The case of Farmer v. Higgins ( 907 F.2 1041, 1990) concerned a challenge to restrictions on the right to make or own a machine gun, an area of gun control that for years has troubled the more uncompromising defenders of the right to own firearms, especially those who engage in gun collecting. Although the Firearms Owners' Protection Act of 1986 generally weakened federal gun control legislation, one provision of the act prohibited private individuals from owning machine guns unless they had possession of the weapons prior to May 19, 1986. Except for more avid gun rights supporters, the prevailing view is that because machine guns lack sporting value and are extremely deadly weapons, private citizens should not be allowed to possess them.
In October 1986, J.D. Farmer, Jr., a gun collector, applied to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) for authorization to make and register a machine gun. The BATF refused Farmer's request, referring to the new firearms law as the basis for its ruling. Farmer challenged the decision in court, claiming that the BATF had misinterpreted the intent of the law. Farmer's argument depended on the meaning of the phrase "under the authority" because the law stated that the prohibition on the transfer or possession of a machine gun does not apply to "a transfer to or by, or possession by or under the authority of, the United States or any department or agency thereof or a State, or a department, agency, or political subdivision thereof." Farmer argued that by applying under the National Firearms Act of 1934 to manufacture a machine gun, he satisfied this provision of the 1986 law. He claimed the BATF was legally obligated to grant him permission to manufacture a machine gun.
A Federal District Court upheld Farmer's claim. However, a United States Court of Appeals overruled the lower court decision, concluding that the intent of Congress was clear. The court referred to section 922 (o) (2) (B) of the statute. The law stated that the prohibition on transferring or owning a machine gun did not apply to "any lawful transfer or lawful possession of a machine gun that was lawfully possessed before the date this subsection takes effect." The court ruled that if Congress had not intended to alter the 1934 legislation, then this clause exempting from the prohibition any owners prior to May 19, 1986, would lack any meaning.
The court further determined that the phrase "under the authority" of a government agency had a delimited application that did not cover Farmer's interpretation. The phrase referred to machine guns manufactured for the military, for police forces, or under government jurisdiction for export to a foreign nation. On January 15, 1991, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal, thus