When a firearms law is passed, the last thing people think about is, how will this affect a museum? Unless of course, you’re me.

In the United States, it probably fair to say that a firearm or related artifact exists in most museums. Unfortunately, there are not a lot of people who specialize in firearms with museum degrees, so there is a lot of misinformation about the effects of firearms laws on their institutions. Accurate information is also difficult, if not impossible, to come by. As a result, many museums are completely unaware of the policies and procedures required to be good, legal, stewards of their collections.

I’ll start off by stating the most important fact: museums in the United States, unless they are government funded and run, are not immune from gun laws. They must abide by all local, state, and federal laws. One of the biggest ways that museums run into trouble is through the acquisition of unregistered National Firearms Act (NFA) items, which include machine guns, silencers, and short barrel rifles and shotguns.

There used to be a belief, or perhaps a gentleman’s agreement, that someone can fill out a Form 10: Application for Registration of Firearms Acquired and a museum can acquire the item.  This is not the case. Unregistered NFA items can only be acquired by government museums or other government entities. A non-government museum can technically be a site of storage for an NFA item on a Form 10, however, it must be in a safe separate from the rest of the collection and the government agency named on the form is the only one allowed to have access. In the past, I have worked with the ATF to see if there are any loopholes (for lack of a better word) to this policy. Primarily, we looked at whether the item could be displayed in its own case with a lock that even museum staff could not access. However, we ran into a dead end there.

Outside of NFA items, museums cannot have post-1986 machine guns under the Hughes Amendment, a part of the Firearms Owners Protection Act. This may not seem like a big deal. But, in fact, for more than 35 years museums have been losing access to important historical artifacts. There is a work around if the museum has a manufacturer license, but that access only extends to post-86 dealer samples. Additionally, a Law Letter does not apply to a museum because it is not ‘demonstrating’ the firearm according to the ATF policy.

If a museum wants to acquire a Federal Firearms License, it can, though the process is cumbersome. Even for those that would like to get licenses, however, there is no specific museum license. Museums are thus left choosing from the available list that doesn’t neatly accommodate museum needs. Interestingly, England does have a museum license that allows museums to acquire firearms that are not legal to the general population. If a museum license became available in the United States, there are many considerations. The main one is how to define a museum, so that enough museums can benefit while also weeding out potential abuses to the system.

Collections care, security, and ethical considerations that go into this discussion, but I’ll save that for another post. So, I’ll end on this note: museums are repositories for history and historical artifacts. That history can be good, bad, or indifferent, but regardless of where you stand on firearms, they are inextricably linked with history and should always have a physical place in a museum or historic site, to preserve our past in order to better learn from it in the future.