A machine gun is a fully automatic weapon that can fire bullets quickly from an ammunition belt or a large magazine. Machine guns are almost always associated with violent crimes. Because they are so dangerous, Massachusetts and the federal government have essentially banned this kind of weapon.
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts allows unique license holders to possess them, provided they meet specific requirements. For most people, however, the state not only bans the ownership, purchase and transfer of machine guns, it also prohibits bump stocks and trigger cranks that allow them to fire faster.
Federal Definition of Machine Guns
According to the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), a machine gun is a weapon that shoots, is made to shoot, or can be restored to automatically fire more than one shot without needing to reload manually. Machine guns can fire hundreds of rounds in mere minutes.
It is the frame or receiver of a weapon or any part intended or designed for use in converting it into a machine gun. It is also any part or combination from which the assembly of a machine can occur.
Bump Stocks and Trigger Cranks
As machine guns are already subject to strict regulation, the gun industry has created devices for attachment to semi-automatic firearms, accelerating the fire rate to that of a machine gun.
Bump stocks are one such tool – they replace a semi-automatic rifle's standard shoulder stock, allowing the gun to slide smoothly and quickly between a user's shoulder and trigger finger. This harnesses the gun's recoil, causing the trigger to pump faster than a human can fire.
A trigger crank attaches to a gun's trigger guard, allowing a user to pull a trigger rapidly by rotating the crank. Initially, both devices circumvented federal law, but the ATF classified bump stocks as machine guns in 2019, which effectively banned them. Trigger cranks, however, are still legal to own, as the ATF has not classified them as machine guns.
Federal Machine Gun Laws
The federal government started regulating machine guns with its National Firearms Act of 1934. It placed a special tax on these firearms to curtail their possession and sale and also required their registration.
In 1986, Congress enacted the Firearm Owners' Protection Act (FOPA), which banned the transfer and possession of new machine guns. This act exempted machine guns made before May 19, 1986 and those possessed by, or manufactured for, governmental entities.
The FOPA states that a person may not transfer or possess a machine gun unless a government entity uses it. While there is no express ban on machine gun manufacturing, FOPA also banned machine gun parts, making them impossible to manufacture. Unregistered machine guns are illegal, and individuals cannot register a previously unregistered gun.
Types of Massachusetts Firearms Licenses
Individuals in the Commonwealth can own many types of guns, provided they have a license to carry firearms from their local licensing authority, police departments. The state has two common types of licenses for prospective gun owners; which one an individual gets depends on the kind of gun they wish to own:
- Firearms Identification Card (FID card): Allows Massachusetts residents to buy, keep and transport non-large-capacity rifles, shotguns and ammunition for those weapons. Applicants must be at least 18 years old, or if they are minors between 14 and 17 years of age, they must have permission from their parents.
- License to Carry (LTC) permit: Allows Massachusetts residents to buy, keep, transport and carry large- and non-large-capacity handguns, rifles and shotguns, and ammunition and feeding devices for those weapons. It also allows gun owners to carry concealed handguns, loaded or unloaded. An LTC applicant must be 21 years old or older.
Large Capacity Firearms and Assault Weapons
According to state law, large-capacity firearms are semi-automatic rifles or handguns that can shoot more than 10 rounds or semi-automatic shotguns that can shoot more than five shells.
Assault weapons also fall under this definition, but it does not apply to rifles with fixed tubular magazines that operate with .22 caliber ammunition. The Commonwealth does not require persons to possess a license to own primitive long guns or ammunition, but they'll need one when buying ammunition.
Massachusetts Machine Gun Law
Massachusetts will issue a Class 3 or "Green Card" machine gun license to individuals who are:
- Firearms instructors who are municipal police training (Criminal Justice Training Council) certified for instruction of police personnel.
- Bonafide collector of firearms, who collects firearms for historical significance, research, investment, display, demonstration or test-firing.
Massachusetts law states that a machine gun is "a weapon of any description, by whatever name known, loaded or unloaded, from which a number of shots or bullets may be rapidly or automatically discharged by one continuous activation of the trigger, including a submachine gun."
In 2017, the state expanded this definition to include bump stocks and trigger cranks. Typical gun license holders cannot possess these items, and the state prohibits anyone from using a machine gun or submachine gun to hunt. The state also bans the transfer or sale of machine guns to those who don't have a Class 3 license.
State and Federal Penalties for Machine Guns
Because machine gun ownership is more often than not associated with violent crimes, there are harsh penalties for breaking the law in regard to them on both the state and federal levels. Someone facing federal charges for possessing an unregistered machine gun faces a fine of up to $250,000 and 10 years of incarceration.
A person possessing a machine gun in Massachusetts also faces stiff penalties. They can serve anywhere from 18 months to life in prison, the sentence of which depends on the severity of the crime.
- Giffords Law Center: Machine Guns & 50 Caliber
- ATF.gov: Firearms - Guides - Importation & Verification of Firearms - National Firearms Act Definitions - Machinegun
- Goal.org: Overview of Massachusetts Firearms Laws
- Gun Policy.org: Machine Guns and Automatic Firearms in Massachusetts
- Find Law: Massachusetts Gun Control Laws
Based in San Francisco, Kara Chance is currently a researcher and legal assistant. She started writing professionally in 2002, and her articles have appeared in "Business Wire," "Ecology Law Quarterly" and the "Daily O'Collegian." She has a Master of Arts in English from University College-Dublin, and a Bachelor of Arts in literature from Oklahoma State University.