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Gun Policy

Today Sawed-Off Shotguns Became Legal in Indiana

The end of the state ban is the latest push to ease access to weapons regulated by the eight-decade-old National Firearms Act.

A new law took effect in Indiana today that lifts a statewide ban on possessing short-barreled shotguns and rifles. The state is the latest to loosen restrictions on guns and devices regulated under the National Firearms Act of 1934, or NFA, which was intended to stop the proliferation of machine guns and other weapons used by gangsters like Al Capone.

Short-barreled firearms, colloquially known as “sawed-off,” are rifles with a barrel measuring less than 16 inches, and shotguns with barrels shorter than 18 inches. They’re popular with gun collectors, and some owners say they use them for hog hunting. The truncated barrel on a sawed-off shotgun, for instance, lacks a choke, which shapes the spread of the shot on standard-issue shotguns, and so it delivers a wider spread of shot. Richard Feldman, president of the Independent Firearms Owners Association and a former NRA lobbyist, tells The Trace that an animal or human shot with a short-barreled long gun “can almost literally — not quite — end up being cut in half.”

Michigan was the first state to ban the manufacture, transfer, or possession of short-barreled shotguns and rifles in 1931. The federal government enacted the NFA three years later. Like most outright state bans on the weapons instituted over the years, Indiana’s, which had been in effect since 1983, prevented residents from applying to the federal government to own a short-barreled shotgun, as the NFA allows. Individuals who want to obtain an NFA-regulated weapon must undergo strict vetting by federal and local law enforcement officials, pay a $200 fee, and register their weapons with the ATF. The process generally takes months.

A push to repeal state bans on NFA-regulated weapons over the past decade means that only a handful of them remain on the books. The ongoing movement to loosen such regulations is being led in part by the NFA Freedom Alliance, a lobbying group that launched in October. The group’s head, Todd Rathner, is an NRA board member, and it seeks “to remove silencers, short-barreled rifles, and short-barreled shotguns from NFA regulatory control.” The NFAFA lists 11 goals on its website, which include removing local law enforcement officers from the approval process and deregulating  silencers. The devices, also known as suppressors, minimize the sound of a gunshot and have become popular with hunters and target shooters. According to the American Suppressor Association, 20 pro-suppressor laws or regulations have been enacted across the U.S. since 2011.

Short-barreled rifles and shotguns, for their part, “are expensive to purchase, highly regulated, and the people who buy those firearms buy them for collection purposes more than anything,” Indiana Sen. Jim Tomes, who coauthored his state’s legislation, said in January. The repeal of Indiana’s ban on short-barrel shotgun follows the passage of a similar measure in Washington state, which rescinded its prohibition on short-barreled rifles in 2014. Michigan also repealed its ban on private ownership of short-barreled shotguns last year. Meanwhile, 10 states have enacted “shall-certify” laws that require local law enforcement officials to sign off on applications once they’ve been approved by the ATF. Previously, those approvals were issued at the officials’ discretion.

Last year, Arizona state Sen. Kelli Ward, a Republican, successfully pushed an amendment through that lifted a ban on sawed-off long guns and suppressors for convicts who have had their civil rights restored. The idea, she said, was suggested by a constituent, and she took it up because she believes that any government regulation of the Second Amendment is “wrong.”

Correction: The original version of this article mistakenly included short-barreled rifles alongside short-barreled shotguns in a sentence describing the latter’s parts and performance. That error has since been corrected.

[Photo: USCG]