By Robert M. Hausman
J.D. Farmer, Jr. co-owner of Hard Times Armory of Kennesaw, Georgia, a Class 2 manufacturer, died in late August at the age of 52 from complications of diabetes. Known for his full-auto conversions of a wide range of semi-automatic firearms, he may be best remembered from his suit Farmer v. Higgins, wherein he sued the federal government over the 1986 freeze on new machine gun registrations.
The ban effectively created a sellers’ market for existing registered guns, but spelled doom for Farmer’s activities, which depended upon the government’s willingness to accept new machine guns into the federal registration pool. He initially won in district court, but the ruling was overturned at the appellate level. The U.S. Supreme Court later declined to hear the case, thus allowing the ban to stand.
Farmer, who did not have a first name other than the initials “J.D.,” died at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Decatur, Georgia. A graveside service was held at the Oak Hill Cemetery in Newnan, Georgia. Survivors include his wife, Linda, and his son, Jeremiah. The 1986 federal “Firearms Owners Protection Act,” prohibiting the further manufacture of fully-automatic firing firearms intended for sale to private individuals, greatly diminished most of the business Farmer and his wife Linda, had started in 1980, Hard Times Armory, Inc., on Bank Street in Smyrna, Georgia.
In 1997, Farmer lost a leg to adult diabetes after having been diagnosed with the disease in 1995. At that point, Farmer, who had always used his phenomenal mechanical ability to earn a living, told doctors he just wanted to drive his Jeep and go fishing. His health continued to deteriorate in the ensuing years.
“He was something else,” commented Cobb County, Georgia attorney John D’Orazio, a friend for 15 years. “Farmer was soft-spoken, unassuming and thoughtful-a great person to spend an afternoon with. His customers learned about him through his reputation. He did not promote himself. The customers were law enforcement officers, foreign governments, licensed gun dealers and the television and movie industries, which used guns he converted to fire blanks.”
His blank-firing guns were featured in such films as “The Swamp Thing”, “Return of the Swamp Thing,” and “Reno Williams”. In addition, Farmer’s guns appeared in the television series, “Miami Vice,” several Chuck Norris productions and the mini-series “Amerika,” featuring Kris Kristoferson.
After he lost his suit against the federal government, Farmer continued to honor warranties and make repairs on earlier sales, but the bulk of his work was outlawed. Standing 6-feet tall, and weighing 250 pounds, he was barrel-chested with wide shoulders and huge arms-physical traits which served him well when he played football for North Clayton High School, graduating in the class of 1965. He passed up a college scholarship to work for Georgia Power Company, interrupted by a stint in the military.
The U.S. Army sent him to Key Largo, Florida as a nuclear missile technician when he was only 18 since he scored high on technical exams with his IQ of 136. He served in the military from 1966 to 1968, then returned to Georgia Power, investigating and helping to prosecute those who stole power. Co-workers recognized his mechanical abilities and brought guns for him to repair.
With that expertise, Farmer left Georgia Power to work for Wayne Daniels, owner of RPB Industries, a producer of MAC-style machine pistols. When that firm closed in 1980, Farmer and his wife went into business for themselves opening Hard Times Armory.
The business name was derived from the Farmer’s experiences in trying to obtain an initial bank loan to finance their new business venture. Bankers repeatedly turned down their loan applications, stating it was not good to start a business, “in these hard times.” While not stating it outright, the Farmers believed the bankers turned down their initial loan requests due to the nature of their business in working with machine guns. Financing was obtained later on when the business became more established.
After the city of Smyrna forced them to sell their business property through the law of eminent domain to make way for the building of a community center, Farmer set up shop in the basement of his home. He also later worked for Southern Tea Co., Superior Optics, and Ball Corp. “I had planned to buy J.D. an M60 machine gun for Christmas back then, but due to the federal manufacturing ban we just could not afford it,” Linda laments.
“When we first started Hard Times Armory, it was with just a $500 investment,” recalls Linda. “We entered a virgin market as the average firearms enthusiast didn’t know they could legally own a fully-automatic arm. J.D. did not offer new designs, but rather worked with existing firearms designed by others. He was a conversion expert. We offered high-quality conversion at a reasonable price, with an education on the legal aspects of owning such arms.
“We spent very little on advertising, probably not more than $2,000 in the years we offered the conversions, and built up our trade through word of mouth. An intensely loyal customer base soon developed, and the average client bought six guns. At our peak, we were probably offering conversions on 35 different semi-auto firearms and while there were a few employees, J.D. personally worked on each gun before it left the shop. This practice slowed production so that we usually had a one-year backlog of orders to fill. The commitment to quality, usually meant he had to work 18-hours a day, 7 days a week,” Linda explained.
To help build the business, Hard Times Armory offered to repair any non-functioning gun that had been converted to full-auto by competitors for a flat fee of $35 plus shipping costs. “Sometimes this took 20 minutes, other times it took weeks,” Linda says. “When the dealer, after testing the gun, would call us back and ask how much he owed us for the repair, we would say ‘just $35, but there is one catch-if we can do this to guns converted by others, think what we could do on converting new guns to full-auto for you.’ Before they hung up the phone, I could hear them pulling guns off the shelves and packing them into boxes,” Linda chuckled. Perhaps as many as 5,000 firearms were converted to full-auto by J.D. Farmer during Hard Times Armory’s active years.
