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Know the Laws: District of Columbia

UPDATED May 10, 2016

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Below is information about state gun laws in Washington, D.C.  However, in addition to these state-specific laws, there are also federal gun laws that could apply.  To fully understand all of the legal protections available, it is important that you also read the Federal Gun Laws pages.

WomensLaw.org strongly recommends that you get in touch with a domestic violence advocate or lawyer in your community for more information on gun laws in your state. To find an agency, please go to the DC Where to Find Help page.

Basic Info and Definitions

back to topWhat is the difference between federal and state gun laws?

In these gun laws pages, we refer to both "federal gun laws" and "state gun laws."  The major difference between the two has to do with who makes the law, who prosecutes someone who violates the law, and what the penalty is for breaking the law.

One reason why it is important for you to know that there are these two sets of gun laws is so that you can understand all of the possible ways that the abuser might be breaking the law, and you can better protect yourself.  Throughout this section, we will be referring mostly to state laws.  Be sure to also read our Federal Gun Laws pages to see if any federal laws apply to your situation as well.  You will need to read both state and federal laws to see which ones, if any, the abuser might be violating.

If you are calling the police because you believe the abuser has violated a gun law, you do not necessarily need to be able to tell the police which law was violated (state versus federal) but local police cannot arrest someone for violating federal law, only for violating state/local laws.  Only federal law enforcement, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (“ATF”), can arrest someone for violating federal laws.  If the local police believe that a state law is being violated, they could arrest the abuser and hand the case over to the state prosecutor. If the local police believe a federal law is being violated, hopefully, the police department will notify the ATF or perhaps the U.S. Attorney’s office in your state (which is the federal prosecutor).  For information on how you can contact ATF directly to report the violation of federal gun laws, go to Who do I notify if I think the abuser should not have a gun? If the abuser is breaking both state and federal laws, s/he might be prosecuted in both state and federal court.

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back to topWhat is the definition of a felony?

Throughout these gun law pages, we will refer to gun laws that make it illegal for someone convicted of a felony to have a gun.  A felony is a more serious crime than a misdemeanor.  It is defined under D.C. law as a crime for which the maximum imprisonment is more than one year in a state correctional institution.  A judge may also order a fine.*  However, you cannot always tell if someone was convicted of a felony only by looking at the amount of time s/he actually served in prison since sentences are often reduced or pled down.  If you are unsure if the abuser was convicted of a felony, you might want to talk to the prosecutor who handled the criminal case against the abuser to find out or go to the local criminal courthouse and try to search the records. 

A felony under federal law is a crime that is punishable by a prison sentence of more than one year.**

* DCVSG § 7.11
** 18 USC § 3559

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back to topI am a victim of domestic violence and the abuser has a gun. Is that legal?

Washington, D.C. law says that a person cannot have a gun if s/he:

  • has been convicted in any court of a felony crime;
  • is not licensed to sell weapons and has been convicted of violating that law;
  • is a “fugitive from justice”;
  • is addicted to any controlled substance (drug);
  • has been convicted of a misdemeanor “intrafamily offense” (domestic violence) within the past 5 years, or any similar offense in another state; or
  • is subject to a civil protection order that:
    • was issued after a hearing that the respondent received actual notice of, and at which the respondent had an opportunity to participate; or remained in effect after the respondent failed to appear for a hearing (that s/he was notified of);
    • restrains the respondent from assaulting, harassing, stalking, or threatening the petitioner or any other person named in the order; and
    • requires the respondent to give up possession of any firearms.*

If the abuser falls into any one of these above categories, s/he may be violating D.C. criminal law.

Also, under Washington, D.C. law, a person has to first apply for a registration certificate before legally owning a firearm.  The following additional people (aside from those listed above) should be denied the certificate according to Washington, D.C. law, and therefore, cannot legally possess a firearm:

  • a minor;
  • someone convicted of a felony in any state;
  • someone convicted of (or under indictment for) a crime of violence or a weapons offense (with the exception of certain infractions or misdemeanor weapons offenses);
  • someone convicted within the past 5 years of:
    • a drug crime;
    • assault, stalking, threats to do bodily harm or something similar in another state;
    • two or more incidents of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs;
    • the misdemeanor offense of improper storage of a firearm;
    •  a domestic violence offense (“intrafamily offense”) punishable as a misdemeanor;
  • someone who, within the past 5 years, was acquitted of any criminal charge by reason of insanity;
  • someone who, within the past 5 years, the court says is a "chronic alcoholic" or who was committed to a mental institution unless the person presents a medical certification that s/he has recovered from whatever condition led to his/her commitment;
  • someone who has a civil protection order against him/her or who had one against him/her within the past 5 years in any state (if the order expired or was vacated, s/he must wait five years from the date it ended before being eligible for the registration certificate);
  • someone who has had a history of violent behavior within the 5 years before the application;
  • someone suffering from a physical defect (including blindness), which indicates that the applicant would not be able to possess and use a firearm safely and responsibly; or
  • someone who was found by a court to be negligent in handling a firearm, which caused death or serious injury to another person.**

If any of these situations apply to the abuser, it may be illegal for him/her to have a gun.  Also, federal laws, which apply to all states, restrict an abuser's right to have a gun if you have a restraining order against him/her that meets certain requirements.  Go to Federal Gun Laws to get more information.

