If you’re looking to buy a suppressor or a short-barreled rifle, there’s good news. In December, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) officially launched online processing of the required forms, a move which is intended to speed up processing times.
Under the National Firearms Act of 1934 (NFA), short-barreled rifles and shotguns, machine guns, and silencers require additional government permission, taxes, and registration for lawful transfer and possession. The process isn’t cheap, and can take up to a year to complete. But now Form 4—the form required for a dealer to transfer an NFA item to a private citizen—is going online, along with other ATF forms.
“One of the first things we wanted to do with the new web-based service is make sure we bring the Form 4 online,” said Alphonso Hughes, an assistant director with the ATF’s Office of Enforcement Programs and Services. “It’s been long awaited since about 2016.”
In 2016, an “executive action” by then-President Barack Obama (D), which became ATF Rule 41F, altered the practice of buying NFA items through trusts and legal entities; a legal option many had to utilize because the Chief Law Enforcement Officer (CLEO) for their area would not sign off on such transfers. While Rule 41F removed the requirement that CLEOs sign off on the Form 4, it also created more bureaucracy for those who wished to acquire an NFA item through the trust option.
That meant all buyers, whether acquiring an NFA item as an individual or through a trust or legal entity, were subject to the same requirements, which involved filling out forms, procuring and submitting fingerprints and photos, paying for a $200 tax stamp, and waiting for the government to approve the transfer. The item would stay at the gun store until that approval.
Because of the bureaucracy that leads to long delays in acquiring NFA items, many people don’t bother with the process.
Even so, current processing times for a paper Form 4 averaged eight months. Hughes says the new system should change this. “The projected goal for Form 4 on eForms is 90 days,” he said. “I don’t think you’ll see that out of the gate, because we’re still processing our backlog. But we’re going to strive to ensure that the resources are there to make sure forms are processed in 90 days or less.”
The new system is already popular. From its launch on December 23 to today, the system has had about 35,000 logins, and about 105,000 form submissions, Hughes said. “To date, about 2,700 Form 4’s have been submitted,” said Hughes.
Thirty years ago, only 6,500 Form 4 transfers were processed. In 2020, that number approached a quarter million.
Brandon Maddox, CEO of Silencer Central, said gun buyers don’t have to be skittish with NFA items. “There’s a lot of folklore about them, but it’s not as much of a pain in the butt as it seems,” he said. Maddox’s company sells suppressors, but also helps fill out and submit the paperwork. The company also worked with the ATF on beta testing the new system ahead of its launch.
“Contrary to Hollywood myths, silencers don’t mute the sound or eliminate the need for hearing protection,” Maddox said. “However, they do reduce the concussive effect and recoil, increase the velocity, and improve accuracy. What I find is, all gun owners are attracted to the mystique of the suppressor. But once they find out the actual benefits, most gun owners are sold.”
However, if you’ve already got paperwork pending, Maddox warned, don’t start over. “You don’t want dueling or duplicate forms, and if you start over online, you’ll have to wait until they pull your paper form, which will still take longer,” Maddox said. Hughes confirmed this, but said online submissions should speed up both processes.
The new system was a nice Christmas gift for gun owners, and if it works as promised, new buyers might even get to take their purchases home before next Christmas.