Category Archive 'Alvin York'

26 Apr 2007

WWI Trophy Means Legal Problems For Smalltown Library

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German Maschinengewehr 08

The Boston Globe reports that the discovery in its attic of a German machine-gun captured in the course of one of the most famous American battlefield feats of valor in WWI has delivered the smalltown library of Nahant, Massachusetts into the clutches of the BATF.

The National Firearms Act of 1934 required fully-automatic weapons (even war trophies) to be federally licensed.

Sergeant Alvin York‘s against-all-odds capture of a heavily fortified German machine gun nest in the Argonne Forest of France 89 years ago made York an American legend.

With seven other American infantrymen, he took 132 German prisoners and silenced German machine guns that had slaughtered Allied troops. His actions earned the humble Tennessee farmer an iconic status alongside Daniel Boone and a title declaring him the greatest American hero of World War I. He was held up as the very embodiment of humility and courage.

Which is why officials at Nahant’s public library were thrilled four years ago to discover what they say is one of the captured German machine guns in the library attic.

“I tripped over the gun one day, not knowing what it was,” said Daniel deStefano, the library’s director. “I picked up what I thought was a pipe. It was the barrel of the gun.”

Library officials say they researched markings on the gun and searched local newspaper archives and town documents for answers about the weapon’s origin, determining that the gun had been given to the town in 1918 by an Army clerk, Nahant native Mayland Lewis.

According to the research, Lewis had plucked the weapon from a pile given up by surrendering Germans and shipped it home. Briefly prized as a souvenir of the war, it was paraded through the town on Armistice Day in 1919 by Boy Scouts who towed it in a red wagon. But over the years it faded from public view.

Its rediscovery stoked dreams of a big windfall for the library, where officials had been pondering ways to finance an expansion of the cramped facility and an upgrade of an antiquated cataloging system. Library officials said they contacted several auctioneers in New England who estimated the weapon’s value at $100,000 and perhaps several times more than that.

But the dreams didn’t last long. Library officials soon learned that the gun is illegal and that they can do very little with it.

Federal gun laws prohibit possession or sale of automatic guns unless they are registered with the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. In the library attic for years, the German machine gun was never registered. The library isn’t allowed to register the gun now because federal law prohibits new registrations on automatic weapons, except in rare circumstances.

Since it is illegal for the library even to have the gun, Nahant police took it and stored it under lock and key in an evidence locker, forestalling seizure by the ATF.

“We cannot hold onto this weapon,” deStefano said. “If we kept it on the premises, they were going to come and get it, and they were going to destroy it. This is a piece of history. We’re kind of caught between a rock and a hard place.”

The town has appealed to the ATF for permission to sell the gun, but so far, bureau officials have rejected the pleas.

A spokesman for the ATF said yesterday that it would be possible for the Nahant police to register the gun and take responsibility for it, which would prevent it from being destroyed. They could also possibly transfer it to another public agency, but it’s unlikely that it can be sold on the market , according to Jim McNally, a spokesman in Boston for the ATF .

He said the agency — at the request of US Representative John F. Tierney, a Salem Democrat — is researching options that Nahant might be allowed under the law, such as transferring the gun to a private museum.

“There are pretty clear-cut laws when it comes to automatic weapons,” McNally said yesterday. “This is a unique weapon, and it would be sad to see it destroyed. Whether it can raise money for what they’re looking for is another matter.”

In an effort last fall to get special permission to register the gun, town officials approached Tierney and Senators Edward M. Kennedy and John F. Kerry for legislation that would grant the town an exception to the restrictions. Neither Kerry nor Kennedy responded.

Tierney issued a statement yesterday calling the machine gun a “remarkable object” and said his office is engaged in discussions with the ATF.

The library’s machine gun discovery was first reported Monday by The Daily Item in Lynn.

Richard Hallion, a military historian who has studied Hiram Maxim, a Maine native who built the first effective machine gun, said he knew of no other gun from the York battle. He believes that numerous museums might be interested in preserving this one.

But Chris Berg, who owns a company that specializes in historic military weapons, said that the library’s gun is worth little because it is not registered.

“In all honesty,” he said, “it’s only worth $500.” He said if it were registered and legal to sell, he would pay at least $50,000.

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