Farmer’s wife, Linda, was not a firearms enthusiast at the outset. “We were married back in 1970, after an introduction by my roommate. I was a typical mousey little girl from Florida and knew nothing about guns. I was actually shocked by the 30 or so hunting guns J.D. stored under our bed in our first apartment. But, in time, after he took me out shooting, I came to know and understand firearms and later worked side-by-side with him in the gun business. While he had great mechanical ability, he did not have much business acumen and I assumed the role of interfacing with customers while he worked on guns in the back room.”
Linda describes the period when the suit, Farmer v. Higgins (Higgins was the name of the director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms [ATF] at the time) was brought and litigated against the federal government as a “five-year odyssey of intense pain and suffering,” but worth the effort to attempt to preserve citizens’ firearms rights. “If Americans do not have access to owning fully-automatic firearms, then they are not really in a position to serve their country,” she says.
The suit began in 1989 by Farmer making an application to ATF as an individual to convert a semi-automatic Heckler & Koch Model 94 rifle into a fully-automatic firearm. The agency turned down the application on the ground that the Firearms Owners Protection Act banned private possession of newly-made machine guns. Farmer responded by challenging ATF’s decision in district court, alleging ATF had misinterpreted the law, which provides an exemption for arms transferred or possessed “under the authority” of a government agency.
He argued this exemption included machine guns registered with ATF. Further, Farmer alleged that a machine gun ban is unconstitutional, since it would violate the Second Amendment’s guarantee of a right to keep and bear arms. Further, he argued, the U.S. Constitution does not give Congress a blanket power to prohibit possession of things it does not like. Previous federal gun control legislation had been based on the Constitution’s granting of the power to Congress to regulate interstate commerce or the congressional taxing power, neither of which seemed to apply in Farmer’s case.
U.S. District Judge J. Owen Forrester agreed that the ATF’s interpretation of the law was unreasonable and therefore an abuse of discretion. He noted that “defendant’s proferred interpretation presents the particularly unattractive possibility of constitutional infirmity” on both Second Amendment and Commerce Clause grounds. Forrester ordered the agency to process Farmer’s application.
The government appealed, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit took a narrow view after hearing the arguments from both sides when it declared, “the sole issue is whether section 922(o) of the Firearms Owners Protection Act prohibits the private possession of machine guns not lawfully possessed prior to May 19, 1986,” and found that the statute had indeed banned private ownership of automatic firearms. “We have considered Farmer’s remaining arguments and find them to be without merit,” the court asserted in reversing Forrester’s order.
The landmark case, handled by noted firearms civil right attorney, Stephen P. Halbrook, saw anti-gunners picketing the Supreme Court before the justices decided not to hear the case in January 1994. Only about one in one hundred requests for review are granted by the Supreme Court. “This case would have been a golden opportunity for the court to address the black sheep of the Bill of Rights-the one amendment that they don’t want to talk about,” Halbrook commented.
“J.D. honestly believed the Supreme Court would hear the case and see it his way as he had great faith in the judicial system. Had the case been heard by the Supreme Court and decided in favor of the plaintiff, my husband would have been the most revered man in the pro-firearms community.” Linda says. “Had the justices ruled against him, saying in effect there is no constitutional right to keep and bear arms, he would have been the most hated man in the gun community. But J.D. was willing to take such risks.”
Although the Supreme Court’s decision not to hear the case was fatal to Hard Times Armory’s conversion business, the firm continued on by manufacturing a variety of silencers and doing a lot of brokering. It still is active today, primarily in the brokering end of the business.
In a review of Hard Times Armory’s AK-22 conversion, appearing in the November 1993 issue of the now defunct publication, Machine Gun News, the author reviewed one of the approximately thirty Mitchell Arms AK-22’s that Hard Times Armory had converted to full-auto.
While the stock AK-22 fires from a closed bolt, Farmer added a moving “anti-bounce” weight on the bolt, similar to John Norrell’s Ruger 10/22 full-auto conversion. To enhance reliability, Farmer lengthened the bolt’s travel by 1/2-inch and slowed the timing of the hammer’s release until the bolt bounced once and returned to the fully closed position.
During test-fire, feeding failures involving bullets striking the face of the breech just above the chamber occurred. These were traced to the location of the magazine lock notches on some of the magazines tested. The problem was easily corrected with a few judicious file strokes. There were also stoppages caused by a light firing pin blow. Exchanging the hammer spring cured the problem.
The gun was found to be very controllable. So much so that a long burst could easily be held on a bowling pin-sized target. With high velocity ammo, the AK-22’s average rate of fire was 790 rounds-per-minute, slow enough to allow firing a single shot on full-auto when desired.
J.D.’s 23-year old son, Jeremiah, was fully apprenticed into the gunsmithing trade although he is no longer active in the business, preferring instead to work as an automotive technician specializing in the Dodge Viper. Linda hopes that someday her son will take up his father’s gunsmithing trade.
Linda is writing a book to be entitled, “Confession’s of a Gun Nut’s Wife.” The book will take a humorous look at her marriage to J.D. and the many talented people they met in the gun business. She notes J.D.’s extensive collection of MAC and RPB full-auto firearms, including many one-of-a-kind pieces, may be offered for sale in the early part of the year 2000.
Both J.D. and Linda have served on the board of directors of the National Firearms Association, the governing organization for the national machine gun matches. Linda asks that those desiring to make donations in J.D.’s memory send such contributions to the NFA at 2891 Indiana Street, West Melbourne, Florida 32904, or, in the alternative, the National Rifle Association’s Firearms Civil Defense fund.
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V3N3 (December 1999)