It’s no secret that ATF told at least one FFL they need to run a NICS check on trustees picking up NFA firearms on behalf of a trust. In a letter addressed to Dakota Silencer, ATF explained:
The term “person” is defined by the GCA at 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(1), to include “any individual, corporation, company, association, firm, partnership, society, or joint stock company.”
ATF has interpreted the GCA exception in sections 922(t)(3)(B) and 478.102(d)(2) to mean that firearms transfers are exempt from a NICS check when they have been approved under the NFA to the person receiving the firearm. Unlike individuals, corporations, partnerships, and associations; unincorporated trusts do not fall within the definition of “person” in the GCA.
Because unincorporated trusts are not “persons” under the GCA, a Federal firearms licensee (FFL) cannot transfer firearms to them without complying with the GCA. Thus, when an FFL transfers an NFA firearm to a trustee or other person acting on behalf of a trust, the transfer is made to this person as an individual (i.e., not as a trust). As the trustee or other person acting on behalf of the trust is not the approved transferee under the NFA, 18 U.S.C. 5812, the trustee or other person acting on behalf of a trust must undergo a NICS check. The individual must also be a resident of the same State as the FFL when receiving the firearm.
This interpretation is what spawned the blog post “Did ATF’s Determination on NICS Checks Open the Door for Manufacture of New Machineguns for Trusts” by Chief Counsel Joshua Prince. And as we all know, the NFA Examiners issued a number of approved Form 1s before they had to recall them due to an “error”.
Since this letter was published, a number of FFLs either on their own accord or through advice of counsel have begun to perform background checks when transferring NFA Firearms to trustees. But is this actually required?
A person under the National Firearms Act is defined in 26 U.S.C.A. § 7701:
The term “person” shall be construed to mean and include an individual, a trust, estate, partnership, association, company or corporation.
As defined in the National Firearms Act of 1934, the term firearm means:
(1) a shotgun having a barrel or barrels of less than 18 inches in length; (2) a weapon made from a shotgun if such weapon as modified has an overall length of less than 26 inches or a barrel or barrels of less than 18 inches in length; (3) a rifle having a barrel or barrels of less than 16 inches in length; (4) a weapon made from a rifle if such weapon as modified has an overall length of less than 26 inches or a barrel or barrels of less than 16 inches in length; (5) any other weapon, as defined in subsection (e); (6) a machinegun; (7) any silencer (as defined in section 921 of Title 18, United States Code); and (8) a destructive device. 26 U.S.C.S § 5845(a)
As defined in the Gun Control Act of 1968, the term firearm means:
(A) any weapon (including a starter gun) which will or is designed to or may readily be converted to expel a projectile by the action of an explosive; (B) the frame or receiver of any such weapon; (C) any firearm muffler or firearm silencer; or (D) any destructive device. Such term does not include an antique firearm. 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(3)
So what’s the big deal you ask? There are a few different issues that need to be addressed.
First, does the GCA of 1968 even APPLY to trusts? As Section 921(a)(1) does not define the term “person” to include an unincorporated trust, there is nothing in the GCA to indicate a trust falls under its purview! As Chief Counsel Joshua Prince pointed out to me in our discussions on this topic, ATF has said that a trust cannot hold an FFL because trusts, by definition, are not a person under the GCA and thus do not fall into the purview of 18 U.S.C. § 923. Yet, in the same breath, ATF is stating that trustees need to have a background check performed when they pick up a NFA item! How is it that ATF can refuse an FFL to a trust, because it is not a person under the GCA and refuse to pierce through the trust to an actual person, while requiring an FFL to, in essence, pierce through the trust to perform a background check for an NFA item?
It would seem that ATF is directing at least one FFL to perform a background check that I can find no legal requirement to perform. To my knowledge there has not been an industry wide newsletter or open letter directing that FFLs perform such a check. And even if there were, there is nothing I can find in the law to suggest that it is actually required.
ATF in a 2011 newsletter to FFLs, addressed the licensing of trusts under federal firearms law. ATF stated that only a person under the GCA could obtain a FFL. ATF went on to say that under Section 921:
“The term ‘person’ does not include trusts.”
In a 2008 newsletter to FFLs, ATF addressed the transfer of a National Firearms Act firearm to a corporation or other legal entity.
Procedure after approval
Approved NFA transfers are exempt from the NICS background check. So, when the FFL arranges for the disposition of the NFA firearm to a representative of the corporation or other entity, only the ATF
Form 4473, Firearms Transaction Record, must be completed by the representative of the corporation or other entity.
Furthermore, the NICS system isn’t even run by ATF. FBI is responsible for NICS and for what purposes it can be used. 28 C.F.R. § 25.6 provides:
(a) FFLs may initiate a NICS background check only in connection with a proposed firearm transfer as required by the Brady Act. FFLs are strictly prohibited from initiating a NICS background check for any other purpose.
The Brady Act amended § 922 along with a few other sections of Chapter 44.
