The Fourth Amendment Protects Owners of NFA Firearms
Many gun owners are under the mistaken belief that a registered owner of NFA firearms, such as a suppressors, short-barreled rifles, or short-barreled shotguns, is subject to unwarranted searches of their residence by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibiting unlawful search and seizure is alive and well and applies to owners of NFA firearms. The ATF or any other government agency must demonstrate probable cause supported by oath or affirmation and obtain a valid search warrant before they can demand access to the premises of an owner of NFA firearms unless a specific exception applies.
A warrantless search may be lawful under the following specific exceptions:
- an officer has asked and is given consent to search;
- if the search is incident to a lawful arrest;
- if there is probable cause to search and there is exigent circumstance calling for the warrantless search. Exigent circumstances exist in situations in which ther people are in imminent danger, where evidence faces imminent destruction, or prior to a suspect’s imminent escape.
- if the objects being searched are in plain view; or
- if the objects being searched are abandoned.
The idea that the ATF can conduct a warrantless search when someone owns an NFA firearm probably stems from confusion about the rules that apply to Federal Firearm Licensees (FFL’s). An FFL must submit to a warrantless inspection by the ATF, but that has limits as well. The ATF can conduct a surprise inspection of gun dealers once a year, but it must be during the FFL’s business hours. Whether the FFL is a dealer of Class 3 firearms or not, the FFL is subject to these warrantless inspections to check for compliance with the regulations governing FFL’s.
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