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Emily  Sanderson
By Emily Sanderson November 3, 2017
Tessa  Weinberg
By Tessa Weinberg November 3, 2017

The ban is gone, but owning a machine gun in Missouri isn't easy

Following one of the deadliest mass shootings in modern U.S. history in Las Vegas, State Rep. Nick Marshall, R-Parkville, was critical of the political rhetoric and expressed his discontent in an Oct. 2 Missourinet article.

"When it comes to automatic weapons, that’s a federal issue as you know," Marshall said.

State Rep. Stacey Newman, D-Richmond Heights, told Missourinet that Marshall was incorrect on automatic weapons being a federal issue. She pointed to House Bill 294, which passed in 2011.

"Part of this omnibus gun bill that year (was) legalizing machine guns in the state of Missouri," Newman said. "We legalized them here. And ever since then, continually my whole time in the legislature, we have loosened restriction."

We were wondering, are machine guns legal in Missouri? Are they under federal or state jurisdiction? And, has Missouri loosened restrictions on them? We tried to reach out to Newman to clarify her statement, but received no response.

We spoke with people knowledgeable on gun laws in Missouri, who said that when it came to Newman’s statement, there’s context missing and multiple ways to interpret it.

Regulating machine guns

Basically, a machine gun is an automatic weapon that is capable of firing more than one round per trigger pull, Allen Rostron, law professor at University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, said in an email. A semi-automatic requires a finger pull for each round but automatically loads the chamber after a shot.

The sale of automatic weapons has been restricted since the National Firearms Act was enacted in 1934. The act was inspired, in part, because of frequent use of machine guns in crime, including the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago and the 1933 Union Station Massacre in Kansas City.

The original act imposed a tax on automatic weapons and required they be registered with the Secretary of the Treasury, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

"It essentially amounted to a ban, because it became a crime to possess a machine gun without having it properly registered with the government," Rostron said. "But technically it wasn’t actually a ban, because it didn’t prohibit machine guns. It just made them subject to much stricter regulations than other guns."

In 1986, Congress passed additional regulations that cut off the supply of new machine guns to civilian buyers. Any existing machine guns manufactured before May 19, 1986, are still allowed to be purchased and were grandfathered into the law.

Essentially, that’s where the federal law stands today.

"There are something like 400,000 or 500,000 of these machine guns that are legally possessed by civilians in the United States," Rostron said.

State vs. federal

Prior to 2011, Missouri prohibited the possession of machine guns in the state. HB 294, which Newman referenced, "Allows a person to possess, manufacture, transport, repair, or sell a machine gun, short barreled rifle or shotgun, or firearm silencer if he or she conforms with federal law," according to the bill summary. The bill passed by a majority in both the House and the Senate and was signed into law by Gov. Jay Nixon.

"So in other words, Missouri went from having a stricter law that completely banned machine guns to having a law that said you’re allowed to have a machine gun if federal law permits it," Rostron said.

As of April 2017, there were 9,588 machine guns registered in Missouri, according to a 2017 ATF report, said Hannah Shearer, staff attorney and Second Amendment litigation director for the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a group that advocates for more restrictive gun regulation.

So is Marshall or Newman correct that machine guns are a federal or state issue? Well, it depends.

Marshall is correct that federal law has the ultimate jurisdiction over machine guns. However, states can impose stricter laws that go beyond federal law, such as Missouri did prior to 2011.

"Rep. Marshall’s statement is incomplete or inaccurate to the extent it suggests state law is completely irrelevant to this," Rostron said. "So it is not purely a federal issue as he seemed to suggest."

However, Newman’s statement could also be misleading. She is correct that machine guns were legalized in Missouri, but they must still comply with federal law.

"If her statement gives people the impression that machine guns have been legalized in Missouri and so now they’re not subject to any special restrictions, then that is not correct, because machine guns remain subject to the federal (National Firearms Act) restrictions that apply throughout the nation," Rostron said.

However, other experts disagreed, and claimed that machine guns are solely a federal issue.

"This is theater," St. Louis University School of Law Professor Anders Walker said in an email about Newman’s statement. "Machine guns are controlled by federal law, full stop," and linked to a Giffords Law Center webpage. An NRA spokeswoman agreed.

Kevin Jamison, attorney and president of the Western Missouri Shooters Alliance, pointed to the fact that no state agency regulates machine guns, and said that the only difference is that the Missouri law allows prosecutors to try a case in a Missouri court.

"Doesn’t happen very often, but it could possibly happen," Jamison said.

Loosening restrictions?

Newman also said, "Ever since (House Bill 294 passed), continually my whole time in the Legislature, we have loosened restriction."

Experts said the accuracy of Newman’s statement depends on whether she was referring to machine guns specifically or gun laws in general.

When it comes to machine guns, experts said Missouri has not loosened restrictions since 2011.

However, Shearer pointed out that the state has loosened restriction on gun laws more generally.

"Rep. Newman is also correct that Missouri has weakened its gun laws over time, including last year, when state lawmakers overrode the governor’s veto to enact permitless concealed carry," Shearer said. "Missouri’s weak laws correlate with a comparatively high gun death rate. In 2016 Missouri had the ninth highest per capita gun death rate among all the states," pointing to a Giffords Law Center scorecard.

Our ruling

Newman said, Missouri legalized machine guns.

There’s some truth to that, but also some caveats. In 2011, the Missouri legislature overturned a full ban of automatic weapons. But all that did was make state law comply with federal law. Federal law doesn’t outright ban machine guns, but it does heavily regulate them. Generally, machine guns are hard to acquire.

We rate this claim Half True.

Our Sources

Missourinet article, Oct. 2, 2017

House Bill 294, 2011

Email exchange, Anders Walker, St. Louis University School of Law Professor, Oct. 17, 2017

Phone Interview, Kevin Jamison, attorney and president of the Western Missouri Shooters Alliance, Oct. 18, 2017

Email exchange, Allen Rostron, UMKC School of Law, Law professor, Oct. 22, 2017

Email exchange, Amy Hunter, NRA-ILA Media Liaison, Oct. 23, 2017

Email exchange, Hannah Shearer, Staff Attorney and Second Amendment Litigation Director for the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, Oct. 23, 2017

National Firearms Act, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives webpage, Dec. 1, 2016

Firearms Commerce in the United States, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, 2017

Firearms Owners Protection Act, 1985-1986

Machine Guns, Destructive Devices and Certain Other Firearms, U.S. Code, Title 26, Chapter 53

Machine Guns and 50-Caliber, Giffords Law Center

Giffords Law Center scorecard, Giffords Law Center

The ban is gone, but owning a machine gun in Missouri isn't easy

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