As age and disease claim ever more of our Korean War and Vietnam War Veterans, a potential legal pitfall for their survivors is on the rise. Some families of those Veterans are discovering firearms stored in safes, closets, sheds, and garages which were brought back as momentos -- some legally, some otherwise -- that no one, except the veteran, knew about!
Sometimes it's a rather simple matter of finding an old pistol, hunting rifle or shotgun. But occassionally, it can be really tricky. Especially when firearms that fall under the control of the National Firearms Act (NFA) are involved. Some of the more common include:
• Machine guns or firearms capable of firing more than one round with one trigger pull (aka fully automatic)
• Short-barrel rifles (less than 16 in.) and shotguns (less than 18 in.)
• Suppressors (aka silencers)
Broadly these firearms fall into two categories: Registered (Legal) or NOT Registered (Illegal).
But it is more complicated than that, as the legal machine guns are further categorized as;
"Fully Transferable": can be transferred to anyone who is legally able to possess a machine gun, with a $200 Transfer Tax. These are worth the most.
"Pre-May 19, 1986 Registered Dealer Sample machine guns": Guns that can be transferred between Federal Firearms Licensed (FFL) Dealers that also have an Special Occupational Tax Stamp (SOT) without a “Law Enforcement Sample Request Letter”. While worth a lot less than a Fully Transferable machinegun, they are easy to transfer between FFL Dealers with a SOT so these have gone up substantially in value
"Post May 19, 1986 Restricted Dealer Samples" : Guns that can only be transferred to another FFL dealers that has an SOT, but require a “Law Enforcement Request Letter." These guns are much harder to transfer so the value is quite low, often just a bit more than the parts would be worth
It can be very confusing!!
If a firearm is located during the process of cleaning out an estate, after making sure it is not loaded, the first question should be, is there any documentation about the firearm present or elsewhere on the premises? Documentation, if any, will be key in communicating with anyone about the discovered property.
Documents to look for include:
• Documents creating a Firearms Trust, which will identify the firearms that are controlled by the Trust and the individuals named as Trustees
• A Special Occupational Tax (SOT) stamp affixed to an ATF Form 4 (Application for Tax Paid Transfer and Registration of Firearm)
• A SOT stamp affixed to a Federal Firearms License (FFL) for a Dealer.
• Any letter on US Department of War (Prior to 1947), Department of the Navy, Department of the Army (After 1947), Department of the Air Force (After 1947), Department of Defense (After 1949), Department of Transportation (Coast Guard, prior to 2003), or Department of Homeland Security (Coast Guard, 2003 and later) letterhead transferring ownership of a military firearm to a service member
If the firearm turns out to be a NFA firearm that was Not Registered in the National Firearms Act (NFA) Registry, it is Not Legal to possess and could result in a $10,000 fine and 10 years in prison.
In the case of a NFA weapon without any documentation, the proper thing to do is to contact local law enforcement agency and turn it in as an "Estate Find." In all likelihood, firearms surrendered to law enforcement will be destroyed.
You could also contact the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives BATFE or, more commonly ATF), but usually local Law Enforcement (City Police Department or County Sheriff Department) is sufficient and, if you are familiar them or someone who works there, will be a much less dramatic experience.
You can also ask to strip the parts, but be aware that a complete parts set, even without the receiver, are still considered a NFA firearm. You can have some of the parts, but not all.
Family members and estate executors are always wise to consult with legal counsel if a firearm is found and not otherwise documented or addressed in a decedent's will.
Now, if proper registration paperwork is available, there are processes for legally transferring ownership. So dig deep for the paperwork. But sadly most of these “bring-backs” were never registered. So be very careful!
Again after checking for paperwork, if none is found, I would turn it in to local Law Enforcement. Very sad, but this one is probably going to the destruction pile.