WRAL Investigates

WRAL Investigates: Owning high-powered weapons possible without normal ATF oversight

Posted November 23, 2015

— Short-barreled rifles and suppressors, also known as silencers, are types of weapons covered under the National Firearms Act. To buy them, the process is much more thorough than purchasing most other guns. But there's a legal way to avoid those checks and balances.

Matt Reeves of Cary has a modified PS90 short barrel rifle, a weapon he has always wanted to own, “mostly for collector value,” he said. Because the barrel is shorter than 16 inches, it's more strictly regulated under the NFA.

Reeves bought the gun and the suppressor in Harnett County after the local sheriff signed off on his purchase. Now, he lives in Wake County.

“Any future applications I have as of right now will have to be through a gun trust because (Wake County Sheriff) Donnie Harrison will not sign off on my NFA application,” Reeves said.

Harrison says he will only sign NFA applications if the buyer is a collector, researcher, police officer, in the military or if the weapon is involved in corporate security.

For those who want short barrel rifles and suppressors but can't get a local sheriff's authorization, a gun trust is a legal avenue that is gaining popularity. It’s similar to a will in that it allows firearms to pass between generations. It allows one person to go through the rigorous background check and gives the trustee the power to legally share the weapons with others.

A quick Internet search shows local lawyers advertising for trusts so gun owners can bypass the local sheriff. Fayetteville attorney Drew Dempster specializes in gun trusts and said he doesn’t consider it a legal loophole.

“I would call it a legal protection of individuals who want to legally own these firearms,” he said.

A gun trust is a legal arrangement that allows guns be passed down to beneficiaries without court dispute. At the same time, anyone designated by the trust can possess NFA-regulated firearms.

The head of the trust must pass a criminal background check, submit extensive paperwork, pay $200 to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and wait about six months for a decision. Approval opens the door for anyone else named in the trust to own the guns without the same scrutiny.

Wake County's sheriff says he supports the Second Amendment but leans on his legal team to advise him about trusts.

“To start with, I had some concerns with it, and I still – I’m not going to lie to you – I still have a little bit of concern,” Harrison said. “The trust itself is not in an individual’s name. It’s in the trust’s name, and I guess that’s where a lot of people, including myself, sometimes wonder if we’re doing the job.”

Dempster said he writes trusts where all designees clear criminal background checks because, ultimately, the head of the trust remains liable.

“At the end of the day, we are just as concerned about individuals having guns because it makes our community not look very well,” he said.

Clay Ausley, who owns Fuquay Gun and Gold, said trusts and eased state restrictions on firearms help his sales.

“We've seen at least 100 to 150 percent uptick in suppressor and short barrel sales,” he said. “There was a lot of people that did not even understand that they could own this type of weaponry.”

Still, he questions why the law classifies short barrel rifles and suppressors differently. Military-style semi-automatic guns with the same ammunition don't require the same federal scrutiny.

“You can legally, if you've got a clean background and can pass a background check, you can purchase an AR-15 pistol, and you can purchase a full size AR-15. But, you cannot purchase (a short barrel rifle) without jumping through a whole bunch of hoops with the ATF in Wake County and get a gun trust set up,” Ausley said. “That makes absolutely no sense at all.”

Criminals aren’t going to jump through those hoops, Ausley says. “They’re going to buy them off the street or from an individual.”

Wake County’s sheriff says he still has reservations about trusts because they bypass his judgment on gun buyers.

“At some point in time, it’s going to be tested,” Harrison said. “I’m not sure who’s going to test it.”

The ATF has been considering a change to gun trusts that would make background checks mandatory for everyone named in the trust. The agency could make an announcement about changes – if any – as early as next month.


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  • F Paul Valone Dec 1, 2015
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    I see that Leith and Overtons have now both pulled ads from WRAL. Hey, Cullen: How's that piece working out for you?

  • William Campbell Nov 26, 2015
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    WRAL has resorted to outrageous lies just like The Fayetteville Observer. Unscrupulous fear-mongering.

  • Robert Malton Nov 25, 2015
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    "Wake County’s sheriff says he still has reservations about trusts because they bypass his judgment on gun buyers" His judgment who he to deny anyone legal right to a weapon, if they pass the background check. he needs to be voted out of office.

  • Barrett Powell Nov 24, 2015
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    The only way to hold media entities like WRAL accountable is to hit them where they make their money. If enough people contact their advertisers to demand fair and accurate treatment by media like WRAL and threaten to boycott their products until then WRAL will be held accountable. Unfortunately, come tomorrow we will continue to buy those products and tune into channel 5 and so the cycle continues.

  • Paul Parker Nov 24, 2015
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    In the article you state "Harrison says he will only sign NFA applications if the buyer is a collector, researcher, police officer, in the military or if the weapon is involved in corporate security." So are you saying Harrison is willfully violating the law, because as of July of this year sheriffs are no longer allowed to deny an applicant unless the applicant fails to meet the criteria for owning a registered item, or are YOU willfully using old information which you know to currently be false?

  • Brian Mauser Nov 24, 2015
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    Isn't it amazing how Cullen Browder lays a big dump on the airwaves and then gets to walk away without having to justify his work? Wouldn't you love a job where you get to FAIL MISERABLY and not have to be held in account?

    Supposedly in this great new era of social media where businesses want to interact with their customers to improve their brand, Mr. Browder apparently has the luxury to perturb his customers and ignore their their inquiries. All I can say is, what a gig.

    As Dennis Prager says.....Being on the Left means never having to say you're sorry or wrong.

  • Brian Mauser Nov 24, 2015
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    @JD Howell....."Wonder why Harrison ignores the Shall Sign Law that McCrory signed a few months ago? Hes in violation of a state law."

    Now there is a story worthy of a REAL investigation. Just who does Sheriff Harrison think he is ignoring the state law? Do I get to pick and choose which laws I want to follow? The lawlessness up and down the stack of government that has been spawned by the community organizer at 1600Penn really infuriates me.

  • Seth Stern Nov 24, 2015
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    Well Cullen, as a firearms instructor for the USAF and a graduate of Colorado State University's Journalism program, I'm in a good position to point out the various flaws in your piece.

    To begin with, the process hasn't really been updated in 81 years. Yes, the individual NFA process involves fingerprinting and the CLEO signature, but the background check the individual goes through is the exact same check they go through to purchase a firearm.

    The Sheriff's judgment is irrelevant and in the case of Harrison, biased and unconstitutional. The only reason to deny someone a firearm or NFA item is if they've committed an act disqualifying them from such. In which case government employees still have to do their jobs effectively for the DQ to be caught.

    You should be asking the ATF what the process entails. Not your anti-gun sheriff.

  • J.D. Howell Nov 24, 2015
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    Wonder why Harrison ignores the Shall Sign Law that McCrory signed a few months ago? Hes in violation of a state law.

  • Ray Rivera Nov 24, 2015
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    View quoted thread

    . I agree, tine for a new Sheriff!