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Citizen's Guide To Federal Firearms Laws - Summary

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

A summary of federal restrictions on the purchase,sale, possession, and transportation of firearms and ammunition.


Caution: Firearm laws are subject to frequent change and court interpretation. This summary is not intended as legal advice or restatement of law. This summary does not include state or local laws,ordinances or regulations. For any particular situation, a licensed local attorney must be consulted for an accurate interpretation.

Under federal law supported by the National Rifle Association, the use of a firearm in a violent or drug-trafficking crime is punishable by a mandatory prison sentence of up to 20 years. A second conviction, if the firearm is a machine gun or is equipped with a silencer, brings life imprisonment without release. Violating firearms laws should lead to very real punishment for violent criminals, but the laws first must be enforced.

Ineligible Persons

The following classes of people are ineligible to possess, receive, ship, or transport firearms or ammunition:

  • Those convicted of crimes punishable by imprisonment for over one year, except state misdemeanors punishable by two years or less.
  • Fugitives from justice.
  • Unlawful users of certain depressant, narcotic, or stimulant drugs.
  • Those adjudicated as mental defectives or incompetents or those committed to any mental institution.
  • Illegal aliens.
  • Citizens who have renounced their citizenship.
  • Those persons dishonorably discharged from the Armed Forces.
  • Persons less than 18 years of age for the purchase of a shotgun or rifle.
  • Persons less than 21 years of age for the purchase of a firearm that is other than a shotgun or rifle.
  • Persons subject to a court order that restrains such persons from harassing, stalking, or threatening an intimate partner.
  • Persons convicted in any court of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.

Persons under indictment for a crime punishable by imprisonment for more than one year are ineligible to receive, transport, or ship any firearm or ammunition. Under limited conditions, relief from disability may be obtained from the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, or through a pardon, expungement, restoration of rights, or setting aside of a conviction.

Acquiring Firearms

The following restrictions apply to firearms acquired through purchase, trade, receipt of gifts, or by other means.

From Dealers

Provided that federal law and the laws of both the dealer`s and purchaser`s states and localities are complied with:

  • An individual 21 years of age or older may acquire a handgun from a dealer federally licensed to sell firearms in the individual`s state of residence
  • An individual 18 years of age or older may purchase a rifle or shotgun from a federally licensed dealer in any state

It shall be unlawful for any licensed importer, licensed manufacturer, or licensed dealer to sell, deliver, or transfer a firearm unless the federal firearms licensee receives notice of approval from a prescribed source approving the transfer.

Sale of a firearm by a federally licensed dealer must be documented by a federal form 4473, which identifies and includes other information about the purchaser, and records the make, model, and serial number of the firearm. Sales to an individual of multiple handguns within a five-day period require dealer notification to the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Violations of dealer record keeping requirements are punishable by a penalty of up to $1000 and one year`s imprisonment.

Sales Between Individuals

An individual who does not possess a federal firearms license may not sell a firearm to a resident of another state without first transferring the firearm to a dealer in the purchaser`s state. Firearms received by bequest or intestate succession are exempt from those sections of the law which forbid the transfer, sale, delivery or transportation of firearms into a state other than the transferor`s state of residence.

Temporary use of Another`s Firearm

Provided that all other laws are complied with, an individual may temporarily borrow or rent a firearm for lawful sporting purposes throughout the United States.

Antiques

Antique firearms and replicas are exempted from the aforementioned restrictions. Antique firearms are defined as: any firearm (including any firearm with a matchlock, flintlock, percussion cap, or similar type of ignition system) manufactured in or before 1898, and any replica of a firearm as designed above if the replica is not designed or redesigned for using rimfire or conventional centerfire ammunition, or uses fixed ammunition, which is no longer manufactured in the United States and which is not readily available in the ordinary channels or commercial trade, any muzzle loading rifle, muzzle loading shotgun, or muzzle loading pistol, which is designed to use black powder, or a black powder substitute, and which cannot use fixed ammunition. (Note: Antiques exemptions vary considerably under state laws.)

Shipping Firearms

Firearms may not be mailed or shipped interstate from one non-FFL to another non-FFL. Personally owned rifles and shotguns may be mailed or shipped to an FFL in any state for any lawful purpose, including sale, repair, or customizing. An FFL may ship a firearm or replacement firearm of the same kind and type to a person from whom it was received. Under U.S. Postal regulations, handguns may be sent via the Postal Service only from one FFL to another FFL, or between authorized government officials.

A person may ship a rifle or shotgun to himself, in care of a person who lives in another state, for purposes of hunting.

Firearms or ammunition delivered to a common carrier for shipment must be accompanied by a written notice to the carrier of the contents of the shipment.

Transporting Firearms During Travel

A provision of federal law serves as a defense to state or local laws which would prohibit the passage of persons with firearms in interstate travel.

Notwithstanding any state or local law, a person shall be entitled to transport a firearm from any place where he may lawfully possess and transport such firearm to any other place where he may lawfully possess and transport such firearm if the firearm is unloaded and in the trunk. In vehicles without a trunk, the unloaded firearm shall be in a locked container other than the glove compartment or console.

Federal law prohibits the carrying of any firearm, concealed or unconcealed, on or about the person or in carry-on baggage while aboard an aircraft.The Transportation Security Administration(TSA) has established certain requirements for transporting firearms and ammunition. Firearms must be carried in a locked hard sided case. Ammunition must be declared and can be transported in checked baggage or in the same container as the firearm as long the firearm is unloaded.

Any passenger who owns or legally possesses a firearm being transported aboard any common or contract carrier for movement with the passenger in interstate or foreign commerce must deliver the unloaded firearm into custody of the pilot, captain, conductor, or operator of such common or contract carrier for the duration of the trip.

Ammunition

As with firearms, shipments of ammunition must be accompanied by a written notice of the shipment`s contents. It is unlawful for any licensed importer, dealer, manufacturer or collector to transfer shotgun or rifle ammunition to anyone under the age of 18, or any handgun ammunition to anyone under the age of 21.

It is illegal to manufacture or sell armor-piercing handgun ammunition.

Dealers

Persons who engage in the business of buying or selling firearms must be licensed by the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives of the U.S. Department of Justice. A special class of "licensed collectors" provides for the purchase and sale of firearms designated by the BATFE as "curios and relics." Class III dealers may sell fully-automatic firearms manufactured prior to May 19, 1986, and other federally registered firearms and devices restricted under Title II of the Gun Control Act, to individuals who obtain approval from the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury after payment of a tax and clearance following a criminal background check.

Violations of restrictions on Title II firearms and devices are punishable by a penalty of up to $10,000 and 10 years imprisonment.


In addition to federal gun laws imposed by the National Firearms Act (1934), Gun Control Act (1968), Firearms Owner`s Protection Act (1986), Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act (1993), the 1994 Omnibus Crime Control Act and other laws, most states and some local jurisdictions have imposed their own firearms restrictions.
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