Have Legally Owned Automatic Weapons Been Used in Crime?
Movies and TV shows all too often suggest that criminals are heavily armed with automatic weapons and shoot outs with law enforcement are regular occurrences. While this might make for exciting drama, it is pure fiction. Actual studies show that most homicides involving firearms are, in reality, more often committed with large-caliber revolvers.1 Studies have found that even in gang-related incidents the use of automatic weapons is far and few between.
The February 1997 North Hollywood bank robbery, which led to an intense shootout with law enforcement, is generally considered the exception to the rule of an event involving criminals with automatic weapons taking on law enforcement. In fact, since the passage of the National Firearms Act (NFA) of 1934 automatic weapons are so heavily regulated that there are few known cases of a “machine gun” or similar firearm even being used in any crime.
Even when it comes to “illegal” firearms – such as an automatic weapon that was never registered (which would likely mean it predates the Gun Control Act of 1968); was stolen from law enforcement or military or a class III dealer, or was a semi-automatic firearm illegally converted (as in the case of the North Hollywood bank robbery) – even those are rarely used in a crime.
Moreover, no automatic weapon of any kind – legal or illegal – has ever been used in a mass shooting. In the tragic 2017 Las Vegas concert shooting, the deranged shooter used a “bump stock” to replicate automatic fire but didn’t, in fact, have an actual automatic weapon.
Highly Regulated. Rightfully So?
Since the passage of the NFA, to own an automatic weapon requires going through a very intense background check that can take nearly a year. The would-be buyer needs to supply fingerprint cards, passport photos, and fill out a detailed form – and most notably pay a $200 transfer fee or tax to the ATF.
At the time of the passage of the law in 1934, it involved “transferring” the ownership of the highly regulated firearms and paying the IRS the transfer fee/tax. The amount of the transfer, which has never increased, was quite expensive at the time and in essence, doubled the cost of a Thompson submachine gun.
It should be remembered that such firearms were actually marketed to civilians, in part, because the military and law enforcement had expressed little interest.
Since that time, some have argued that machine guns or similar firearms shouldn’t be rigidly regulated as it defies the Second Amendment’s, “Congress shall make no law…”
However, the reasons they are so closely regulated (agree with it nor not) go back to the “gangster” era of the 1920s and early 1930s when criminals did employ such firearms – although not as in the numbers movies or TV would suggest. A bigger concern was the use of the weapons by notable bank robbers of the era, but it is worth noting that many of the firearms were, in fact, stolen from the military.
Yet, even when the law was passed, then-NRA President Karl Frederick agreed that restricting civilian ownership of such firearms was the right course of action – though he did question the law’s effectiveness given that individuals could still legally buy a machine gun.
The need for a transfer stamp apparently satisfied those opposed to allowing civilians to own such firearms. After the NFA was signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt, sales of machine guns slowed. By 1937, federal officials reported that the sale of machine guns in the United States had practically ceased.2
Today, machine guns and other NFA items (short-barreled rifles/shotguns, destructive devices, etc.) are legal in 37 states but, as noted, are far from easy to obtain.
Despite the fact that the NFA has largely kept criminals from owning machine guns (which one would think might be enough to satisfy opponents of the Second Amendment), there are still calls to completely ban any and all ownership of these items. The Giffords Law Center, for one, has described machine guns as “highly destructive weapons appropriate only for military use,” but then added, “machine guns have been comprehensively regulated at the federal level since the 1930s, and the manufacture or importation of new machine guns for sale to civilians has been banned since 1986.”
Given the complexity of the process, what is the problem? To gun-control types, the fact that such a weapon could be used in a crime is the issue. The Giffords Law Center further notes,
“This continuous-fire feature makes machine guns hazardous to the general public and appropriate for use only by the military. Federal law prohibits the possession of newly-manufactured machine guns, but permits the transfer of machine guns lawfully owned prior to May 19, 1986, if the transfer is approved by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives. As a result, a substantial number of machine guns are still in circulation. As of February 2018, the national registry of machine guns contained registrations for 638,260 machine guns.”
What the Giffords Law Center – among other gun control groups – fails to show is how often machine guns have actually been used in a crime — or rather that should be how rarely they’ve been used in a crime (which is the case).
This is because the Giffords Law Center did not specify even a single example of a legally owned automatic weapon being used in any crime.
Used in Crime?
While neither the FBI nor the ATF has an official statement on whether a legally owned – meaning that the owner went through the above process – machine gun has been used in a crime, no other law enforcement authority we’ve located has provided details either. The question becomes: how many times has a legally owned machine gun or automatic weapon been used in a crime?
The answer may surprise supporters of gun control, given that there are 638,260 machine guns owned by civilians in the United States of America.
According to some sources, since the passage of the National Firearms Act some 86 years ago there are “four known instances of automatic weapons used in crimes where someone was killed.”3
Four. But were there really four?
The details are sketchy, ven misleading.
As one news story reported: in three of those instances the weapons were obtained legally – so already there is a problem with that reporting. If in the fourth case the firearm wasn’t obtained legally then it wasn’t a legally owned machine gun or automatic weapon in that instance.
Even if a machine gun was stolen from its legal owner, it would still be illegal for the person using it and shouldn’t count as one example of four known instances.
