“Consider the fact that we now have on the lawbooks of this nation over 20,000 laws governing the sale, distribution and use of firearms.”

That quote came from now-deceased Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) during hearings before the Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency in 1965. Dingell’s statistic would go on to be one of – if not the – most often quoted statistic regarding gun laws in the United States. Much to the chagrin of legal minds everywhere, no one has ever been able to pin down the source from which Dingell came up with that figure.

Regardless, there are three Federal laws concerning firearms that are of significant consequence to the average gun owner today. They are the National Firearms Act of 1934 (NFA), the Gun Control Act of 1968 (GCA), and the Firearm Owners’ Protection Act of 1986 (FOPA). Let’s take a look at each one and see how they affect firearms ownership for you and me.

National Firearms Act of 1934

national firearms act cover
The NFA regulates short barreled rifles, short barreled shotguns, machine guns, and suppressors. Wikipedia commons

To understand why the NFA came to be, one must understand what the United States was like in 1934. The 21st Amendment had just recently been ratified, which repealed the 18th Amendment from 1919 and effectively ended Prohibition’s 14-year run on the ban of alcohol.

Prohibition led to the rise of large-scale rumrunners and bootleggers, often with deep ties to the mob. With rival gangsters such as George “Bugs” Moran and Al “Scarface” Capone vying for as much control and cash as could be made off of illegal alcohol, blood was bound to flow.

president franklin d. rooseevelt signs the nfa
President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the NFA as J. Edgar Hoover looks on.

Much of that blood was shed by guns that have since become forever tied to the image of 1920s gangsters: Tommy guns, sawed off shotguns, and, to a lesser extent, sound suppressors such as the Maxim Silencer.

Eager to stem the tide of violence, Congress enacted legislation that regulated those items in a few main categories: short barreled rifles, short barreled shotguns, machine guns, and suppressors. This new law required the items above to be registered with the government and subject to a $200 registration tax per item. Adjusted for inflation, $200 is equal to approximately $3,800 today.

side bye side comparison of a pistol and sbr
The definition of an SBR versus a pistol is as clear as mud.

As a matter of comparison, the $200 tax was to be applied to a brand-new Thompson submachine gun, which cost about $200 at the time, as well as a $5 Maxim Silencer. The goal was to essentially make legal ownership of NFA items cost-prohibitive, thereby making them de-facto illegal.

Under the NFA, machine guns and suppressors are easily defined, but what is a short barreled rifle (SBR) or short barreled shotgun (SBS)? An SBR is a firearm with a buttstock and either a rifled barrel less than 16” long or an overall length under 26”. The overall length is measured with a folding/collapsing stock in the extended position. The category also includes firearms which came from the factory with a buttstock that was later removed by a third party.

Why 16 inches and 26 inches as the standard? If there was a concrete reason, it has been lost to time.

a tiny drop in auto sear
This tiny object, known as an auto sear, sold for $28,750 in 2017. Rock Island Auctions

An SBS is defined similarly to an SBR, but has a smoothbore barrel less than 18” long or a minimum overall length under 26”.

The NFA also regulates “Destructive Devices” such as missiles, bombs, or grenades, as well as “Any Other Weapon,” which includes disguised arms like cane guns or smoothbore pistols that fire shotgun shells.

Gun Control Act of 1968

president lyndon johnson signing the gun control act of 1968
President Lyndon Johnson signing the Gun Control Act of 1968. wiki

Like the NFA, creation of the Gun Control Act is best understood with historic context. Initially conceived in 1963 after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the idea really gained momentum after the 1968 assassinations of both civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

JFK was killed with a rifle purchased through the mail; King was killed with a rifle purchased by a convicted felon, and RFK was killed with a revolver purchased by a non-citizen of the United States.

