Today in History: The Hughes Amendment

Do you remember the shocking images of the North Hollywood shootout? How about the days of prohibition when early fully automatic weapons such as the Thompson submachine gun and the Browning Automatic Rifle, were used to commit numerous crimes in our country? To some the banning of machine guns seems like a natural, moral act. To others, the perception is a violation of gun owners’ rights. Whatever your political view, in the early morning hours of May 19, 1986 the federal government did exactly that. The amendment was part of a larger act called the Firearm Owners Protection Act (FOPA). This law had many smaller portions such as the “Safe Passage” provision—which states that gun owners would not face incarceration for a firearms offense if they were considered to be “traveling.” This law also established a registry prohibition, forbidding the government from keeping a registry directly linking non-National Firearms Act firearms to their owners. Later revisions include a national background check, as well as a clarification of prohibited persons. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) interpreted the Hughes Amendment as a prohibition on the civilian possession of any fully-automatic firearm manufactured after May 19, 1986. This led to freezing the number of privately-owned fully-automatic firearms at about 150,000 nationwide. This freeze led to great controversy. At the time there had been almost no record of a legally owned, civilian fully automatic firearm used to commit a violent crime. The director of the BATF, Stephen Higgins, testified that the misuse of legally-owned fully-automatic firearms was “so minimal as not to be considered a law enforcement problem.”

Second Amendment Violation?

Was this act a violation of the Second Amendment? A Georgia man named Farmer purchased a fully-automatic firearm manufactured after the passing of the FOPA. When applying for registration of this fully-automatic firearm, the BATF rejected him. The interpretation of the amendment that the BATF was acting upon was, in his mind, incorrect. He questioned whether or not Congress had the power to ban a specific type of weapon, and if they exercised that power, would that be a violation of the Second Amendment to the Constitution? The District Court of the Northern District of Georgia ruled in Farmer’s favor. The federal government appealed, and later reversed the decision.

Rock Island Armory was charged in 1987 to be in violation of the National Firearms Act registration requirements. The chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois threw out the case citing that NFA sections upon which the charges were based, were “without any constitutional basis.” The federal government appealed this decision, but later asked for dismissal of the appeal. The Rock Island precedent has been in use since then in cases such as U.S. v. Dalton, where Dalton, an attorney, accepted a firearm as fee from a client who was a licensed firearms dealer and who had converted the weapon into a machine gun in 1989.

To Repeal or Not to Repeal? That is the Question

So does the Hughes Amendment stand any chance of being repealed in the near future? Most experts say that it is not likely. In the meantime, the average U.S. citizen will have to make do with semi-automatic rounds flying through the chamber as fast as our freedom-loving fingers can pull the trigger.

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Comments (14)

  1. How has the thing, Hughes Amendment survived is almost as interesting a question as how did it pass in the first place.

  2. The last attempt to repeal the Hughes Amendment was vigorously opposed by the NFA Collectors Association. The fear was that if manufacture of new full-automatic firearms was allowed, the bottom would fall out of the value of their collections.

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  5. I just donated $200 to David Johnson’s campaign on to repeal the Hughes amendment.

  6. I disagree that repeal is unlikely. Considering how it “passed”, that few rational people support it since it doesn’t affect crime at all, and that the market becomes more and more constrained every day due to the law, I feel either repeal or declaration that the amendment is illegal/invalid by a federal court is inevitable. We need to fight to bring attention to this.

    1. Ok it is 2018 going into 2019 so where do it stand now on machine guns. I know there crazies out here thats messing it up cause of unlawful use of the gun, but I do believe in my right to bear arms.

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