Legal Information: Federal

Federal Gun Laws

Federal Gun Laws

The following information explains how federal law, which applies in all states, could make it illegal for an abuser to have a gun. This section includes information about orders of protection, criminal convictions, and other circumstances that can affect a person’s right to have a gun under federal law. However, in addition to these federal gun laws, there are also state-specific laws that may apply. In order to fully understand all of the legal protections available, please also read your state’s laws by entering your state in the drop-down menu on our State Gun Laws page.

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.

Definitions and Basic Info

What is the difference between federal and state gun laws?

This section will explain the basics of federal gun laws. If you go to State Gun Laws, and enter your state into the drop-down menu, you may also see gun laws that are specific to your state. The major difference between federal and state gun laws 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. 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 generally can only arrest someone for violating state/local laws. Generally, local police cannot arrest someone for violating a federal law. Only federal law enforcement officers from 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 the ATF website to find the office nearest you. If the abuser is breaking both state and federal laws, s/he might be prosecuted in both state and federal court.

Back to top

What is 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 defined under federal law as a crime that is punishable by a prison sentence of more than one year.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 because sentences are often reduced or pled down. For example, if someone was convicted of a felony but only spent six months in prison, s/he would likely still not be able to legally have a gun under federal law. 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.

Note: An abuser who works for a government organization (such as a police officer or military servicemember) may still be allowed to possess a work-issued firearm even if s/he was convicted of a felony. Please see The abuser uses a gun for his/her job. Does the law still apply? for more information.

1 18 USC § 3559(a)

Back to top

What is the definition of a domestic violence misdemeanor?

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." A misdemeanor may have different definitions in each state, but basically it is a crime with a shorter possible sentence than a felony. In general, a misdemeanor could be a “domestic violence misdemeanor” if:

  1. the abuser is or was a family or household member, which includes:
  • your current or former spouse;
  • your parent or guardian;
  • a person with whom you have a child in common;
  • 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 with whom you share an intimate, personal relationship; and
  1. s/he was charged with a misdemeanor because the crime involved:
  • the use or attempted use of physical violence or "force;" or
  • the threatened use of a deadly weapon.1

Note: The word “force” in the list above does not have to be violent force. “Offensive touching,” such as the type that comes under many crimes of battery, is considered to be force.2

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.3 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 probably 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 tips on how to figure out if the abuser was convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor, go to How can I find out if the abuser has been convicted of a crime? 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.

1 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.")
2 See United States v. Castleman, 134 S. Ct. 1405, 188 L. Ed. 2d 426 (2014)
3 See United States v. Hayes, 555 U.S. 415, 129 S.Ct. 1079 (2009)

Back to top

The abuser has a gun. Is that legal?

Under federal law, there are several situations that make it illegal for the abuser to buy, own or have a gun (or ammunition) in his/her possession. Someone can’t own a gun if s/he:

  1. has a final order of protection against him/her;
  2. has been convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor;
  3. has been convicted of any felony;
  4. is a fugitive from justice (fled any state to avoid being prosecuted or to avoid testifying in any criminal proceeding);
  5. is an unlawful user of or addicted to drugs (controlled substances) - but this does not include alcohol or tobacco;
  6. has been declared by a judge to be mentally incompetent or was committed to a mental institution against his/her will;
  7. has been found not guilty by reason of insanity or has been found incompetent to stand trial;
  8. is an immigrant who is illegally or unlawfully present in the U.S.;
  9. has been dishonorably discharged from the military; or
  10. has given up (renounced) her/his citizenship to the U.S.1

Note: An abuser who works for a government organization (such as a police officer or military servicemember) may still be allowed to possess a work-issued firearm even if s/he was convicted of a felony or if s/he has an order of protection issued against him/her. Please see The abuser uses a gun for his/her job. Does the law still apply? for more information.

There could be additional circumstances under your state’s law where it would be illegal to own or have a gun. Please go to our State Gun Laws page for more information.

1 18 USC § 922(g); 27 C.F.R. § 478.11

Back to top

Guns and Orders of Protection

I have a temporary order of protection against the abuser. Can his/her gun be taken away?