Looking at 18 U.S.C. § 922(t)(1), it provides:
Beginning on the date that is 30 days after the Attorney General notifies licensees under section 103(d) of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act that the national instant criminal background check system is established, a … licensed dealer shall not transfer a firearm to any other person who is not licensed under this chapter, unless—
(A) before the completion of the transfer, the licensee contacts the national instant criminal background check system established under section 103 of that Act;
Section 922(t)(3) provides:
Paragraph (1) shall not apply to a firearm transfer between a licensee and another person if–…
(B) the Attorney General has approved the transfer under section 5812 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986;…
If the Attorney General approved the transfer under Section 5812 of the Internal Revenue Code then no NICS check is required. But the devil is in the details. We are talking about a transfer from a licensee to a person and a trust is not a person as defined in 18 U.S.C. § 921. Since the licensed dealer isn’t transferring the firearm to a person, how could the GCA apply at all? Furthermore, why does it matter that the trustee or person acting on behalf of the trust is not the approved transferee under 26 U.S.C. § 5812? What makes them so special that they need a NICS check performed? A person who comes in to pick up a NFA firearm on behalf of a corporation or a LLC isn’t the approved transferee. Yet, ATF doesn’t seem to have any qualms about that individual picking up a NFA firearm without a NICS check under the 18 U.S.C. § 922(t)(3)(B) exemption.
Moreover, 28 C.F.R. § 25.6 prohibits FFLS from utilizing the NICS system for any other purpose than required by the Brady Act. Ostensibly, FFLs cannot comply with what ATF purportedly wants them to do; access NICS to perform a background check on a Trustee picking up a NFA firearm.
Utilizing the NICS system for purposes other than allowed by Subpart A of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System as defined by 28 C.F.R. §§ 25.1-25.11 shall result in a fine not to exceed $10,000 and the possible cancellation of NICS inquiry privileges. Which can more or less be read as the loss of ability to conduct business as a FFL, if it is canceled.
Even if the NICS query would not be illegal to perform, there is another issue under Pennsylvania law!
Pennsylvania defines firearm very differently. In 18 Pa.C.S. § 6102 a firearm is defined as:
Any pistol or revolver with a barrel length less than 15 inches, any shotgun with a barrel length less than 18 inches or any rifle with a barrel length less than 16 inches, or any pistol, revolver, rifle or shotgun with an overall length of less than 26 inches. The barrel length of a firearm shall be determined by measuring from the muzzle of the barrel to the face of the closed action, bolt or cylinder, whichever is applicable.
As you are probably aware, the Pennsylvania State Police act as a point of contact for the NICS system. However, Pennsylvania law only allows for limited uses of the PICS system. These uses are defined in 18 Pa.C.S. § 6111.
Section 6111(b) requires that:
No … licensed dealer shall sell or deliver any firearm to another person … until the conditions of subsection (a) have been satisfied and until he has:
(1) For purposes of a firearm as defined insection 6102 (relating to definitions), obtained a completed application/record of sale from the potential buyer or transferee…
(2) Inspected photoidentification of the potential purchaser or transferee…
(3) Requested by means of a telephone call that the Pennsylvania State Police conduct a criminal history, juvenile delinquency history and a mental health record check.
(4) Received a unique approval number for that inquiry from the Pennsylvania State Police and recorded the date and the number on the application/record of sale form.
(5) Issued a receipt containing the information from paragraph (4), including the unique approval number of the purchaser….
Section 6111(f)(1) provides:
For the purposes of this section only … “firearm” shall mean any weapon which is designed to or may readily be converted to expel any projectile by the action of an explosive or the frame or receiver of any such weapon.
Even with the expanded definition of firearm for the purposes of this section, a silencer does not fit into the criteria spelled out by the General Assembly!
So what does all of this mean?
Section 6111(g)(3) states:
Any … licensed dealer … who knowingly and intentionally requests a criminal history, juvenile delinquency or mental health record check or other confidential information from the Pennsylvania State Police under this chapter for any purpose other than compliance with this chapter … commits a felony of the third degree.
Even if FFLs could contact NICS to perform a background check on a trustee when delivering a NFA Firearm without abusing the system, a Pennsylvania FFL will be committing a felony of the third degree under state law!
FFLs who are conducting background checks on trustees due to their interpretation of the Dakota Silencer letter or legal advice they received may wish to inquire with their counsel as to whether or not they actually need to perform one. There does not appear to be any basis in the law for such a requirement. Section 921 does not include an unincorporated trust in the definition of a “person” and the Attorney General would have approved the transfer under 26 U.S.C.A. § 5812 to the trust!
As there have been some emails and comments on this post, it is appropriate to update it so there is no confusion. In PA and from what I understand, several other states, the definition of a firearm does not include a silencer. However, in PA SBRs, SBSs, Machine Guns and AOWs would require a FFL to conduct a PICS check as the definition of firearm would include those items. I apologize if anyone was misled. This was strictly in the context of a silencer. As always, consult with your legal counsel before making any decisions.
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