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Legal Information: Federal

Federal Gun Laws

Updated: 
August 29, 2018

Who 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, 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 Sheriff Departments page.

You can find ATF field offices in your area on the ATF website. For reporting illegal firearm activity, a person can also call 1-800-ATF-GUNS (1-800-283-4867). In addition, many ATF offices have victim advocates on staff (called “victim/witness coordinators”). 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 Advocates and Shelters page.

Note: Generally, a person does not have to have knowledge of a specific law in order to be arrested (and convicted) for violating the law. So, if the abuser has a gun or buys a gun in violation of federal law, the abuser can be arrested and convicted, whether or not the abuser knows s/he was in violation of the law. “Ignorance of the law” is no excuse or defense.1

1 See, for example, United States v. Denis, 297 F.3d. 25 (1st Cir. 2002); 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).

Will the abuser go to jail for having a gun when s/he isn't supposed to?

The abuser can get jail time for having a gun in violation of the law. Under federal 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.1 However, as with any criminal case, the actual sentence the abuser gets may depend on a lot of different factors. In addition, realistically, it may be difficult to get federal authorities to prosecute a case. For instance, even though the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) processed thousands of cases where someone was attempting to illegally buy a firearm in 2015, only 20 of those cases led to prosecution.2

Note: Generally, a person does not have to have knowledge of a specific law in order to be arrested (and convicted) for violating the law. So, if the abuser has a gun or buys a gun in violation of federal law, the abuser can be arrested and convicted, whether or not the abuser knows s/he was in violation of the law. “Ignorance of the law” is no excuse or defense.3

1 18 USC § 924(a)(2)
2The Federal Government’s Strange Silence About Gun Crimes,” The New York Times Editorial Board (Dec. 19, 2017)
3 See, for example, United States v. Denis, 297 F.3d. 25 (1st Cir. 2002); 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)

What will happen if the abuser tries to buy a gun when s/he isn't supposed to?

Before legally buying a gun, all buyers must undergo a criminal background check that is processed through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). If the abuser falls into one of the categories that would make it illegal for him/her to own or possess a firearm under federal law, those records should be in the NICS and should appear when a background search is run. Therefore, the abuser should be prevented from buying a gun. However, 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.

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. The criminal background check system is not foolproof.

If the abuser has purchased a gun and you believe that this was illegal, see Who do I notify if I think the abuser should not have a gun?