Under the Gun Control Act of 1968, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) was given wide latitude on the enforcement of regulations pertaining to holders of Federal Firearms Licenses (FFL) (which enable an individual or a company to engage in a business pertaining to the manufacture or importation of firearms and ammunition, or the interstate and intrastate sale of firearms). Allegations of abuse by ATF inspectors soon[when?] arose from the National Rifle Association (NRA) and some FFL licensees. In particular, advocates claimed that ATF was repeatedly inspecting FFL holders for the apparent purpose of harassment intended to drive the FFL holders out of business (as the FFL holders would constantly be having to tend to ATF inspections instead of to customers).
A February 1982 report by a Senate subcommittee that studied the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution concluded:
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.:12
The report also said that 75 percent of ATF prosecutions "were aimed at ordinary citizens who had neither criminal intent nor knowledge, but were enticed by agents into unknowing technical violations." It suggested that reform of federal firearms law such as proposed in S. 1030 "would be largely self-enforcing" and "would enhance vital protection of constitutional and civil liberties of those Americans who choose to exercise their Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms."
The Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986 (FOPA) addressed the abuses noted in the 1982 Senate Judiciary Subcommittee report. Among the reforms intended to loosen restrictions on gun sales were the reopening of interstate sales of long guns on a limited basis, legalization of ammunition shipments through the U.S. Postal Service, removal of the requirement for record keeping on sales of non-armor-piercing ammunition, and federal protection of transportation of firearms through states where possession of those firearms would otherwise be illegal.
The Act also contained a provision that banned the sale of machine guns manufactured after the date of enactment to civilians, restricting sales of these weapons to the military and law enforcement. Thus, in the ensuing years, the limited supply of these arms available to civilians has caused an enormous increase in their price, with most costing in excess of $10,000. Regarding these fully-automatic firearms owned by private citizens in the U.S., political scientist Earl Kruschke said "approximately 175,000 automatic firearms have been licensed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (the federal agency responsible for administration of the law) and evidence suggests that none of these weapons has ever been used to commit a violent crime.":85
The Act mandated that ATF compliance inspections can be done only once per year. An exception to the "once per year" rule exists if multiple record-keeping violations are recorded in an inspection, in which case the ATF may do a follow-up inspection. The main reason for a follow-up inspection would be if guns could not be accounted for.
As debate for FOPA was in its final stages in the House before moving on to the Senate, Rep. William J. Hughes (D-N.J.) proposed several amendments including House Amendment 777 to H.R. 4332, which modified the act to ban the civilian ownership of new machine guns, specifically to amend 18 U.S.C. § 922 to add subsection (o):
(o)(1) Except as provided in paragraph (2), it shall be unlawful for any person to transfer or possess a machinegun.
(2) This subsection does not apply with respect to— (A) a transfer to or by, or possession by or under the authority of, the United States or any department or agency thereof or a State, or a department, agency, or political subdivision thereof; or(B) any lawful transfer or lawful possession of a machinegun that was lawfully possessed before the date this subsection takes effect.
The ATF, as a representative of the U.S. and with authority from the National Firearms Act, can authorize the transfer of a machine gun to an unlicensed civilian. An unlicensed individual may acquire machine guns, with ATF approval. The transferor must file an ATF application, which must be completed by both parties to the transfer:
If ATF denies an application, it must refund the tax. Gun owners must keep approved applications as evidence of registration of the firearms and make them available for inspection by ATF officers.
In the morning hours of April 10, 1986, H.Amdt.777 Amendment passed the House by voice vote, and the House held recorded votes on three amendments to FOPA in Record Vote No's 72, 73, and 74. Recorded Vote 72 was on H.AMDT. 776, an amendment to H.AMDT 770 involving the interstate sale of handguns; while Recorded Vote 74 was on H.AMDT 770, involving primarily the easing of interstate sales and the safe passage provision. Recorded Vote 74 was the Hughes Amendment that called for the banning of machine guns. Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), at the time presiding as Chairman over the proceedings, claimed that the "amendment in the nature of a substitute, as amended, was agreed to." However, after the voice vote on the Hughes Amendment, Rangel ignored a plea to take a recorded vote and moved on to Recorded Vote 74. The bill, H.R. 4332, as a whole passed in Record Vote No: 75 on a motion to recommit. Despite the controversial amendment, the Senate, in S.B. 49, adopted H.R. 4332 as an amendment to the final bill. The bill was subsequently passed and signed on May 19, 1986 by President Ronald Reagan to become Public Law 99-308, the Firearms Owners' Protection Act.
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One of the law's provisions was that persons traveling from one place to another has a defense for any State firearms offense in a state that has strict gun control laws if the traveler is just passing through (short stops for food and gasoline), provided that the firearms and ammunition are not immediately accessible, that the firearms are unloaded and, in the case of a vehicle without a compartment separate from the driver’s compartment, the firearms are located in a locked container other than the glove compartment.
This section has also been interpreted to protect air travel
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The Act also forbade the U.S. Government agency from keeping a registry directly linking non-National Firearms Act firearms to their owners, the specific language of this law (Federal Law 18 U.S.C. 926 (https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/926)) being:
No such rule or regulation prescribed [by the Attorney General] after the date of the enactment of the Firearms Owners Protection Act may require that records required to be maintained under this chapter or any portion of the contents of such records, be recorded at or transferred to a facility owned, managed, or controlled by the United States or any State or any political subdivision thereof, nor that any system of registration of firearms, firearms owners, or firearms transactions or disposition be established. Nothing in this section expands or restricts the Secretary's authority to inquire into the disposition of any firearm in the course of a criminal investigation.
Nevertheless, the ATF's National Tracing Center (NTC) contains hundreds of millions of firearm tracing and registration records, and consists of several databases:
The older Gun Control Act of 1968 prohibits firearms ownership in the U.S. by certain categories of individuals thought to pose a threat to public safety. However, this list differed between the House and the Senate versions of the bill, and led to confusion. The list was later augmented, modified, and clarified in the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986. The 1986 list is:
These provisions are stated in the form of questions on Federal Form 4473.
In 2001, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit (consisting of Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi) ruled that the Lautenberg Amendment, 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(8)(C)(ii) (which extended the original FOPA restrictions on firearm ownership to persons under a court order in connection with domestic violence) did not violate the Second Amendment, and did not violate the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment as applied to the defendant, in United States v. Emerson.