Buying Guns Off-Paper
If you don't keep up on gun laws, you may not know that we have a de-facto system of gun registration already in place, in the US. It's not as centralized or complete as the government would like, but it exists and you should know about it. It works like this: you know that yellow form you have to fill out when you buy a firearm from a gun shop? Form 4473; you have to fill in your name, birthday, SSN, and some other info, and affirm that you're not a felony, a loony, an illegal immigrant, and so on.
Janie the Soccer Mom thinks that it's there to ensure that loonies and killers and foreign terrorists don't get guns, and while that was the rationale behind it, it serves another function as well. The system exists in an attempt to log as many firearms purchases as possible. The gun dealers are required to keep those 4473s for as long as they have a Federal Firearms License, and when they give up their license they are required to submit all those archived forms to the BATF. This gives the Feddies a great resource to start with when they decide that you can no longer be allowed to possess whatever gun they don't want you to own that month. A bunch of Maryland AR-15 owners found this out the hard way last year while John Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo were busy shooting people (perhaps they need to add "Do you plan to kill people?" to the 4473...). ATF agents used the 4473 records at area shops to find out who had purchased AR-15s in the area. They then proceeded to those persons' homes, and made more than a few 'voluntary confiscations' - "I'm Agent Jack Boots from the BATF, and I need you to surrender your AR-15 to me for testing."
I know that in a situation like this, without warrants, you are legally within your rights to tell the jerk to cram it - but it's a situation I would much rather not find myself in. While it could be enjoyable to tell Agent Boots exactly where he can go, having an ATF agent with a personal grudge against you is really asking for trouble. The solution is to keep yourself and your guns off the ATF's lists. Besides warding off potential harassment like that in Maryland, being unlisted will be a tremendous benefit if and when some of your firearms become illegal. If your guns aren't registered, then you'll at least have some extra time while the ATF works their way through the list of registered guns.
Another major reason to buy guns "off-paper" is to avoid the background check that goes along with the registration. Some of the questions on the 4473 are feel-good crap that can't possibly be verified ("Have you ever renounced your United States citizenship?") but many of them will be confirmed by the background check that dealers are required to run for each sale. If you have a restraining order issued against you, if you've ever been convicted of a felony, and of course if you're under the acceptable age limit - you're out of luck. I don't know how thorough the system actually is - I've heard of felons passing the check and I've heard of completely "clean" people being rejected. If you can't pass the check and know it, trying to is definitely a losing proposition. Don't do it! Back to the issue at hand, I don't think any of the blanket criteria being checked justify the revocation of a basic property right. Especially considering what passes for a felony these days. If you're a 20-year-old looking for a pistol, a felon convicted of possession of bald eagle feathers, been treated for serious depression years ago, had a restraining order filed by an angry ex-spouse, or whatnot, you have no choice but to stay off the lists.
I realize that some people might worry about professional freelance thugs using the information here to obtain guns to rob or assault with. But hell, they already have guns, don't they? And if not, they have no qualms about simply stealing one. My suggestion to any such persons is that they find a more ethical line of work, before they get ventilated by someone they thought would be an easy victim.
What good are such obsolete weapons? Well, modernized muzzleloading rifles can throw 400-grain bullets at velocities upwards of 1300 fps, and that's nothing to sneer at. They are certainly quite functional hunting weapons. A muzzleloading side-by-side shotgun at home-defense range will do more than enough damage to stop an intruder. Muzzleloading revolvers are also surprisingly practical today. Both .36 and .44 caliber black powder pistols offer 135-145 footpounds of muzzle energy, which is slightly better than a .32 ACP. Yes, this is low - but if you can't manage to find a cartridge gun, it sure beats a knife. If you pick up a replica of an 1858 Remington, you have a better option: conversion to .45 Long Colt.
After the Civil War, there were several techniques developed to convert the ubiquitous muzzleloading revolvers to use the new cartridges that had been invented. Colt's method involved significant work to the pistol, making them much like the Single Action Army pistols. Remington, however, developed a 2-piece replacement cylinder which need only to be dropped into the gun to use. Today, R&D Gun Shop (5728 E County RD X, Beloit, WI 53511-9546) manufactures these cylinders. They must be taken out of the pistol to load and unload, but they allow the use of light .45LC loads (the cylinders are tested to full SAAMI specs, but in the interest of keeping your pistol in good shape, only light loads are recommended) in a completely unregulated weapon. Best of all, the cylinders are not regulated items, so no license or background check is required to purchase them. If you can't find a legal gun and don't want to risk an illegal one (or if you just want a neat way to thumb your nose at the Feds), this could be just the solution.
One major retailer of muzzleloading firearms that I've had excellent service from is Cabelas.
Another exemption exists for 'antique' firearms. Anything (rifle, pistol, or shotgun) made in 1898 or earlier is not considered a 'firearm' under Federal law, and may be bought, sold, and shipped across state lines without restriction. There aren't many guns of practical use that qualify for this exemption (and many of those that do are collectibles, with prices to match), but it's something with knowing about. Some guns that do qualify, for example, are lever-action rifles made before 1899 (note that this means the gun itself, not the model year - an 1894 Winchester stamped 1898 is not a firearm, but one stamped 1899 or 1900 or later is), old single-action revolvers, some types of Mauser, and some Mosin-Nagants. If a dealer has logged one of these guns into his books, it is legal for him to log it out as an accidental entry that does not need to be recorded. If the dealer doesn't believe this, a phone call to the local ATF office should clear it up.