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Why Are Sawed-Off Shotguns Illegal?

sawed-off shotguns
Sawed-off shotguns with barrels less than 18 inches in length are illegal in the United States.
Last modified: November 19, 2023

What Is a Sawed-Off Shotgun?

A sawed-off shotgun is a shotgun with a short barrel. Whereas a standard shotgun will have a barrel length of about 24 to 32 inches, a sawed-off shotgun typically has a much shorter barrel at about 18 inches. The overall length of the shotgun will also be less than 26 inches.

Why are sawed-off shotguns illegal?

A sawed-off shotgun has a shorter effective range because the muzzle velocity is lower. The short barrel also makes the shotgun shells harder to direct in one path. But the smaller size makes it useful for close-quarters combat, and it is easier to conceal.

semi-automatic shotgun
Short barrel semi-automatic shotgun.

These are the principal reasons why sawed-off shotguns are illegal for private use.

While military and law enforcement can use sawed-off shotguns, they are typically illegal for civilians. 

A person can seek to apply to acquire one, but the rules for doing so are fairly strict.

What Gun Laws Say

The National Firearms Act of 1934 dictates the rules over what shotguns people can own in the United States. 

The act states that people cannot transfer or possess heavy-duty firearms without proper licensing. Sawed-off shotguns and rifles with barrels less than 18 inches long are among the weapons prohibited under the act.

A gavel and a name plate
The National Firearms Act (1934) places restrictions on shotguns.

The Gun Control Act of 1968 is another federal law that regulates the legality of sawed-off shotguns. This act bans the mail-order sale of rifles and shotguns, including sawed-off models.

Interstate sales of guns are illegal. The law also prohibits most of those with a felony conviction and those who may be considered mentally incompetent from acquiring a sawed-off firearm.

Although sawed-off shotguns are illegal if the barrel is less than 18 inches long and restricted if they meet that minimum requirement, they can still be acquired with the appropriate Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) permit in some states.

The Danger of a Sawed-Off Shotgun

The main reason for these shotguns being illegal is it is extremely powerful when compared with other firearms. 

shotguns
Standard shotguns have a barrel length of between 24 to 32 inches.

The shorter muzzle velocity and greater spread make it tough to use, but these features make it an ideal weapon for close-quarters combat. The weapon could even blow off a vehicle door if used appropriately.

There’s also the consideration of how well someone can conceal a shotgun. Since the shotgun is much shorter than a standard model, it becomes easier for someone to hide it in plain sight. 

armed bootleggers
Sawed-off shotguns were popular amongst Prohibition-era gangsters.

The compact design of the weapon made it popular among many criminals in the twentieth century, especially those engaged in illegal smuggling and mob-related activity during Prohibition.

Modifications and increased lethality

It is possible for people to modify sawed-off shotguns to keep their spreads under control. Gun owners can add a screw-in choke into the muzzle to help create a tighter shooting pattern. 

Such a design keeps the pellets from spreading as widely, making the shotgun more effective at range. The feature can make the shotgun even more dangerous.

Doesn’t the Second Amendment Protect Sawed-Off Shotgun Sales?

The Second Amendment of the United States Constitution says that Americans have the right to keep and bear arms in support of a “well-regulated militia.” 

We the People
The Supreme Court ruled that the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms did not protect sawed-off shotguns.

However, the possession and use of a sawed-off shotgun are not protected under the Constitution.

The Supreme Court case of United States v. Miller (1939) determined that the amendment does not protect a sawed-off shotgun. 

This landmark decision related to the transportation of a sawed-off shotgun across state lines and the contention that the National Firearms Act violated the right of citizens such as Jack Miller to bear arms. 

However, the court unanimously concluded that possessing a sawed-off shotgun doesn’t have any relationship to helping support a “well-regulated militia.”

Is It Possible to Obtain a Sawed-Off Shotgun?

There are a number of guidelines if you wish to possess a sawed-off shotgun or rifle:

  • The person acquiring the shotgun must be at least 21 years of age.
  • Local state laws should be considered. Anyone living in a state where sawed-off shotguns are illegal should avoid attempting to acquire one of these weapons. These include states like California, Minnesota, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Virginia, and the state of Washington.
  • That person must also have a permit from the ATF.
police officer aiming shotgun
Shotguns are popular with law enforcement.
  • People looking to build a sawed-off shotgun must fill out ATF Form 1, the Application to Make and Register a Firearm. Those who buy one will fill out ATF Form 4, which helps determine if someone is eligible for a firearm.
  • The applicant must also undergo a thorough background check.
  • A transfer fee is necessary. The charge could be hundreds of dollars.

The timeframe for getting a permit for one of these shotguns can be lengthy and difficult to predict.

Most people who successfully acquire sawed-off shotguns are members of organizations devoted to protecting the country, including the military or law enforcement.

Private citizens will have a much harder time obtaining one.

firearm permit
Sawed-off shotgun possession is legal in Germany with a firearm permit.

A Restricted Weapon

Sawed-off shotguns are extremely powerful and easy to conceal, making them heavily restricted weapons in the United States.

Any sawed-off shotgun with a barrel under 18 inches in length is illegal nationwide, while sawn-off shotguns are generally illegal in some states.

In states where these weapons are legal, an ATF permit is required to possess them.

2 Responses

  1. It all starts with CITIZENSHIP !
    If you’re a statutory citizen these laws apply. Learn the definitions of the 3 United States and the words of art your government tricks you into being a statutory citizen or a government employee.

    1. im sure randy weaver and david koresh believed and said the same thing and they got murdered by agents of the federal government anyway.

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