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Know the Laws: Tennessee

UPDATED November 9, 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. Go to the TN Where to Find Help page to find help.

Basic Info

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 topI am a victim of domestic violence and the abuser has a gun. Do I have legal options for getting the gun away from the abuser?

Yes.  If you have a protection 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 or have a gun in his/her possession.*

In addition, under Tennessee state law, if the abuser has been convicted of a stalking crime, or is addicted to alcohol, s/he cannot buy a gun.**

Note: There are certain requirements that your protection order must meet for it to qualify under federal law.  See I have a protection order against the abuser.  Can s/he keep a gun or buy a new gun? to read more about what those requirements are.

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?

* 18 USC § 922(g)(8),(9)
** T.C.A. § 39-17-1316

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Guns and Protection Orders

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

No.  Under federal and Tennessee state law, if you have a protection order that was issued by a state civil court against your abuser and meets federal law requirements, the abuser cannot have a gun in his possession, or buy a new gun.*

In order for your protection order to qualify under federal law, the respondent (person who the order is against) must:

  • Be served (given) notice of the court hearing. In other words, the defendant must have been given paperwork that told him or her about the hearing.
  • Have an opportunity to attend the court hearing.
    • Note: The abuser does not have to be at the hearing, but s/he has to have the opportunity to come to the hearing. ·
  • Be an "intimate partner" of the victim, which includes:
    • A current or former spouse
    • A person with whom you share a child
    • A person you live with or have lived with in the past **

Note: If your protection order has expired, it is no longer a valid order under federal law, which means the firearm ban also does not apply.

Note: This law may not apply to law enforcement officials, military personnel, and other government employees who use guns while performing official duties.***  If the abuser is a police officer, member of the military, or someone else who uses a gun for their job, talk to your local domestic violence program about your options.  See TN State and Local Programs to find a program in your area.

* 18 USC § 922(g)(8); T.C.A. § 39-17-1316(a)(1)
** 18 USC § 921(a)(32)
*** 18 USC § 925(a)(1)

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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?

While under federal and Tennessee state law it does not need to be written on your protection order that the abuser cannot buy or have a gun, it may make it easier to get the firearms removed if it is written into the order.

There are a couple steps you can take to help make this clear:

  1. If the abuser has a gun, tell the judge how many guns s/he has, and if he has ever threatened you with a gun(s).
  2. Ask the magistrate to order that the respondent is prohibited from possessing, shipping, receiving or transporting a firearm.
  3. Before leaving the courthouse, check your order to make sure that the firearm prohibitions are included in the order.

It also may be helpful if the judge explains what will happen to the abuser's guns, who will take them, and where they will be held once you leave the courthouse.  If the judge agrees to add language that the abuser cannot keep his/her guns while the protection order is in effect, you may also want to ask that the judge:

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

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back to topThe abuser did not show up for the protection order hearing. Can his/her gun still be taken away?

Maybe. The abuser does not have to come to the hearing in order for the law to apply to him/her, but s/he does have to be given notice of the hearing and an opportunity to attend.*

If no hearing is scheduled, and/or no notice is given about the protection order, then the federal firearm law might not apply to the abuser. **

* United States v. Bunnell, 106 F. Supp. 2d 60 (D. Me. 2000), aff'd 280 F. 3d 46 (1st Cir. 2002.)
** United States v. Spruill, 292 F. 3d 207 (5th Cir. 2002.)

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back to topI have an ex parte (temporary) order against the abuser. Do I have to wait until I receive a permanent order before the abuser's gun is taken away?

Maybe.  You can ask the Judge to write in your temporary order that the abuser cannot have a gun while you are waiting for a full court hearing.  If the judge sees the abuser's firearm as a serious enough threat, the judge might decide to write this in.

However, if there is no specific mention of a firearm restriction in the temporary order, then you may have to wait until you are given a permanent order.

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Guns and Criminal Convictions

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

No.  Under federal law and Tennessee state law, if the abuser has been convicted of a felony or a domestic violence misdemeanor, s/he cannot have or buy a gun.*  If you're not sure if the abuser has been convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor, see What crimes are considered domestic violence misdemeanors?

In addition, if the abuser has been convicted of the crime of stalking, s/he cannot have or buy a gun, according to Tennessee state law.  Stalking is defined as repeated harassment of an individual that would cause a reasonable person to feel frightened, intimidated, threatened, harassed or terrorized, and actually does make the person feel that way.*1

Note: If a police officer believes that a crime of domestic violence has taken place, the officer can take all weapons (including guns) that the abuser used or threatened to use against you.  The officer may also take any weapons that are in plain view at the scene of the crime.*2  The weapons will be returned to the abuser if the police find that no crime has been committed.

