Third Circuit: Neither You Nor Your Trust Have A Second Amendment Right To Own a Machine Gun (or Machinegun)

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

BillofrightsAlthough the Second Amendment is not a regular topic on this blog, the recent opinion from the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in United States v. One (1) Palmetto State PA-15 Machinegun Receiver/Frame, Unknown Caliber Serial Number ("Watson") piqued my interest. That case, in addition to having one of the more cumbersome captions I have seen in a while, involved clever, albeit ultimately unsuccessful, legal arguments and a quirky grammatical/spelling issue, both of which made it "blog worthy."

First a little background about the law for the uninitiated (which included me until I read this decision). Under the National Firearms Act, before manufacturing a firearm, you have to apply for permission from the ATF. The ATF will deny the application if the firearm you intend to make would place you in violation of any law. For example, the Gun Control Act makes it, in most cases, unlawful for any "person" to "transfer or possess a machine gun," therefore the ATF would almost always deny your application to manufacture a machine gun. The Gun Control Act defines "person" as an "individual, corporation, company, association, firm, partnership, society, or joint stock company." This definition was at the heart of the debate in the Third Circuit's opinion.


Now onto the facts of the case. Ryan Watson is the sole member of the Watson Family Gun Trust. On behalf of the trust, he submitted applications to the ATF to "make and register an M-16-style machine gun." An ATF examiner mistakenly approved one of these applications, after which Watson had a machine gun manufactured. When the ATF realized its mistake, it contacted Watson to explain that his application had been "disapproved" because it was illegal for him to possess a machine gun. Watson claimed he was exempt from this prohibition because he filed his application on behalf of the trust, which was not a "person" as defined by the Gun Control Act. The ATF disagreed. Shortly thereafter, Watson agreed to surrender his machine gun, under protest, and then sued, challenging the ban on machine guns in general and the prohibition against a trust owning a machine gun.

The Third Circuit dealt with the first of these arguments n a straightforward manner. In the landmark decision of District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court held that the Second Amendment protects a citizen's right to possess firearms for the purpose of self-defense in the home. But, the Supreme Court cautioned that this right did not extend to all firearms, only those "in common use" and not "those weapons not typically possessed by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes." Relying on Heller, and other Third Circuit decisions interpreting it, the court concluded that machine guns were not in common use for lawful purposes, therefore they fell outside the protection of the Second Amendment. As a result, the Gun Control Act's ban on machine guns did not violate the Second Amendment.

The court also rejected Watson's argument that a trust was not a "person," therefore the ban on machine guns in the Gun Control Act did not apply to the Watson Family Gun Trust. The court held as follows: "Irrespective of whether Watson is a trustee, he is also a natural person and therefore prohibited from performing any of the acts forbidden of natural person under the Gun Control Act." The court also noted that adopting Watson's interpretation of the Gun Control Act would allow any party prohibited from possessing firearms, like convicted felons, to avoid this prohibition by simply placing the firearms in a trust. On this point, the court observed: "We refuse to conclude that with one hand Congress intended to enact a statutory rule that would restrict the transfer or possession of certain firearms, but with the other hand it created an exception that would destroy that very rule." Accordingly, the court rejected Watson's proposed end run around the prohibition contained in the Gun Control Act.

Finally, the grammatical/spelling issue. In a footnote to its decision, the court noted that "[f]ederal statutes and caselaw alternate between the spellings 'machinegun' and 'machine gun.'" Notably, the statute that makes it illegal to transfer or possess a machine gun uses "machinegun." However, this appears to be a typo in the statute — no dictionary I found adopted the no-space version, even as an alternate spelling — that was then picked up in the caselaw citing the statute. Regardless, the space/no space battle over machine gun/machinegun has not yet reached the level of the space/no space battle over caselaw/ case law.

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