Congratulations on your decision to join the ranks of those who shoot the civilized way—quietly! Buying a silencer for your rifle or handgun is a much different process than buying an ordinary firearm. It isn’t particularly difficult, but the process can try your patience. We’re going to walk through it step by step, leaving no stone unturned. But before we do, here’s a checklist to reference as you go. This list is everything you need to send to the BATFE for them to process your request, and we’re going to explain each item:
What you need to buy a silencer:
- A copy of your NFA trust if you are choosing to use one for the ownership of your NFA item
- Two copies of completed Application for Tax Paid Transfer and Registration Form 4
- Completed Responsible Person Questionnaire Form 5330.23 (for all members of the NFA Trust)
- Complete Fingerprint cards (for all members of the NFA Trust)
- Passport photos (for all members of the NFA Trust)
- $200 check, for NFA tax stamp
An envelope containing all these items, addressed to:
National Firearms Act Division
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives
P.O. Box 530298
Atlanta, GA 30353-0298
We will explain each step necessary for purchasing a silencer, including how to set up an NFA Trust as well as how to apply as an individual. It is important to remember that it will take months, not hours or days, before you can take your silencer home with you, but don’t let the wait frustrate you. The sooner you get started, the sooner you can start shooting suppressed, so let’s get to it!
Why is Buying a Silencer Different?
The 1934 National Firearms Act (NFA) imposes a special tax on the transfer and manufacture of certain items, including silencers, machine guns, and various configurations of firearms such as short barreled rifles and short barreled shotguns. Items controlled by the NFA are called Title II Weapons. Because of the NFA, buying them requires a special $200 federal tax and lengthy approval process by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE). Although a silencer is not a firearm, it is classified just like NFA firearms under the Title II Weapons law and the paths to getting one are the same. There is more than one way to do this, and some special obligations and responsibilities that continue even after you’ve taken delivery of your silencer.
Preparation and Planning
You’ve done a bunch of online research and you’ve found the exact make and model of silencer you want. You’re ready to rush over to the friendly local NFA dealer and melt down your credit card. Let us save you a potential headache here. Have you ever gone to the DMV and waited in line, just to be turned away because you left a document at home? That’s no fun at all. Avoid that disappointment by gathering some of the extra documentation you’ll need ahead of time.
Trust Me – The NFA Trust Route
The most popular method of obtaining NFA items is through an NFA Trust, which is a legal document you’ll want to hire a lawyer to prepare for you. Some people have had good luck copying the contents from NFA Trusts they found on the internet, but others have gone through nearly the entire NFA process and waited several months only to have their applications denied due to technical problems with their NFA Trust document. In our opinion, it doesn’t pay to take chances—find an attorney familiar with the differences between NFA Trusts and other estate planning trusts. The money you will pay to get a correct NFA Trust drawn up is only a fraction of the total investment you are making in this purchase, and your NFA Trust can be used repeatedly as you purchase more NFA items in the future. You will need to include a copy of the NFA Trust when sending in all your paperwork. Don’t send the original!
The NFA Trust is the legal entity that technically owns the silencer, and you possess the item as a Settlor or Trustee named in the Trust. The BATFE calls these individuals “Responsible Persons” because they are responsible for possession of this highly regulated item. Multiple Responsible Persons can be named on the NFA Trust, so multiple people can share in the use of the NFA item. For example, if you live with family members and plan to have your silencer mounted on a home defense gun, including those family members as Trustees on the NFA Trust means that gun can be used legally by any of them. You can also use the NFA Trust to arrange for the NFA item to be passed on to others when you pass away. If you want your kids to have your silencer some day when you are gone, the NFA Trust is the easiest way to go.
Flying solo—Transfer As Invidivdual
You can avoid the extra cost of setting up the NFA Trust by applying to transfer your NFA item as an individual. This saves you a bit of money and time, but it will be illegal for anyone else to use your NFA item ever, unless you are present with them at the time. For example, a husband is approved as an individual to possess a silencer, which he mounts on a rifle. While he is at work, his wife uses the sound suppressed rifle in a home defense situation. Technically both husband and wife will be in violation of NFA regulations, and the silencer itself subject to being confiscated. Using a properly arranged NFA Trust would avoid this unfortunate situation. Upon your death, the NFA item has no legal owner and can be destroyed by law enforcement when found. The only way around this is if a beneficiary of your estate files a BATFE Form 5 to transfer possession to themselves before your estate’s probate is closed, so include a directive and instructions on how to do that in your estate planning!
Warning: Changing your mind about which path to take can get very expensive. For example, if you originally transferred your NFA items as an individual and decide to add them to an NFA Trust later, you must transfer possession from one legal entity to another. That means another round of paperwork and another $200 check for every NFA item you want to move to the NFA Trust.
