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Know the Laws: Washington

UPDATED August 10, 2017

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Below is information about state gun laws in Connecticut.  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 WA Where to Find Help page to find help.

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 Washington law as a crime that is punishable by a prison sentence of five years or more, a fine of $10,000 or more, or both.*  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 or the amount of money s/he was fined 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.

* R.C.W. § 9A.20.021(1)

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

It depends.  If the abuser was convicted of various crimes, has a protection order (including a DVOP, SAPO, stalking protection order, or civil anti-harassment order) against him/her, or meets various other conditions, s/he may not be able to legally have a gun. 

Washington law states that a person cannot have or buy a gun if:
1. S/he has been convicted or found not guilty by reason of insanity of a “serious offense.”*  A serious offense is any one of the following (or a felony attempt to commit any one of the following):

  • any “crime of violence” (defined in RCW 9.41.010(b));
  • any felony violation of the Uniform Controlled Substances Act, chapter 69.50 RCW (drug-related crimes), that is classified as a class B felony or that has a maximum term of imprisonment of at least ten years;
  • child molestation in the second degree;
  • incest when committed against a child under age fourteen;
  • indecent liberties;
  • leading organized crime;
  • promoting prostitution in the first degree;
  • rape in the third degree;
  • drive-by shooting;
  • sexual exploitation;
  • vehicular assault or vehicular homicide when due to driving  under the influence or in a reckless manner;
  • any other class B felony offense with a finding of “sexual motivation;” (defined in RCW 9.94A.030);
  • any other felony with a “deadly weapon verdict,” (defined in RCW 9.94A.825); 
  • any felony offense that was in effect at any time prior to June 6, 1996 that is comparable to a “serious offense,” or any federal or out-of-state conviction for a felony that would be a “serious offense” in Washington; or
  • any felony conviction for violating background check requirements for firearm sales under (under RCW 9.41.115).*1

2. S/he was convicted or found not guilty by reason of insanity of any felony or any of the following offenses against a family or household member

3. S/he has a protection order (including a DVOP, SAPO, stalking protection order, or civil anti-harassment order) issued against him/her if the following conditions are met:

  • The protection order was issued after a hearing where the abuser had a chance to appear and participate;
  • The order prohibits the abuser from harassing, stalking, threatening  an intimate partner or the intimate partner’s child or doing anything that would place an intimate partner in reasonable fear of bodily injury (and prohibits the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the intimate partner or child that would reasonably be expected to cause bodily injury); and
  • The order includes a finding (determination by the judge)  that the abuser present a credible threat to the safety of his/her intimate partner or child.*3

4. S/he:

  • has been involuntarily committed for mental health treatment;
  • is under 18 years of age and does not qualify for an exception; or
  • is pending trial, appeal, or sentencing for a serious offense (listed above).*4

There are also federal gun laws that prohibit someone who has a protection order issued against him/her or who was convicted of certain crimes from possessing a gun.  Go to our Federal Gun Laws page for more information.

* R.C.W. § 9.41.040(1)(a)
*1 R.C.W. § 9.41.010(23)
*2 RCW § 9.41.040(2)(a)(i)
*3 RCW § 9.41.040(2)(a)(ii)
*4 RCW § 9.41.040(2)(a)(iii),(iv),(v)

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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?

Washington law says that if an abuser has a protection order (including a DVOP, SAPO, stalking protection order, or civil anti-harassment order) issued against him/her under certain conditions, it is unlawful for him/her to have or buy a gun.  For more information, see I am the victim of domestic violence and the abuser has a gun.  Is that legal?

Federal laws, which apply to all states, also restrict an abuser's right to have a gun if you have an order for protection 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.

If you are afraid for your safety, talk to your local domestic violence program about your options.  Go to the WA State and Local Programs to find a program in your area.

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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?

If you receive a domestic violence order for protection, a sexual assault protection order, stalking protection order, or civil anti-harassment order that meets the standards explained in I am the victim of domestic violence and the abuser has a gun. Is that legal?, it should be clear to the abuser and law enforcement that it is illegal for the abuser to have a gun in his/her possession under Washington state law* and under federal law. 

However, even if the order does not meet the all of those requirements, the judge is supposed to order that the abuser is prohibited from buying or possessing a gun if the judge finds there is “clear and convincing evidence” that the abuser used, displayed, or threatened to use a gun or dangerous weapon while committing a felony or previously committed a felony that would make him/her ineligible to buy or own a gun.  If the judge finds by a “preponderance of the evidence” that the abuser did any of the above, the judge has the option to order that the abuser is prohibited from buying or possessing guns but it is not mandatory that the judge do so.**

* R.C.W § 9.41.040(2)(a)(ii)
** R.C.W § 9.41.800(1)

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

Maybe.  Washington state law does allow a judge to order that an abuser's gun be removed at an ex parte temporary protection order hearing, but the judge must find that “irreparable injury could result” if the abuser’s guns are not removed before the hearing for the final protection order.* 

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

* R.C.W. § 9.41.800(4)

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back to topWhat is the penalty if the abuser has a gun in violation of my protection order?

If the abuser is prohibited from possessing a gun as part of your protection order, then under Washington law, if the abuser violates that provision, s/he may be punished criminally.  Violating a protection order is a gross misdemeanor, punishable by up to 364 days in jail, a fine of up to $5,000, or both.*

It can also violate federal law for someone to have a gun when there is a protection order against him/her.  For more information, see our Federal Gun Laws page.