* DC Code § 22-4503(a)
** DC Code § 7-2502.03(a)

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Guns and Civil Protection Orders

back to topI have a temporary (ex parte) protection order against the abuser. Can his/her gun be taken away?

Maybe, but not likely.  Washington, D.C. law does not prohibit an abuser who has a temporary protection order against him/her from possessing a firearm.  However, you may be able to request in your petition for a temporary protection order that the judge prohibit the abuser from possessing a gun while the order is in effect since there is a section where the petitioner can request additional protections.  It may be helpful if you list the known firearms that s/he has (or the possible access to firearms) and specifically request in your paperwork that the abuser be prohibited from possessing firearms while your temporary order is in effect.

Federal law may also prohibit the abuser from having a firearm while a temporary order is in effect unless the judge gave you an ex parte temporary protection order (without advance notice to the abuser), which is commonly done.  However, if the judge scheduled a court hearing and gave notice of the hearing to the abuser before giving you the temporary protection order, it is possible that it is illegal for him/her to have a gun under federal law.  The protection order must also meet certain other requirements, though.  Read I have a final order of protection against the abuser. Can his/her gun be taken away? (in our Federal Gun Laws section) to find out more.

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back to topI have a civil protection order against the abuser. Can s/he keep a gun or buy a new gun?

No.  According to Washington, D.C. law, if you have a civil protection order that was issued by a state civil court against the abuser and meets certain requirements, the abuser cannot have a gun in his/her possession, or buy a new gun.

In order for your protection order to qualify under Washington, D.C. law, it must:

  • be issued after a hearing that the respondent received actual notice of, and at which the respondent had an opportunity to participate; or it remained in effect after the respondent failed to appear for a hearing (that s/he was notified of);
  • restrain the respondent from assaulting, harassing, stalking, or threatening you or any other person named in the order; and
  • require the respondent to give up possession of any firearms.*

Also, federal laws, which apply to all states, restrict an abuser's right to have a gun if you have a final protection order against him/her that meets certain requirements even if the judge does not specifically include on the order that s/he cannot have a gun.  Go to the Federal Gun Laws page to get more information.

* DC Code § 22-4503(a)(5)

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back to topIs there anything I can do to make it more likely that the abuser's gun is taken away when I get a protection order?

In Washington, D.C., the firearm ban should automatically be written on your civil protection order, informing the abuser that s/he cannot possess, purchase, receive or sell any firearm or ammunition.

You may also want to ask the judge to specifically write in the terms of the order that the abuser must give up his/her firearms.  It also may be helpful if the judge: 

  • requires the abuser to give his/her guns to the police, or requires the police to go to the abuser's house and get them;
  • makes it clear to both you and the abuser how long the guns will be kept away from the abuser;
  • orders that the police notify you when the guns are returned to the abuser.

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Guns and Criminal Convictions

back to topIf the abuser has been convicted of a crime, can s/he keep or buy a gun?

It depends.  Under Washington, D.C. law, it is illegal (a crime) for the following people to own a firearm.  Anyone who:

  • has been convicted in any court of a felony crime;
  • is not licensed to sell weapons and has been convicted of violating that law;
  • is a "fugitive from justice”;
  • has been convicted of a domestic violence offense (“intrafamily offense”) within the past 5 years, punishable as a misdemeanor, or any similar provision offense in another state.*

Also, under Washington, D.C. law, a person has to first apply for a registration certificate before legally owning a firearm.  The following convicted criminals should be denied the certificate according to the law and, therefore, cannot legally possess a firearm:

  • someone convicted of a felony in any state;
  • someone convicted of (or under indictment for) a crime of violence or a weapons offense (with the exception of certain infractions or misdemeanor weapons offenses);
  • someone convicted within the past 5 years of:
    • a drug crime;
    • assault, stalking, threats to do bodily harm or something similar in another state;
    • two or more incidents of driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol;
    • the misdemeanor offense of improper storage of a firearm;
    • domestic violence offense (“intrafamily offense”) punishable as a misdemeanor; or
  • someone who, within the past 5 years, was acquitted of any criminal charge by reason of insanity.**

* DC Code § 22-4503(a)
** DC Code § 7-2502.03(a)

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back to topHow can I find out if the abuser has been convicted of a crime?

Misdemeanor and felony records are open to the public, but they are not always easy to access.  If you know the exact courthouse where the abuser may have been convicted, you can go to the courthouse and ask the clerk of court for access to those records.

Domestic violence misdemeanor and felony records are also kept in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).  However, no one other than law enforcement officials and licensed firearm sellers are allowed to search the NICS.  Your local police department may be willing to search NICS for you if you ask, but they are not required to do so.

To read more about the NICS, please see the question, What will happen if the abuser tries to purchase a gun?

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The Abuser Isn’t Supposed to Have a Gun… Now What?

back to topIf the abuser's gun is taken away, what will happen to it?

