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Restricting Private Weapons June 30, 2007

Posted by David Bookstaber in Natural Rights, Regulation, RKBA.

A true Constitutionalist must believe that the federal government should not ban private ownership of military weapons.  Most people think it’s utter lunacy to contemplate an individual being allowed to buy things like grenades, or a 155mm howitzer.  To me it is perfectly legitimate.

Consider the case of motor vehicles.  We let almost anyone — even minors and felons — purchase and operate cars that carry a combustible payload of fuel and which can easily weigh three tons and travel over a hundred miles per hour.  When aimed correctly a single passenger vehicle in a single collision is capable of killing many people and destroying hundreds of thousands of dollars in property.  Cars greatly enhance the ability of criminals to steal the property and lives of other people.  So how can a society full of car drivers survive?  Two simple rules make this work:

  1. Every vehicle is registered to an owner, and it is very easy for law enforcement to trace a car used incorrectly to its owner.
  2. Every vehicle owner has to post and maintain a bond to cover the potential misuse of his vehicle.  Typically he does this through a third-party insurance contract, though (at least in some states) owners can “self-insure” by convincing the regulator that he has enough money to cover reasonable liabilities.

How can a polite society permit unrestricted weapons ownership?  Well the first key point is that only responsible citizens enjoy full liberties.  If you are a child, a felon, or certifiably insane then you already lack the right to keep and bear arms.  Do we need to worry about a wealthy individual having a bad day and lobbing his registered grenade into a crowd of innocent bystanders?  Or about his teenage son taking the grenade to school?  Probably not if there’s a six-figure bond covering the use of that grenade, and especially not if chemical tracers can irrefutably finger him as the device’s owner and put him in jail for criminal negligence.

Would criminal gangs be unstoppable if they could keep a main battle tank in their hideout?  Again, somebody with full rights would have had to register that weapon system and post a huge bond to insure against its misuse.  I.e., a responsible party is on the hook.  It’s not like somebody is going to drive a tank downtown and fire a few 120mm rounds without people noticing where it came from.

What about the most extreme case, a thermonuclear bomb?  We could perhaps exempt high-yield nuclear weapons from private ownership simply because they are strategic, not tactical — or more saliently, they are fundamentally a terrorist weapon.

Returning to more practical considerations, one may wonder why we should contemplate private ownership of powerful weapons.  What legitimate role could they play in a stable democracy like ours?  I guess this may be where Principled thinkers diverge from Pragmatic ones, but in principle I know that only tyrranies need to disarm responsible individuals.  I also know that even stable societies can break down — sometimes only temporarily — and the fact that we are enjoying a period of peace and prosperity doesn’t mean that chaos is impossible.  If citizens with property want to invest in private arsenals, either for their own amusement or as insurance against a marauding mob that the state isn’t in a condition to beat back, why should our society show preference to the mob?  Especially when a registration and bonding regime is capable of adequately dealing with weapons of every caliber.

The Punchline

It may surprise many Americans to know that the federal government actually does allow individuals to buy things like grenades or working artillery pieces.  Our laws, together with the executive Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) draw amusingly arbitrary lines on weapons ownership:

  • “Armor Piercing” bullets are illegal to manufacture or import.  The criteria for what this ban encompasses are too complex to mock in this space.  (However there is still an existing supply of legal bullets manufactured before the ban.  Since the ban fixed the supply tungsten core rifle bullets now cost upwards of $1 apiece.  Who buys them?  Probably speculators.)
  • Individuals cannot own any machinegun manufactured after May 19, 1986.  (As a result of this fixed supply the market for legal machineguns is very expensive: The cheapest now sell for at least $4000, and popular models like the M-16 are now around $12000.  Again, many owners are now investors.)
  • Any firearms with shoulder stocks have to have a barrel of at least 16″ and overall length of 26″, or else they have to be purchased as an NFA item.  (NFA items, named in the National Firearms Act, can be legally purchased by individuals as long as they register the purchase and pay the “Transfer Tax,” which for most items is $200.)
  • Shotguns with barrels shorter than 18″ are NFA items.
  • Any gun with a bore diameter over half an inch is considered a “Destructive Device” (DD) unless it’s a “shotgun suitable for sporting purposes” or a muzzle-loaded firearm.  “DD”s are a special class of NFA items that are often more harshly restricted by state laws.
  • The feds will let you buy a grenade, as long as you register the device and pay the $200 tax (that’s per grenade).
  • A suppressor (“silencer” — actually, any component that can be readily used to construct a firearm silencer) is treated as an NFA firearm.
  • Interstate commerce in “switchblade” knives is also prohibited, except to the military or to people with only one arm.

Note that criminals can easily modify many non-NFA firearms to create short-barrelled or automatic weapons for less than $200.  Meanwhile, law-abiding citizens can buy grenades and commission 155mm howitzers if they pay a $200 registration tax, but they cannot legally buy new machineguns or “armor piercing” bullets for any price.


1. Baxter - August 31, 2007

You talk a lot of sense though really, howitzers I think may be going a little overboard… can’t see a real use for that… anyway I think being able to own a machine gun or large bore shotgun should be the right of any upstanding American citizen. Now if only we could get rid of those damn laws.

Robert Stewart - October 9, 2019

I think you miss a very important point. It is not whether there is a ‘real’ use but we have a real right. If you look up Dragon Arms of Colorado Springs you will find he owns tanks, missiles, grenades, all sorts of weapons including a T34 tank all of which are operational.

2. LearnAboutGuns - September 25, 2008

You make some very good points. Most importantly, the people who would misuse tools such as automatic weapons aren’t going to obey the law banning them in the first place… Which is why I can’t understand how rational people support gun control laws.

3. Bob Stewart - October 9, 2019

The article is interesting except I object with either the registration or insurance which violates the ‘shall not be infringed’ These are infringements on a right. We do not have a constitutional right to a car or even a horse we do have a constitutional right to arms. In 1780 there was private ownership of cannons look at the merchant vessels of the day. There was a proto type machine gun called the Puckle defender as well as rifles, shotguns, and pistols. Each was available for private ownership. All were ‘weapons’ of war in that day and age. So constitutionally why is now different than what was written then? What do the words say and mean in the context of when they were written?

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