May 19, 1986: Firearm Owners Protection Act Signed by President Reagan

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A Brief History

On May 19, 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed into law an act of Congress known as the Firearm Owners Protection Act.  This law was passed in response to allegations of abusive enforcement by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.

Digging Deeper

Congress had investigated those claims and found that the allegations had merit, in that enforcement was being directed at convoluted interpretations of minor violations instead of aimed at hard corps criminals. The subcommittee conducting the investigation found that an incredible 75% of prosecutions pursued by the ATF were “constitutionally improper.”

Obviously congress saw a need to clarify gun laws to allow law abiding gun owners to exercise their rights while focusing enforcement on dangerous criminals. A key element of the Act was to ensure that citizens legally transporting guns across state lines would not be prosecuted and jailed for violating local restrictive laws banning guns or certain types of guns if the gun owner was just passing through. As long as firearms were packaged not ready at hand and not ready to fire, citizens would be allowed safe passage through states, counties, or cities with harsh gun laws. This law would not allow a gun toting citizen the right to stay for an extended period in such a district, just pass through with only minor stops.

Another problem addressed by the Act was the ATF harassing otherwise law abiding dealers with constant inspections and audits of their paperwork, to the point where the distraction seriously hindered business. Agents were now allowed to inspect a dealer and his paperwork once a year and only permitted to check more often if that dealer had a history of previous violations.

Much to the chagrin of gun enthusiasts, another provision of the FOPA banned the sale of newly manufactured machine guns (full automatic capable weapons) to private citizens. Automatic weapons built before May 19, 1986 would still be allowed to be owned and sold (transferred in gun law lingo) to private citizens as long as regulations about recording the transfer, paying a special $200 tax, and having the transfer approved by local and federal authorities. Another requirement of this section of the Act was that the transferor and transferee must reside in the same state. (Why? It is not clear how that accomplishes any particular public safety goal.)

The FOPA also clearly prohibited a national firearm registration program, but did still allow certain types of data to be kept regarding guns used in crimes, stolen guns, gun traces, multiple sales of guns to one person and others. It also (partly) clarified who prohibited persons were that could not legally own or possess a gun, or attempt to buy one. Prohibited people are those convicted of a felony, subject of a dishonorable discharge from the military, legal or illegal aliens (unless licensed and engaged in hunting), drug addicts, stalkers, persons ordered by a court not to be armed and mentally unsound people (as determined by a court or by involuntary incarceration in a mental health facility) and a few other provisions. In 1996 added to this list was any person convicted of domestic violence, even if the conviction happened years before the law was passed!

Laws passed later created the requirement for a background check of any gun purchased from a licensed dealer and a method of performing that check on the spot (instant background check); however, no provision has been made then or now for a national data base of mentally defective or dangerous persons, and such a register is often opposed by liberals and conservatives alike, mostly on the basis of how such a list could be abused by false accusations and used as harassment.

Americans seem to either love or hate guns, and of course the US has more guns in private ownership than any country in the world. Even with the enormous increase in sales over the past 30 or 40 years crimes using firearms have gone down sharply. Question for students (and subscribers): Do we need more gun laws? Do we fewer gun laws? Do we need to start prosecuting people who fail background checks? (This practice, incredibly, is rarely done!) Let us know where you stand on this controversial topic in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

United States Congress Senate Committee on the Judiciary.  The Firearms Owners Protection Act hearings before the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, Ninety-seventh Congress, first and second … December 9 and 11, 1981, and February 8, 1982.  University of Michigan Library, 1982.

United States Congress Senate Committee on the Judiciary.  The Federal Firearms Owner Protection Act: Hearing before the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, Ninety-eighth Congress, first session on S. 914 … October 4, 1983.  University of Michigan Library, 1984.


About Author

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.