If the judge gave you an ex parte temporary order of protection (which means that no advance notice was given to the abuser), which is commonly done, it could still be legal for him/her to have a gun under federal law. However, if the judge scheduled a court hearing and gave notice of the hearing to the abuser before giving you the temporary order of protection, it is possible that it is illegal for him/her to have a gun under federal law. The order of protection must also meet certain other requirements, though. Read I have a final order of protection against the abuser. Can his/her gun be taken away? to find out more.

However, even if the abuser can have a gun while you have a temporary order of protection under federal law, your state may have laws that would make it illegal for him/her to have a gun. Go to the State Gun Laws page in your state to read more.

Back to top

I have a final order of protection against the abuser. Can his/her gun be taken away?

If the order meets certain requirements, it is illegal for the abuser to buy, own, or have a gun while you have a final order of protection. The requirements are:

  • the order is issued after a hearing;
  • the abuser has to be given notice of the hearing and an opportunity to attend (whether or not s/he actually attends doesn’t matter); and
  • the abuser must be:
    • your current or former spouse;
    • a person with whom who you have a child in common; or
    • a person with whom you live or have lived in the past;1 and
  • the order of protection must contain the following specific legal language:
    • it has to forbid the respondent from harassing, stalking, threatening, or behaving in any way that causes the petitioner to fear physical injury for him/herself or his/her child; and
    • it has to say one of the following:
      1. the abuser represents a threat to the physical safety of the petitioner or his/her child; or
      2. the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the petitioner or his/her child is not allowed (prohibited).2

The order of protection does not need to say that the abuser cannot have a gun for the federal law to apply.

To find out if your order qualifies, you can call the National Center on Protection Orders and Full Faith & Credit at 1-800-903-0111 ext. 2. You can also read the exact wording of the law [18 USC § 922(g)(8)] on our Federal Statutes page.

Note: An abuser who works for a government organization (such as a police officer or military servicemember) may still be allowed to possess a work-issued firearm even if s/he was convicted of a felony or if s/he has an order of protection issued against him/her . Please see The abuser uses a gun for his/her job. Does the law still apply? for more information.

1 18 USC § 921(a)(32)
2 18 USC § 922(g)(8)

Back to top

Is there anything I can do to make it more likely that the abuser's gun is taken away when I get an order of protection?

Here are some suggestions of what you may want to do:

  • If the abuser has a gun, tell the judge how many guns s/he has and if s/he has ever threatened you with a gun.
  • Ask the judge to check the boxes on the order of protection form that says the abuser (respondent) must surrender his/her guns and/or that the respondent's firearm license is suspended or revoked. If the judge agrees to do so, look to make sure that the boxes are checked on your order before leaving the courthouse.

If the judge orders that the abuser cannot have a gun, you may also want to ask the judge to:

  • 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.
  • Explain what will happen to the abuser's guns (where they will be held, etc.).
  • 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.

Note: It does not need to be written on your order of protection that the abuser cannot own, buy, or have a gun in order for the federal law to be enforced.

Back to top

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

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.1 If the abuser was given notice of the hearing and did not attend, his/her gun may still be taken away under federal law.

If no hearing is scheduled, and/or no notice is given to the abuser about the court hearing, then the federal firearm law likely may not apply to the abuser.2

1 18 USC § 922(g)(8); See, for example, United States v. Bunnell, 106 F. Supp. 2d 60 (D. Me. 2000), aff'd 280 F. 3d 46 (1st Cir. 2002)
2 See, for example, United States v. Spruill, 292 F. 3d 207 (5th Cir. 2002)

Back to top

Guns and Criminal Convictions

If the abuser has been convicted of a crime, can s/he legally keep or buy a gun?

Under federal law, if the abuser has been convicted of any felony or of a domestic violence misdemeanor, s/he cannot legally have or buy a gun unless an exception applies (see the "note" below).1 In addition, it is also illegal to have or buy a gun if the abuser is a “fugitive from justice,” which means s/he has fled any state to avoid being prosecuted or to avoid testifying in any criminal proceeding.2

Note: An abuser who works for a government organization (such as a police officer or military servicemember) may still be allowed to possess a work-issued firearm even if s/he was convicted of a felony, is a fugitive from justice, or if s/he has an order of protection issued against him/her . Please see The abuser uses a gun for his/her job. Does the law still apply? for more information.