* R.C.W. §§ 26.50.110, 9.92.020

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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.  If the abuser was convicted of various crimes, has a protection order (including a DVOP, SAPO, stalking protection order, or civil anti-harassment order) against him/her, or meets various other conditions, s/he may not be able to legally have a gun. 

Washington law states that a person cannot have or buy a gun if:
1. s/he has been convicted or found not guilty by reason of insanity of a “serious offense.”*  A serious offense is any one of the following (or a felony attempt to commit any one of the following):

  • any “crime of violence” (defined in RCW 9.41.010(b));
  • any felony violation of the Uniform Controlled Substances Act, chapter 69.50 RCW (drug-related crimes), that is classified as a class B felony or that has a maximum term of imprisonment of at least ten years;
  • child molestation in the second degree;
  • incest when committed against a child under age fourteen;
  • indecent liberties;
  • leading organized crime;
  • promoting prostitution in the first degree;
  • rape in the third degree;
  • drive-by shooting;
  • sexual exploitation;
  • vehicular assault or vehicular homicide when due to driving  under the influence or in a reckless manner;
  • any other class B felony offense with a finding of “sexual motivation;” (defined in RCW 9.94A.030);
  • any other felony with a “deadly weapon verdict,” (defined in RCW 9.94A.825); 
  • any felony offense that was in effect at any time prior to June 6, 1996 that is comparable to a “serious offense,” or any federal or out-of-state conviction for a felony that would be a “serious offense” in Washington; or
  • any felony conviction for violating background check requirements for firearm sales under (under RCW 9.41.115).**

2. s/he was convicted or found not guilty by reason of insanity of any felony or any of the following offenses against a family or household member

There are also federal gun laws that prohibit someone who has a protection order issued against him/her or who was convicted of certain crimes from possessing a gun.  Go to our Federal Gun Laws page for more information.

* R.C.W. § 9.41.040(1)(a)
** R.C.W. § 9.41.010(23)
*** RCW § 9.41.040(2)(a)(i)

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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.

Federal law specifically prohibits possession of a firearm if the person is convicted of any felony or of a domestic violence misdemeanor.  Criminal records that would make a person ineligible to purchase a firearm 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?

Washington state law says that when a person is required to surrender his/her firearms, they can be surrendered to the sheriff, the chief of police, the abuser’s attorney (if s/he has one), or to any person chosen by the judge.*  If the firearms are given to law enforcement, it may be possible for you to be notified prior to the firearms being returned.  The law says that a family or household member can use "an incident or case number" to request notification from law enforcement when the firearm is going to be returned.**  The same case number (or "cause number") that is on your protection order should also be on the order to surrender, proof of surrender, and receipt for the weapons.  

From the moment you are notified (by telephone, email, text message, or another method), law enforcement must wait at least 72 hours before returning the firearm.***  

* R.C.W. § 9.41.800(7)
** R.C.W. § 9.41.340(1)
*** R.C.W. §§ 9.41.340(1)(a); 9.41.345(3)(b)

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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 WA Sheriff Departments page.

You can find ATF field offices in Washington 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 WA 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 state or federal firearm laws?

The penalty for unlawful possession of a firearm depends on the circumstances.  If the abuser was convicted of a felony that is a considered a "serious offense" under the law (or if s/he was found not guilty by reason of insanity for such offense), s/he can be guilty of unlawful possession of a firearm in the first degree, which is a class B felony.  A class B felony is punishable by up to 10 years in prison, a fine of up to $20,000, or both.*

The abuser can be guilty of unlawful possession of a firearm in the second degree, which is a class C felony if:

  • s/he was convicted of a felony that is not a "serious offense" (or if s/he was found not guilty by reason of insanity for such offense); 
  • s/he was convicted of certain misdemeanor crimes against a family or household member (assault in the 4th degree, stalking, and more); 
  • s/he possesses a firearm while there is a protection order in effect against him/her that meets certain requirements;
  • s/he was involuntarily committed for mental health treatment;
  • s/he is under eighteen years of age; or
  • s/he is free on bond or personal recognizance pending trial, appeal, or sentencing for a "serious offense."**

A class C felony is punishable by up to 5 years in prison, 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.

* R.C.W. §§ 9.41.040(1); 9A.20.021(1)(b)
** R.C.W. § 9.41.040(2)(a),(c)
*** R.C.W. § 9A.20.021(1)(c)
****18 USC § 924(a)(2)

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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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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 any crimes, is there anything I can do?

It depends.  In Washington, even if you don't have a protection order that prohibits the abuser from having a gun and the abuser has not been convicted of any crime, the following people cannot possess or buy a gun:

  • someone who has been involuntarily committed for mental health treatment;
  • a person under 18 years of age who does not qualify for an exception; or
  • someone pending trial, appeal, or sentencing for a “serious offense.”*  For more information on what crimes are considered “serious offenses,” see I am a victim of domestic violence and the abuser has a gun. Is that legal?

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 WA State and Local Programs page to find a local domestic violence organization near you.

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

* RCW § 9.41.040(2)(a)(iii),(iv),(v)

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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.  There are people 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 x 2.
  • You can contact us by writing to our Email Hotline.
  • You can contact a local domestic violence organization in your area.

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