Moreover, the news article along, with other sources, noted that in two of those instances the weapons were illegally used by law enforcement. This is an important point because in many cases law enforcement can obtain machine guns or similar firearms without going through the aforementioned process, and more importantly, law enforcement is allowed to own machine guns produced after May of 1986 – and only dealers with special class III licenses can own such “post-ban” firearms.
Hence, technically the machine gun/automatic weapon can’t, therefore, be described as legally owned by a civilian in those cases.
In the first instance, in September 1988 Dayton, Ohio police department Patrolman Roger Waller, then 32, used his fully automatic MAC-11 .380 caliber submachine to kill a police informant.
It must be noted that Patrolman Waller was only able to acquire the firearm because he was a police officer and it is unclear if he actually had a transfer stamp for it.4 If the weapon was produced after May 1986 only a police officer (or class III dealer) would be able to own it.
In the second instance, in April 2002, police officer Edward Lutes of Dover, New Jersey used his police-issue Heckler & Koch MP5 to kill five of his neighbors. He subsequently took his own life with his handgun. It absolutely must be noted that New Jersey does not allow citizens, apart from law enforcement, to own a machine gun, but also that the submachine gun used in this heinous crime was issued to Lutes by his police department.
A third instance cited by various sources involved an on-duty sailor who shot three people with his M4 Carbine at Pearl Harbor last December.4
As noted previously, in all three of these cases it can hardly be said that a legally owned machine gun or automatic weapon was used by a civilian in a crime. In at least one of the cases, the police officer used his police-issue weapon, while in the case of the U.S. Navy sailor it was also with a weapon issued to him by the military. We can only speculate how Patrolman Waller obtained his weapon.
In Personal Defense
Given that three of the four reported incidents have been identified so clearly, we must then ask what was the fourth case?
The question/answer website Quora has multiple threads/questions based on the question “Are fully automatic weapons used in crime and often and if so when was the last recorded reported?” Multiple responses included that since 1934 there were only two incidents of legally owned “sub-machine gun” used in a murder. One of those noted the aforementioned Patrolman Waller, but the other is vague, to say the least: “One was a doctor or dentist (exact details are sketchy) who used his legally owned sub-machine in a murder.”
This likely refers to Dr. Shou Chao Ho, who murdered Dr. Carmelito Olaes in September 1992, but all of the details involving the firearms are what we previously referred to as “sketchy.” All the claims that a “machine gun” was involved are apparently based on a report that Dr. Shou said he had “registered” his guns with the ATF when purchasing them. Given the detailed background check the registration process for a machine gun he would have had to begin that process months earlier, not at the time of the purchase.
In addition, reporting at the time of the crime made no mention of a machine gun or any NFA charges. That latter point is important because had he used any type of illegally owned or modified machine gun he would have faced additional charges.
There are some mentions that he may have used a “suppressed .380 M11,” so it is also possible that the firearm was semi-automatic and it was the “suppressor” that was, in fact, the item requiring a transfer stamp and extensive background check.
It is also likely that this particular story evolved over time and became an urban legend at best. There are absolutely no further details that can be found online about it, and if a machine gun that was legally purchased was in fact used in that crime, you’d think the media would have some story on it.4
It is also worth noting that the Gifford Law Center specifically addressed the number of legally owned machine guns that exist in the United States but didn’t mention Dr. Shou Chao Ho, which further suggests he did not, in fact, own a machine gun (at least not legally).
Finally, this reporter did note that two times machine guns or other automatic weapons have been used in lawful self-defense. This included an H&K salesman who fended off multiple armed robbers in 1984; and a gun store owner who fended off seven burglars who drove their vehicle through the storefront in 1990.
Of the total of 638,260 legally owned and transferrable machine guns there might be just a single case of one being used in a crime, and even if true (and that’s questionable) that is still quite the track record.
(1) Zawitz, Marianne W. “Guns Used in Crime.” July 1995. PDF file. https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/GUIC.PDF
(2) Shafer, Ronald G. “They Were Killers with Submachine Guns. Then the President Went after Their Weapons.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 9 Aug. 2019, www.washingtonpost.com/history/2019/08/09/they-were-killers-with-machine-guns-then-president-went-after-their-weapons/.
(3) Vicory, Justin. “Fully Automatic Weapons Used to Shoot Madison County Deputies Called ‘Extremely Rare’.” Ledger, Mississippi Clarion Ledger, 11 Sept. 2019, www.clarionledger.com/story/news/2019/09/11/canton-ms-shooting-fully-automatic-rifles-brad-sullivan-edgar-egbert/2262741001/.
(4) “Machine Guns Used in Crimes, Post-NFA.” The Zelman Partisans, zelmanpartisans.com/?page_id=42394.
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Peter Suciu: Read more of his articles.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based freelance writer who regularly covers firearms related topics and military history. As a reporter, his work has appeared in dozens of magazines, newspapers, and websites. Among those are Homeland Security Today, Armchair General, Military Heritage, Mag Life, Newsweek, The Federalist, AmmoLand, Breach-Bang-Clear, Newsweek, RECOILweb, Wired, and many others. He has collected military small arms and military helmets most of his life, and just recently navigated his first NFA transfer to buy his first machine gun. He is co-author of the book A Gallery of Military Headdress, which was published in February 2019. It is his third book on the topic of military hats and helmets.