automatic weapons was prohibited to civilians.