Gun Control Act is Constitutional as Applied to Machine Guns, and a Trust That Owns a Machine Gun is Subject to That Law

United States v. One Palmetto State Armory PA-15 Machinegun, 822 F.3d 136 (3d Cir. 2016).  Constitutional challenges to gun regulations are frequently filed, and most of them are without basis.  This decision, written by Judge Thompson, who was sitting in the Third Circuit by designation, is another one of those cases.  It arose out of two consolidated actions, a forfeiture case brought by the United States, which sought to take possession of a machine gun, and a constitutional challenge to the applicability of the Gun Control Act, 18 U.S.C. §922(o), to machine guns by the owner of the machine gun in question.

Appellant Ryan Watson, acting for himself and for the Watson Family Gun Trust, argued that the Gun Control Act was unconstitutional in that it imposed a de facto ban on the ownership of a machine gun.  Appellant also contended that because the Gun Control Act applies only to “persons,” and a trust is not a “person,” the statute could not be applied to the Watson Family Gun Trust.  Judge Thompson easily, and correctly, rejected those arguments.  Her decision, which applied the de novo standard of review, affirmed the District Court.

“As a matter of constitutional avoidance,” Judge Thompson first addressed the argument that a trust was not a “person” subject to the Gun Control Act.  A trust, she noted, “is not an entity distinct from its trustees, nor is it capable of legal action on its own behalf.”  Watson, purportedly acting on behalf of the trust, did not dispute that he was a person seeking to possess a machine gun on behalf of the trust.  Irrespective of his status as a trustee, as a natural person he was prohibited from performing any acts forbidden to “persons” under the Gun Control Act.  Moreover, his reading of the statute would allow any person, even a convicted felon, to circumvent the statute by creating a trust, a result that would destroy the Gun Control Act.

Turning to the constitutional issue, Judge Thompson found it easy.  She cited Supreme Court and Third Circuit precedents that showed that the Second Amendment permits regulation of machine guns.  In particular, District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008), and United States v. Marzzarella, 614 F.3d 85 (3d Cir. 2010), made that clear.

Judge Thompson concluded her opinion by noting that courts since Heller “have debated the parameters of that decision, and the extent to which government regulation may be reconciled with the Second Amendment.  However, on at least one issue the courts are in agreement: governments may restrict the possession of machine guns.”

This result should not be surprising.  What was surprising is the fact that, as Judge Thompson observed in a footnote, “[f]ederal statutes and caselaw alternate between the spellings of ‘machinegun’ and ‘machine gun.'”  Most general usage employs the two-word form.  Even a simple case, therefore, can be educational at one level or another.