Why Are Sawed-Off Shotguns Illegal?

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Why Are Sawed-Off Shotguns Illegal?

Sawed-off shotguns, typically characterized by their shortened barrel, represent a category of firearms which are subject to stringent regulations under United States federal law. These firearms, formally known as short-barreled shotguns, are modified either by cutting down the barrel to less than eighteen inches or altering the overall length to less than twenty-six inches. This modification significantly affects the firearm’s performance, leading to a wider spread of shot that enhances the weapon’s effectiveness in close-range engagements.

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Historical Context of Legislation

The legislative history regarding sawed-off shotguns in the United States is deeply rooted in the early 20th century, a period marked by notable civil disorder and rampant criminal activities, including those associated with the Prohibition era. The prevalence of these compact, easily concealable firearms among criminals led to their regulation under the National Firearms Act (NFA) of 1934. This Act was a cornerstone piece of legislation enacted to curb gang-related activities and enhance public safety by regulating the ownership, transfer, and manufacture of certain types of firearms.

Under the National Firearms Act (26 U.S.C. § 5845)1, a sawed-off shotgun is defined as:

  • Any shotgun with a barrel or barrels of less than eighteen inches in length; or
  • A weapon made from a shotgun, if such weapon as modified has an overall length of less than twenty-six inches.

These definitions categorize sawed-off shotguns as “NFA items” which require potential owners to undergo a comprehensive approval process involving a thorough background check, registration with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), and the payment of a tax. Additionally, the Gun Control Act of 19682 further regulates these firearms by prohibiting their interstate sale and imposing strict penalties for violations.

State laws may impose additional restrictions or outright bans on the possession and use of sawed-off shotguns, thereby necessitating that individuals also consult local regulations to ensure full compliance.

Public Safety Concerns

The regulation of sawed-off shotguns is predominantly motivated by significant public safety concerns. The primary justification for these concerns is twofold: the increased potential for concealment and the inherent danger associated with their use. Due to their shortened barrel, sawed-off shotguns can be more easily concealed than their standard counterparts, posing a heightened risk for use in criminal activities. Additionally, the modified barrel length affects the ballistic characteristics of the weapon, allowing for a broader spread of shot. This modification enhances the weapon’s lethality at close range, making it particularly dangerous in public settings. These factors combined have led to a consensus among lawmakers that strict regulation is necessary to prevent these weapons from proliferating and being used in violent crimes.

Violations of the regulations governing sawed-off shotguns are treated with severe penalties to deter unlawful possession and use. Under the National Firearms Act (NFA), unlawful possession of a sawed-off shotgun can result in significant legal consequences. Specifically, individuals found in violation of the NFA may face up to ten years in federal prison, in addition to potential fines. Moreover, any person who uses a sawed-off shotgun in the commission of a crime may incur even harsher penalties, including longer prison terms and greater fines. These stringent penalties underscore the serious nature of the offenses and the federal government’s commitment to enforcing these regulations to safeguard public safety.

For individuals seeking the practical benefits of a sawed-off shotgun, such as ease of handling and effectiveness at close range, there are legal alternatives that comply with federal and state laws. One prominent option is the purchasing of firearms that meet the minimum length requirements established by the NFA but still provide some of the tactical advantages of shorter-barreled shotguns. For example, firearms like the Mossberg 590 Shockwave and the Remington 870 TAC-14 are designed with a total length that exceeds 26 inches but do not have traditional stocks, hence they are classified not as shotguns but as “firearms” under current ATF regulations. These weapons provide similar handling characteristics to sawed-off shotguns yet remain legal under federal law, provided they are not modified in any way that would classify them as NFA items. Additionally, individuals may also consider obtaining a proper license and paying the required tax to legally own a sawed-off shotgun, where permissible under state law.


In summation, the legal framework governing the possession and modification of sawed-off shotguns in the United States is rooted in a robust history of legislative efforts aimed at enhancing public safety. The stringent regulations encapsulated within the National Firearms Act of 1934 and reinforced by subsequent statutes such as the Gun Control Act of 1968, articulate clear boundaries and requirements for lawful ownership and use of these firearms. These laws collectively emphasize the balance between individual rights under the Second Amendment and the imperative to mitigate potential risks to public safety posed by more concealable and potent firearms. As such, while legal alternatives exist that allow for the compliant use of short-barreled firearms, individuals must navigate these regulations with careful consideration of both federal and state laws to ensure full compliance.


  1. National Firearms Act (NFA) of 1934 – 26 U.S.C. § 5845: Defines and regulates sawed-off shotguns as firearms requiring special taxation and registration. ↩︎
  2. Gun Control Act of 1968 – Prohibits interstate firearms transfers except among licensed manufacturers, dealers, and importers and further restricts firearms deemed to be particularly dangerous, such as sawed-off shotguns. ↩︎

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