Say Cheese—Passport Photos
If you are applying through an NFA trust, each person listed as a trustee needs to acquire two passport photos which will be added to all the paperwork. These aren’t hard to get, you can have them done at a variety of local stores for a few dollars. If you are transferring as an individual, you just need two passport photos of yourself.
Get Your Hands Dirty—Fingerprint Cards
Each person in an NFA trust, or a person applying as an individual, needs to submit two completed fingerprint cards. While it’s possible to do it yourself, most folks will visit their local police station or Sheriff’s office and let the experts help them out with it, even if they charge a small fee. Now would also be a good time to write down the name and address of the Chief Law Enforcement Officer in your area, you will need that info soon.
Choose Your Item, Pay Up Front
It is finally time to buy your silencer! You must pay the NFA dealer up front because all NFA items are serialized, and you will need your item’s serial number for your paperwork. Your NFA dealer can help you complete all the paperwork involved. They are required to hold onto the item for the duration of the BATFE approval process, which may take several months.
Fill Out Form 4
Form 4 is the “Application for Tax Paid Transfer and Registration” of your NFA item. Form 4 is a lot like the Form 4473 you fill out when buying an ordinary Title I firearm from your local gun store. If you are using an NFA Trust, each Responsible Person needs to sign the Form 4. You also need to write down the reason why you have a “reasonable necessity” to possess your silencer. This is not a good place to share your best “zombie apocalypse” joke with the BATFE or make a bold statement that the 2nd Amendment is the only permit you need. The safest play is to state “Any and all lawful purposes” on that line and move on. Like a 4473, parts of the Form 4 need to be completed by you, and parts need to be completed by your dealer. Sit down with your dealer and carefully fill out three identical copies of the Form 4 together. Two copies will go to the BATFE and the third copy will go to your local Chief Law Enforcement Officer (see below).
Two Benjamins – The $200 Payment
A check or money order made payable to “The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives” in the amount of $200 must be sent along with the other forms and documentation. Form 4 also gives you the option to provide credit or debit card information if you prefer, but the traditional method is to write a physical check. When the BATFE deposits the check and you see the money come out of your account, it’s a sign that your Form 4 is no longer waiting in line for attention, and the BATFE has started your background check investigation.
Notify Your Local Chief Law Enforcement Officer (CLEO)
Form 5330.23, the “Responsible Person Questionnaire”, certifies that you are the responsible party applying to transfer the NFA item and that you are not a prohibited person who should be prevented from obtaining it. One of your passport photos must be attached to it. Form 5330.23 and a copy of your completed Form 4 must be mailed to your local Chief Law Enforcement Officer to notify them that you are purchasing the NFA item. A second copy of Form 5330.23 must be sent to the BATFE along with the rest of your documents.
Just Send It – Mailing Your Packet
It has taken some time and effort to put all of this together. Choose your favorite, most reliable mail carrier and use a shipping option with tracking, return receipt requested, and so forth. You want this package to be treated with maximum importance by those entrusted to deliver it. One thing you don’t need to do is make your package “adult signature required”—the NFA Division address is a government office that is intentionally set up to receive a high volume of mail. Sending your packet with signature required may actually significantly delay its official receipt, unnecessarily adding to your wait.
After the BATFE receives your paperwork, they will run an extensive background check on you. The FBI and BATFE will run your fingerprints and check their databases. This process is lengthy; on average it is currently taking between 6-18 months before you can take possession of your NFA item from the dealer. If there are mistakes on your forms or problems with your other documents, the BATFE will mail you and your NFA dealer a letter explaining what to do to fix your application. If you have any questions you can call BATFE and they will help you figure out what they are looking for, but it is wise to be polite and get your corrections right the first time.
If your application is denied your paperwork will be sent back to you along with a brief explanation, and your $200 refunded. If approval is granted, a copy of your Form 4 is sent back to you with a physical tax stamp affixed to it. Keep it safe! It is wise to print off a copy of your approved Form 4 with tax stamp to show to curious onlookers and local law enforcement officers, but the original should be kept in a secure location. Because your Form 4 is a federal tax document, only a Federal tax agent (like a BATFE agent) has the right to demand to see it, but that won’t stop others from getting up in your business. If someone asks to see your paperwork, it’s easiest just to show a copy to them, ask them if they have a silencer yet, and explain to them that it wasn’t really all that difficult after all!
Welcome To The Addiction
To make your NFA dreams come true takes organization, planning, and some extra funds. But anyone who has gone through the NFA approval process will tell you that Tom Petty was right when he sang “the waiting is the hardest part.” Paying a lot of money up front for that silencer you want and then coming home with nothing can be really irritating. There are no updates from BATFE, no push notifications, no progress bars. At some undetermined point in the future your NFA dealer will contact you with really good news or really bad news about your purchase, and that’s just how it is. But the best things in life are worth waiting for, aren’t they? You can do it, so get to it!