What is the difference between federal and state gun laws? Why do I need to understand both?
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.
What 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.1 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.2
1DCVSG § 7.11
2 18 USC § 3559
I am a victim of domestic violence and the abuser has a gun. Is that legal?
Under Washington, D.C. law, it is illegal for a person to 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.1
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 weapons offense (with the exception of certain infractions or misdemeanor weapons offenses);
- someone under indictment for a crime of violence;
- someone convicted within the past five years of:
- a crime related to the use, possession, or sale of drugs;
- assault or threatened assault in a menacing manner, stalking, threats to do bodily harm, or something similar in another state;
- two or more violations for 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;
- violation of an extreme risk protection order;
- someone who, within the past five years:
- was acquitted of any criminal charge by reason of insanity (unless the person presents a medical certification that s/he has recovered from the insanity);
- the court says is a “chronic alcoholic” (unless the person presents a medical certification that s/he has recovered from alcoholism);
- voluntarily admitted him/herself to a mental health facility or was involuntarily committed to a mental health facility or to a mental institution by the court;
- was determined to be an “incapacitated individual” or a “mental defective” by a court;
- has had a history of violent behavior;
- had a final civil protection order against him/her 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 currently has a final civil protection order or a final extreme risk protection order against him/her;
- 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.2
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.
1 DC Code § 22-4503(a)
2 DC Code § 7-2502.03(a)