Spirit of ’86: The Rise of the Full Auto Ban

Spirit of '86: The Rise of the Full Auto Ban
Spirit of '86: The Rise of the Full Auto Ban

The story of American gun control legislation didn’t end with the 1968 amendments to the NFA. Congress returned to the subject again in 1986 with the Firearm Owners’ Protection Act (FOPA), a complex piece of legislation which—among other things—reshaped the ways in which civilians could own select-fire or fully automatic weapons.

Under the Gun Control Act of 1968, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms gained a great deal of leeway in enforcing and interpreting the laws pertaining to gun ownership and the regulation of Federal Firearms License (FFL) holders. As gun-advocacy groups and individual dealers began to report abuses by ATF inspectors, the issue came to the attention of the United States Senate. The Senate made a study of the matter and released a report in 1982 stating among other things that:

The conclusion is thus inescapable that the history, concept, and wording of the second amendment to the Constitution of the United States, as well as its interpretation by every major commentator and court in the first half-century after its ratification, indicates that what is protected is an individual right of a private citizen to own and carry firearms in a peaceful manner.

This would seem to reinforce the right to keep and bear arms. The Senate report found that a vast majority of ATF actions and prosecutions were committed against law-abiding gun owners with no criminal history, action, or intent. FOPA, the legislation formulated in response to this report, initially proceeded along those lines. As originally written, it loosened restrictions on interstate sales of long weapons, allowed for ammunition sales and shipment via the US Postal Service, removed the requirement for record keeping on ammunition ownership and sales, prohibited the  federal government from registering or licensing non-NFA weapons, and gave federal protection to peaceable travel—i.e. traveling with a firearm through a state in which that firearm would be prohibited. This, it would seem, was a solid win for the right to keep and bear arms.

Enter Representative William J. Hughes.

A Democrat from New Jersey, Hughes introduced several amendments to FOPA, including a ban on the ownership of new machine guns or fully automatic/select-fire weapons. Existing ownership was grandfathered in, but new acquisitions were banned entirely.  Transfers of ownership could be accomplished pending ATF approval and a complex tax stamp and licensure process. The right to own select-fire or fully automatic weapons had been stringently curtailed.

FOPA, including the Hughes amendments, passed on the morning of April 10th, 1986 via voice vote. Requests for a recorded vote were overturned, and the act became law.

The Hughes Amendments failed to have a substantial effect on crime, simply because there was almost no crime to prevent. From 1932 to the present, I can find solid evidence of only two homicides committed with legally owned fully automatic or select-fire weapons; one of which was perpetrated by a police officer in Dayton, Ohio in 1999. Hughes’s motivations for the amendment are unknown to me, and I’d be interested to see any further information about them.

Nor would this be the end of gun control efforts on the federal level. Stay tuned.

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Michael Jenkins is a writer and editor based in Wilmington, North Carolina. He is a lifelong reader, gardener, shooter, and musician. You can reach him at opencarryjenkins@gmail.com.
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