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Legal Information: Federal

Federal Gun Laws

Laws current as of August 12, 2022

What is the difference between federal and state gun laws? Why do I need to understand both?

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 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 prosecuto). 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.