Legal Brain Teaser: Machine Gun, or Not?

My friend Jason and I were just having a discussion about the National Firearms Act. Given that he has a Saiga-12, there’s a strong possibility he’s going to have to register it if the ATF ruling coming out next week declares they are banned from importation because of a lack of “sporting purpose.” We were further discussing this is going to mean a lot of people who own them, and there are many, are going to end up in federal prison because they just don’t know about the new requirement. The discussion continued into the legal vagaries and silliness of the NFA, and we came up with this brain teaser, that involves gun wielding robots.

Say you build a robot that could wield an unambiguously semi-automatic AR-15, but could pull the trigger very rapidly at the same rate of fire as that of an M16. There are three possible methods such a theoretical robot could function:

  1. You had some sort of device that commanded the robot to fire.
  2. You could command the robot to fire verbally.
  3. The software in the robot was programmed to, completely autonomously, acquire and fire a three round bursts at a series of targets.

The brain teaser here is whether or not the robot is a machine gun under the National Firearms Act, and if it is, which part is considered the machine gun? Is the robot itself a machine gun? Is the software a machine gun? What if you changed the software so it only fired one shot at each target?

My feeling is, in the case that you can command the robot to fire with some kind of device, the robot is indeed a machine gun, and not the software, because the programmability allows it to be readily converted. Whatever device you pressed or actuated to get the robot to fire can legally become the “single action of the trigger.”

It becomes far more ambiguous in the case where the robot operates autonomously, or if you could verbally command the robot to fire. If you commanded it to fire verbally, and it let loose a three shot burst, what was the single action of the trigger? This makes for an interesting case if anyone ever develops a general purpose robot that happens to be able to fire a gun, but much faster than a human could. Will all general purpose robots of such a nature need to be registered under the National Firearms Act? What happens if such robots become ubiquitous? Will you need to program them not to be able to fire weapons? Maybe that would be a smart thing to do. When they outlaw killer robots, only outlaws will have killer robots.

20 thoughts on “Legal Brain Teaser: Machine Gun, or Not?”

  1. The original post on the bpage that started the rumors about a ban on imports of the Saiga said the BATFE denied they were creating any new DDs.

    They can stop the importation of a shotgun without making it a DD.

    We don’t even know if the Saiga will be effected or not.

    I sincerely doubt they are going to want to go through the BS of trying to process 10,000+ amnesty forms for people of have modified Saigas…

  2. This is especially interesting because such gun-firing robots are actually being built by robotics companies, right now, and to the best of my knowledge, are not regulated by the ATF whatsoever.

    My impression would be that right now, they get away with it based on how tightly-coupled the actual gun is with the robot. If the robot was actually bonded to the firing mechanism of a gun, the ATF would likely tell them they are making a firearm. If the robot merely is moving the trigger, they probably let it go. For now.

  3. What’s going to happen when the BATF rules on the Autobots and not the Decepticons…….

  4. WHAT?? Robots are not killing people – guns are. The majority of Americans are not worried about semi-autonomous rifle shooting robots. No one needs such a robot. It’s just common sense.

    (my best Japete impression)


  5. I’d note that for the purposes of your thought experiment, the speed at which the robot pulls the trigger is probably irrelevant. What if it pulled the trigger once today, and once tomorrow as part of the same “function”?

  6. ATF would have no problem extending the Atkins Accelerator ruling to some sort of gun-bot.

    Also, I’m not too worried about Saigas. The 28 gauge Taurus Raging Judge revolver that was just shown at SHOT is the likely target of Monday’s bannination.

  7. As pointed out its a far less abstract question then you make it out to be in that there are already computer controlled devices that can do it. It would not be terribly hard to take a product like and meld it to a firearm. Alternatively, you could take one of those remote control internet hunting operations (I think they were being justified as being for the disabled) and mess with the software to fire multiple times.

    The only difference with the full on general purpose robot is that it would have many non-gun related uses too, and therefor be harder to justify regulating as a machine gun.

  8. Considering that they’ve classified a shoestring as a machine gun, I’d say common sense and logic have nothing to do with it.

    ‘Nuff said.

  9. There are already mechanisms firing guns, just ask the quadriplegic who has a hunting permit and a FID in NJ. Aims by servos controlled by mouth switch, fires by blowing into a tube. – also interesting for a quote from Peter Hamm: “If someone is not a convicted felon or hasn’t been found to be a danger to themselves due to mental illness and they believe they can handle a firearm, we support their right to purchase one.”

  10. The EMF Activator was a crank operated cam that mounts to the triggerguard, allowing you to fire about 200-300 rounds a minute. The one that I had came with a letter from BATF stating that it was not a machine gun under federal law. (California banned them, however.)

    It really did work–but I found that using one on an AR-15, because of how you have to hold it while turning the crank, meant that you could spray a lot of lead, but far less accurately than a real machine gun. It was fun for making noise and wasting ammo, but not particularly useful as a weapon. I can see why gang members, who don’t much care who they hit besides their target, might see some value to such a device.

  11. What you are building is basically a motorized Gat-trigger device, which has been ruled as a machine gun. Certainly the question comes in on the software piece, but the robot will definitely be ruled as a machine gun.

    How the robot companies have gotten away with this, most times, is with their design: They work with only machine guns (FN MAG/Minimi), so their solenoid trigger system simply hold the trigger down. Mounting a semi- on the robot, you would still get only 1 shot per “trigger press”. By making the software proprietary, they take away the “motorized trigger” capability. It would be a major modification to turn them into a full-auto robot.

    That paintball sentry, tho, is definitely a machine gun waiting to happen.

  12. How small does the robot have to be before it becomes a part of the machine gun? Can it be just something I slide inside the trigger guard, activated by voice or a button push?

    Could the ‘robot’ be some sort of glove or item I wear that presses the trigger for me?

  13. You should read “Wired for War” (recently on one of the armed service’s professional reading lists, by the way) — it talks about the development of exactly this kind of armed robot. The technology is getting there without legal or ethical underpinning.

  14. As long as the trigger is being pulled for each shot it’s not a machine gun. NFA controls firearms not computers. Besides I’m sure there’s some kind of law that already makes self-controlling, automatic firing, armed robots illegal.

  15. If you add an electric motor to a Gatling gun, you now have a minigun, which is an MG.

    Replacing the electric motor with a robot makes no difference. If you can issue one firing command, and have more than one round shoot out of the weapon, it’s an MG.

  16. So what do you do when technology progresses to the point where a robot can pick up and rapidly shoot a semi-automatic firearm? Will all such robots be limited to law enforcement?

  17. I think the key there is the robot – it’s banned no matter what (manjack/sentry gun). Hell, technically those remote shotguns that they found in GA were illegal because of that, no?

    Legally it’d be the same as a tripwired shotgun, I’d think.

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