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Know the Laws: Massachusetts

UPDATED November 28, 2016

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WomensLaw.org strongly recommends that you get in touch with a domestic violence advocate in your community for more information on gun laws in your area.  To find an advocate or ogranization in your area please visit the MA State and Local Programs page under the Where to Find Help tab on the top of this page.

Basic Info and Definitions

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

It depends.  In order to apply for a license to possess or carry firearms in Massacusetts, the applicant must live or work in Massachusetts.  Also, Massachusetts state law says that cannot have or buy a gun if s/he has been:

  • convicted (or adjudicated a "youthful offender" or "delinquent child") of any of the following either in Massachusetts or in another state:
    • a felony;
    • a misdemeanor punishable by jail time of more than 2 years;
    • a "violent crime" (defined here);
    • a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence (defined here); or
    • any weapons offense or drug-related offense;
  • has been committed to a hospital/institution for mental illness, alcohol or substance abuse (unless after 5 years from the date of the confinement, the applicant submits an affidavit of a licensed physician or clinical psychologist to say the person's condition is not one that should prevent firearm possession);
  • is subject to an order from the probate court appointing a guardian/conservator on his/her behalf due to lacking mental capacity;
  • was committed to treatment by a court due to being a drug addict or alcoholic;
  • is under age 21;
  • is an undocumented immigrant, an "alien who does not maintain lawful permanent residency," or was a citizen of the United States but has renounced that citizenship;
  • is currently subject to an order for suspension and surrender of firearms license as part of a temporary or ex parte abuse prevention order or is subject to a final abuse prevention order issued in Massachusetts or another state; or
  • has been discharged from the armed forces of the United States under dishonorable conditions;
  • is a fugitive from justice; or
  • is subject to an outstanding arrest warrant.*

In addition, if you have an abuse prevention order against the abuser, or if the abuser has been convicted of a felony or domestic violence misdemeanor, then federal law states that it is illegal for the abuser to buy, own or have a gun in his/her possession.**  There are certain requirements that your abuse prevention order (209A Order) must meet for it to qualify under federal law - see here for more information.  Also, if you are not sure if the abuser has been convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor, see What crimes are considered domestic violence misdemeanors?  To read the definition of a felony, see What is the definition of a felony?

* Mass. Gen. Laws 140 § 131(d)
** 18 USC § 922(g)(8),(9)

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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 crimes are considered domestic violence misdemeanors?

A crime is considered a domestic violence misdemeanor under federal law if it:

  • Can be defined as a misdemeanor under federal or state law; and
  • Involves physical violence or force, or includes threats made with a deadly weapon; and
  • Was committed by:
    • a current or former spouse;
    • a parent or guardian of the victim;
    • a person with whom the victim shares a child;
    • a person living with the victim as a spouse, parent or guardian; or
    • a person who has a similar relationship (listed above) with a spouse, parent or guardian of the victim.*

Note: The crime does not have to specifically mention "domestic violence" in order for it to be considered a domestic violence misdemeanor, and for the federal firearm law to apply.**  The relationship that the victim has with the offender is what determines whether or not the misdemeanor is a "domestic violence" misdemeanor.*** 

For example: If Bob is convicted of a misdemeanor assault against his wife, he may no longer have or buy a gun.  If Bob is convicted of a misdemeanor assault against his neighbor, he may still be able to have or buy a gun.

If you're not sure if a certain crime counts as a domestic violence misdemeanor, you can contact the National Center on Protection Orders and Full Faith & Credit at 1-800-903-0111 x 2. 

* 18 USC § 921(a)(33)(A)
** United States v. Kavoukian, 315 F. 3d 139 (2d. Cir. 2002); United States v. Meade, 175 F.3d 215 (1st Cir. 1999)
*** United States v. Denis, 297 F.3d.25(1st Cir. 2002); United States v. Costigan, No. 009-B0H, 2000 U.S. Dist. (D. Me. June 16, 2000)

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back to topWhat is the definition of a felony?

A felony under federal law is a crime that is punishable by a prison sentence of more than one year.*  MA state law defines a felony as a crime that is punishable by death or imprisonment in a state prison.** 
* 18 USC § 3559
** Mass. Gen. Laws 274 §1

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