Also, if someone is sentenced to probation, a court can order that s/he cannot have a gun as a condition of his/her probation.*3  A court can also forbid someone to have a gun as a condition of release with bail, if s/he abuser is arrested for violating a protection order or various other crimes.*4

* 18 USC § 922(g)(9); T.C.A. § 39-17-1350(a)
*1 T.C.A. § 39-17-315
*2 T.C.A. § 36-3-620 (a)(1)
*3 T.C.A. § 40-35-303(d)(6)
*4 T.C.A. § 40-11-150

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back to topWhat crimes are considered domestic violence misdemeanors?

Throughout these gun law pages, we will refer to the fact that it is illegal to carry a gun if a person has been convicted of a "domestic violence misdemeanor."  Basically, if the abuser is/was a family or household member and was charged with a misdemeanor because s/he abused you, s/he could have been convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor.

Here are the steps you can take to figure out if the abuser was convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor:

Step 1: You first need to know if the abuser was convicted of a misdemeanor crime either in state court or in federal court.*  A misdemeanor may have different definitions in each state but basically, it is a lesser crime than a felony.  If you are unsure if the abuser was convicted of a misdemeanor, you can call the district attorney or prosecutor who handled the criminal case and ask him/her or go to the local criminal courthouse and try to do a search of his convictions.

Step 2: The next step is that you need to figure out if the crime involved either the use or attempted use of physical violence or force, or the threatened use of a deadly weapon.*  Again, if you are unsure, you might want to call the prosecutor who handled the case.

Step 3
: The abuser must be either:

  • your current or former spouse;
  • your parent or guardian;
  • a person who you have a child in common with; or
  • a person who is like a spouse, parent or guardian to you (whether or not you live/d with him/her). For example, this might be a long-term boyfriend or someone you share an intimate, personal relationship with.*
If all three of these steps apply to your situation, it is likely that the abuser was convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor.

Note: The crime may 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 could determine whether or not the misdemeanor is a "domestic violence misdemeanor."  For example: If Bob is convicted of a misdemeanor assault against his wife, it is illegal for him to buy or have a gun.  If Bob is convicted of a misdemeanor assault against his neighbor, he may still be able to have or buy a gun.

For more information, or if you are still confused, you might want to contact the National Center on Protection Orders and Full Faith & Credit at 1-800-903-0111, ext. 2.

* 18 USC § 921(a)(33)(A); see Buster v. United States, 447 F.3d 1130 (8th Cir. 2006) for discussion of defining "as a spouse."
** See United States v. Hayes, 555 U.S. 415, 129 S.Ct. 1079 (2009)


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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.*

* 18 USC § 227(A)

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back to topHow can I find out if the abuser has been convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor or felony?

Domestic violence 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, What will happen if the abuser tries to purchase a gun?

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back to topIf a law enforcement officer or other government employee is convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor or felony, can s/he have or buy a gun?

No.   Law enforcement officers and other government officials who have been convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor or felony cannot have or buy guns for any purpose, including their official duties, according to federal law.*

*18 USC § 925(a)(1); T.C.A. § 39-17-1350(a)

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More Information and Where to Get Help

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

It depends on how the gun was taken away.  If the abuser's gun is taken away after you file for a protection order against him/her, then the gun may be held either by the sheriff's department or local police department and given back to the abuser when the gun is returned.

If the abuser's gun is taken away after s/he is convicted of a crime, then the gun may be destroyed or re-sold, and not returned to the abuser.

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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 TN Sheriff Departments page.

You can find ATF field offices in Tennessee 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 TN 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 is the penalty for violating the federal firearm law?

Anyone who owns, 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. *

* 18 USC § 924(a)(2)

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back to topI do not have a protection order against the abuser, and s/he has not been convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor or felony, is there anything I can do?

Under Tennessee state law, if the abuser has been convicted of a crime of stalking, or is addicted to alcohol, s/he cannot buy a gun.*

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.  See our TN State and Local Programs page to find a local domestic violence organization near you.

For addition information on gun laws in Tennessee, you can go to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence website.

* T.C.A. § 39-17-1316

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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 topThe abuser uses a gun for his/her job. Does the law still apply?

Maybe.  If the abuser is a law enforcement officer, military employee or government employee, then s/he might be able to continue to use their gun for work purposes, but not for personal use.

However, if the abuser has been convicted of a felony or a domestic violence misdemeanor, then under federal and Tennessee law, the abuser cannot buy nor have a gun, even if s/he is a police officer or a military employee. *

If you are confused or not sure whether your abuser can still use a gun for work purposes, you can talk to a domestic violence advocate in your area or call the National Center on Protection Orders and Full Faith & Credit to find out more information: 1-800-903-0111, ext. 2.

To find a domestic violence advocate in your area, please go to our TN State and Local Programs page.

* 18 USC § 925(a)(1)

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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 also 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.  See our TN Where to Find Help page.

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