1 18 USC § 922(g)(1), (g)(9)
2 18 USC § 922(g)(2)

Back to top

How can I find out if the abuser has been convicted of a crime?

If you are unsure if the abuser was convicted of a crime (either in state court or in federal court), here are a few ways to try to find out:

  • If you were the victim in the criminal case, call the office of the district attorney or prosecutor who handled the criminal case to ask for the specifics of the conviction.
  • Go to the criminal courthouse where you believe s/he was convicted and ask the clerk for the records.
  • Try to do a statewide search of the abuser’s convictions (if public background checks are an option in the state).

Remember that the crime may not have the words "domestic violence" in the title. Often it is the facts of the case that determine whether or not it was a "domestic violence misdemeanor."

Domestic violence misdemeanor and felony records are also kept in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). However, only 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 buy a gun when s/he isn't supposed to?

Back to top

The Abuser Isn't Supposed to Have a Gun...Now What?

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).

Back to top

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)

Back to top

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?

Back to top

More Information and Where to Get Help

I do not have an order of protection against the abuser, and s/he has not been convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor or felony. Can s/he have a gun?

Even if the abuser has not been convicted of a felony or a domestic violence misdemeanor, and you do not have a protection order, it may still be illegal for him/her to have a gun. A person cannot have or buy a gun under federal law if s/he:

  • is a fugitive from justice (fled any state to avoid being prosecuted or to avoid testifying in any criminal proceeding);
  • is an unlawful user of or addicted to drugs (controlled substances) - but this does not include alcohol or tobacco;
  • has been declared by a judge to be mentally incompetent or was committed to a mental institution against their will; who has been found not guilty by reason of insanity; or has undergone some other court proceeding about their mental illness;1
  • is an immigrant who is illegally or unlawfully present in the U.S.;
  • has been dishonorably discharged from the military; or
  • has given up (renounced) her/his citizenship to the U.S.2

If you think the abuser has a gun or can access a gun, it is important to try to make a plan for your safety. Access to a gun is one indicator that a victim may be at increased risk of death or serious harm – see our Danger Assessment page for a list of other risk factors. Our Staying Safe page has tips on how to plan for your safety. 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 Advocates and Shelters page to find a local domestic violence organization near you and choose your state from the drop-down menu.

1 27 C.F.R. § 478.11
2 18 USC § 922(g)(2)-(7)

Back to top

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

The law that makes it illegal for a person who has an order of protection issued against him/her or for a person who was convicted of a felony to have a gun is different when the person works for a governmental agency. Most often, employees of governmental agencies who would use a gun on duty are law enforcement officers, such as police, sheriffs, and correction officers, and members of the military. However, it is possible that other governmental agency positions may require the use of a firearm as well.

The law clearly states that a police officer or military servicemember (or other governmental agency employee) who is convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor can never possess a firearm, including both for personal use or while on duty. However, the law allows a police officer or military servicemember (or other governmental agency employee) who was convicted of a felony or who has an order of protection issued against him/her to possess a firearm if the firearm was "imported for, sold or shipped to, or issued for the use of" a federal, state, or local government agency. In other words, a police officer or military servicemember (or other governmental agency employee) who has been convicted of a felony or who is subject to an order of protection can still possess an agency-issued firearm while on duty.1

In addition, the law is clear that a police officer or military servicemember (or other governmental agency employee) cannot buy a gun for personal use. However, it's not entirely clear under the law whether or not a governmental agency could give an agency-issued firearm to a person who was convicted of a felony or who is subject to an order of protection for his/her personal use.1 Each governmental agency may interpret the law differently and therefore may have different policies on this.

If you are confused or not sure whether the abuser can still use a gun for work purposes, you can contact us on our Email Hotline or call the National Center on Protection Orders and Full Faith & Credit at 1-800-903-0111, ext. 2.

1 18 USC §§ 925(a)(1); 922(d)(9), (g)(9)

Back to top

I've read through all of this information, and I am still confused. What can I do?

Trying to understand federal 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 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 Advocates and Shelters page. Choose your state from the drop-down menu.)
Back to top