In D.C., when a civil protection order is issued against a respondent that prohibits gun possession, the respondent (abuser) is supposed to immediately give his/her firearms and ammunition to a third party, to the local police agency, or a federal firearms dealer.  If you know the abuser has not given up possession of his/her firearm, you may be able to call the police to notify them.

 

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back to topWho do I notify if I think the abuser should not have a gun?

If you think the abuser is violating state firearm laws, you can call your local police or sheriff department or the state police.  If you think the abuser is violating federal firearm laws, you can call the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF).

You can find contact information for sheriff departments in your area on our DC Sheriff Departments page.

You can find ATF field offices in Washington, D.C. on the ATF website.  For reporting illegal firearm activity, a person can also call 1-800-ATF-GUNS (1-800-283-4867).  Many ATF offices have victim advocates on staff (called “victim/witness coordinators”) and so perhaps you may ask to speak one of these advocates if you are having a hard time connecting with (or receiving a call back from) an ATF officer.

A local domestic violence organization in your area may also be able to answer your questions and assist you in talking to the necessary law enforcement officials.  You will find contact information for organizations in your area on our DC State and Local Programs page.

Note: Generally, the abuser does not have to have knowledge of the law in order to be arrested for breaking the law.  If the abuser has or buys a gun in violation of the law, the abuser can be arrested, whether or not s/he knows that s/he was in violation of the law.*

* United States v. Lippman, 369 F. 3d 1039 (8th Cir. 2004); United States v. Henson, 55 F. Supp. 2d 528 (S.D. W.V. 1999)

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back to topWhat will happen if the abuser tries to purchase a gun?

Before purchasing a gun from a licensed firearm dealer, all buyers must undergo a criminal background check that is processed through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).  If the abuser has a qualifying protection order against him/her, or has been convicted of a felony or domestic violence misdemeanor in any state, those records should be in the NICS, which should prevent the abuser from buying a gun.  Not all states have automated record keeping systems, making it more difficult to process the criminal background check, and some criminals and abusers do slip through the system.  Also, it is important to know that background checks are not required for private and online gun sales.  

If the abuser is able to purchase a gun and you believe that s/he should not be able to have one under the law, you can alert the police, and ask that his/her gun be taken away and perhaps the police will investigate.  Generally, it is not a good idea to assume that because the abuser was able to buy a gun, it is legal for him/her to have one.

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back to topWhat is the penalty for violating the firearm laws?

A person who violates Washington, D.C.'s criminal law regulating gun possession (which is explained in I am a victim of domestic violence and the abuser has a gun. Is that legal?) can be punished as follows:

  • for violating the prohibition against convicted felons having a gun, s/he can be sentenced to between 1 year and 15 years in prison (depending on his/her criminal history), subject to a fine of up to $37,500, or both;* and
  • for violating any other section of the law (including having a gun while there is a civil protection order against him/her), s/he can be sentenced to between 2 to 10 years in prison, subject to a fine of up to $10,000, or both.*

Also, anyone who has or buys a gun in violation of the federal firearm law can be punished by a fine, jail time for up to 10 years, or both.***  For more information, see our Federal Gun Laws page.

* DC Code §§ 22-4503(b)(1),(3); 22-3571.01(b)(8)
** DC Code §§ 22-4503(c); 22-3571.01(b)(7)
*** 18 USC § 924(a)(2)

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More Information and Where to Get Help

back to topI do not have a protection order against the abuser, and s/he has not been convicted of a crime. Can s/he have a gun?

In Washington, D.C., in addition to convicted criminals and respondents in protection order cases, the law also prevents the following other people from possessing a firearm - someone who:

  • is a “fugitive from justice”;
  • is addicted to any controlled substance (drug);
  • is a minor;
  • is under indictment for a crime of violence or a weapons offense (with the exception of certain infractions or misdemeanor weapons offenses);
  • was acquitted of any criminal charge by reason of insanity within the past 5 years;
  • the court says is a "chronic alcoholic" or who was committed to a mental hospital/institution within the past 5 years;
  • has had a history of violent behavior within the 5 years before applying for a firearm license;
  • is suffering from a physical defect (including blindness), which indicates that the applicant would not be able to possess and use a firearm safely and responsibly; or
  • was found by a court to be negligent in handling a firearm, which caused death or serious injury to another person.*

If none of these situations apply, you can still make a plan for your safety.  See our Staying Safe page for more information. You can also contact your local domestic violence organization for additional help.  You may want to talk to them about whether leaving the area - either long term or for a little while - might help improve your safety.  See our DC State and Local Programs page to find a local domestic violence organization near you.

For additional information on gun laws in the District of Columbia, you can go to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence website.


* DC Code §§ 22-4503(a); 7-2502.03(a)

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back to topI've read through all of this information, and I am still confused. What can I do?

Trying to understand both federal and state law can be confusing, but there are people out there who can help you better understand the law and your rights under the law.

  • You can contact the National Center on Protection Orders and Full Faith & Credit to get more information about the federal firearm law and how it applies to you: 1-800-903-0111, ext. 2.
  • You can write to our Email Hotline.
  • You can contact a local domestic violence organization in your area.  

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