OSD 146: The real NFA tax is time
The launch of eForm 4 is a bigger deal than people think.
Big news came out this week: the , ATF launching eForm 4 functionality. This lets you file your tax stamp paperwork entirely electronically:
When the ATF relaunched eForm 1 three years ago — which let people submit their tax stamp paperwork electronically to manufacture an SBR or suppressor — wait times fell from ~10 months to 1-2 months (and sometimes faster). The ATF just moves a lot faster when they’re processing electronic forms instead of paper-based ones.
A Form 4 is what you file when buying a suppressor (buying as opposed to manufacturing your own). Making that electronic is going to make the wait times for suppressors much, much shorter.
That’s cool for an obvious reason: people will get their cans faster.
It’s also cool for a non-obvious reason: it’s going to change which silencers even exist. Let’s dive into that.
There’s a subdiscipline of software engineering called developer productivity, which is about making it lightning fast for developers to run the tasks that they have to do frequently in the course of their work. The more frequent the task, the more important it is to speed it up.
Martin Fowler, an expert in the field, explains it like this:
From what I have observed, you have to nail the basics, the things that developers do 10, 100 or 200 times a day. I call them micro-feedback loops. This could be running a unit test while fixing a bug. It could be seeing a code change reflected in your local environment or development environments. It could be refreshing data in your environment. Developers, if empowered, will naturally optimize, but often I find the micro-feedback loops have been neglected. These loops are intentionally short, so you end up dealing with some very small time increments.
It is hard to explain to management why we have to focus on such small problems. Why do we have to invest time to optimize a compile stage with a two minute runtime to instead take only 15 seconds? This might be a lot of work, perhaps requiring a system to be decoupled into independent components. It is much easier to understand optimizing something that is taking two days as something worth taking on.
Those two minutes can add up quickly, and could top 100 minutes a day. These small pauses are opportunities to lose context and focus. They are long enough for a developer to get distracted, decide to open an email or go and get a coffee, so that now they are distracted and out of their state of flow, there is research that indicates it can take up to 23 minutes to get back into the state of flow and return to high productivity. I am not suggesting that engineers should not take breaks and clear their head occasionally! But they should do that intentionally, not enforced by the environment.
You can think of product development across an industry — whether it’s software or silencers — as a MMORPG version of what a solo developer is doing at their desk:
Make change → see how it performs → adjust → rinse and repeat
That’s a feedback loop, and it’s how good products emerge over time. Because the output of each loop feeds into the input of the next one, the gains compound. And that means that speeding up the loop produces exponentially faster results — and, at a certain threshold, fundamentally different results. Thinking about the software engineer, if their builds take 1 minute, they’re able to invent cool stuff. If the builds take 1 hour, they’re slow. But if the builds take 1 week, it’s not just slower — it’s different to the point that it breaks the feedback loop entirely, and the cool stuff just never gets invented.
That’s where silencers have been. There are two brakes on demand for silencers: the $200 tax, and the 10-12 month wait time for the paper Form 4. The $200 tax has been getting inflated away for 87 years, and for someone spending $800+ on a silencer, it’s more a troublesome hurdle than an absolute dealbreaker. But the yearlong wait is a different story. That stops people in their tracks, and prevents the industry from getting to a healthy feedback loop of product development.
What would a healthy feedback loop look like? Industry-wide standardized mounting systems. More light-duty cans. And come to think of it, why doesn’t just every hunting rifle in the country have an integrally suppressed barrel? It’s because the yearlong wait has made that a nonstarter. Nobody’s going to wait a year to pick up their gun.
But a lot more people would be willing to wait a few weeks. That’s the promise of making this electronic. Waits will probably be substantial for the initial flood of applications, but should subside over time. And this is all just a first step. The final stop will be to do away with the NFA registry altogether. But the key to that is normalization, and that means getting silencers into millions of people’s hands. And that is what eForm 4’s are going to help do.
This week’s links
The resulting report came out well.
On the downsides of carrying esoteric medical gear.
The en banc Ninth Circuit overturns Judge Benitez (and a prior Ninth Circuit panel) to uphold California’s magazine ban
Next stop, SCOTUS cert petition. The dissent by Judge VanDyke is excellent. Highly recommended reading. It begins on page 143 of the PDF of the opinion. A small sample:
Not content to just tilt the rules of the game heavily in the government’s favor via our pathetically anemic “intermediate scrutiny,” the majority here also stacks the evidentiary deck. The majority balances the average rarity of the use of ammunition in lawful self-defense situations as weighing heavily against its protection under the Second Amendment. Meanwhile, it studiously ignores the rarity of the harm (mass shootings) that California puts forward to support its ban. As explained, such balancing should have no place in a case like this—the founders already settled the weighty interest citizens have in lawfully bearing commonplace self-defense arms like those California has banned here. But the stark disparity between how the majority treats the very same attribute depending on whether it supports or undercuts the majority’s desired outcome illustrates well that, even if we thought balancing might have a proper role in evaluating our Second Amendment rights, we can’t expect judges who fundamentally disagree with the Second Amendment to fairly read the scales.
The reality is that essentially everything the Second Amendment is about is rare, for which we all should be very grateful. Government tyranny of the sort to be met by force of arms has been, in the short history of our country, fortunately rare. The actual need for any particular person to use her firearm to defend herself is, again, extremely rare—most of us will thankfully never need to use a gun to defend ourselves during our entire life. And in those rare instances were a firearm is used in self-defense, the amount of ammunition needed is generally very little—oftentimes none at all. It is certainly true that most of us will use exactly zero rounds of ammunition to defend ourselves—ever. So if the Second Amendment protects anything, it is our right to be prepared for dangers that, thankfully, very rarely materialize.
Given that, the majority’s focus on the fact that only 2.2 bullets are used on average in a self-defense shooting, and concluding that a law banning more than that “interferes only minimally with the core right of self-defense,” is grossly misplaced. An average of 0.0 rounds are fired on average in preventing government tyranny. And the average person will fire an average of 0.0 rounds in self-defense in their entire lifetime. If the rarity alone of exercising one’s Second Amendment rights cuts so dispositively against their protection, then the Second Amendment protects nothing.
Yet when it comes to the uncommonness of mass shootings—the reason California says it needs its magazine ban—the majority counts that as nothing. You would think that if the government seeks to interfere with a fundamental right, the infrequency of the claimed harm would be a very important consideration. For example, if the government sought to ban some type of communication because it very infrequently resulted in harm, we would never countenance that. On the other hand, where some type of communication frequently results in harm, it might survive heightened scrutiny (e.g., fighting words).
Here, California relies on a statistically very rare harm as justifying its ban, but a harm that, while infrequent, grabs headlines and is emotionally compelling. The emotional impact of these tragedies does all the work for the government and our court. But if a court was going to balance a fundamental right against a claimed harm, that is precisely where judges must cut through the emotion and do their job of holding the government to its (supposedly heightened) burden. The majority here doesn’t even try.
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