The GCA aimed to curb the circumstances under which the arms used in the assassinations were acquired. As such, the new law imposed stricter licensing and regulation on the firearms industry, established new categories of firearms offenses, and prohibited the sale of firearms and ammunition to felons and certain other prohibited persons.

lawmakers examining rifle used to assassinate martin luther king jr.
In this photo from, lawmakers examine the rifle used to assassinate Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, which, in part, led to the Gun Control Act of 1968.

More specifically, it led to the rise of the Federal Firearms License for dealers and manufacturers of firearms, banned mail-order firearm sales, required serial numbers on all guns, and prohibited interstate handgun sales.

In 1993, the GCA was amended by the so-called “Brady Bill,” which gave rise to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System—or, NICS—that we know today.

Firearm Owners’ Protection Act of 1986 and Hughes Amendment


FOPA was created as a response to allegations of abuse of power by the Federal government when it came to enforcing gun laws. The new law limited the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms from inspecting gun dealers more than once a year, with follow-up inspections allowed only if multiple violations are found. It also dealt with interstate sales of firearms, again revised the definition of “prohibited persons,” and removed recordkeeping requirements on most ammunition sales.

Now, if you hold an FFL and are a manufacturer or dealer, then the vast majority of FOPA is a good thing. It was an amendment to the bill that has had the biggest impact on American gun owners today.

Now-retired Rep. William J. Hughes (D-NJ) introduced an amendment to the bill that banned the civilian ownership of machine guns made after May 19, 1986.

President Reagan signed the Firearm Owners’ Protection Act, which contained the Hughes Amendment, in 1986. He’s shown here aiming a rifle aboard Air Force One. wiki

The exact number of said arms is unknown, but the estimate stands at approximately 175,000. This has led to an explosion in value for the limited number of legal machine guns that can be sold and transferred from one person to another. A Tommy gun will set you back approximately $25,000, and an MP5 will cost you approximately $40,000.

In 2017, a registered auto-sear for an AR-15 sold at auction for a staggering $28,750 – for just the sear! That is, only the part that allows a gun to fire multiple rounds with one pull of the trigger. On top of that price, you still have to supply your own host rifle.

I’m Not a Lawyer

So there you have it, a summation of “The Big Three” gun control laws that have the most impact on law-abiding gun owners today in the United States. This piece was not designed to be the end-all-be-all of gun control explanation, nor should it be construed as legal advice in any way. I’m not a lawyer and I didn’t stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night, so please take it for what it is: a layman’s explanation of Federal gun control laws.


The Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994

The Federal Assault Weapons Ban (AWB), officially known as the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act was a subsection of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, signed into law by President Bill Clinton.

The piece of legislation came after President George H.W. Bush’s administration banned the importation of foreign-made, semi-auto rifles deemed not to have “a legitimate sporting use” in 1989.

The Act included a prohibition of the manufacture of certain semi-automatic firearms for civilian use, which were defined as “assault weapons,” as well as certain ammunition magazines that were defined as “large capacity.” That definition was: “any magazine, belt, drum, feed strip, or similar device manufactured after the date [of the act] that has the capacity of, or that can be readily restored or converted to accept, more than 10 rounds of ammunition”

president clinton signing awb into law
President Bill Clinton signs the AWB into law on Sept. 13, 1994. Wikipedia

The ban only applied to firearms and mags made after the ban’s enactment date, meaning the prices for those items went sky high during the 10 years the AWB was in effect.

The legislation had a decade long life span as it included a sunset provision. It was allowed to expire on September 13, 2004, under the George W. Bush legislation.

The legislation, which was passed in the U.S. Senate in November, 1993 was authored by none other than Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who has introduced a nearly identical piece of legislation every year since 2004—despite the fact that there were no discernible benefits from the 10 years the AWB was in place.

In May, 1994, former presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan wrote to the U.S. House of Representatives in support of banning “semi-automatic assault guns,” citing a 1993 CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll that found 77 percent of Americans supported such a ban.

The ban only applied to semi-auto firearms and some 650 firearm types or models were specifically exempt. The ban also didn’t apply to any semi-auto rifles without a detachable magazine. —Dave Maccar