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State Gun Laws
Basic Info and Definitions
What 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.
I am a victim of domestic violence and the abuser has a gun. Is that legal?
Both federal and IA state law prohibit certain persons from having and buying guns, and both federal and IA state law can be enforced in Iowa. We discuss both on this page.
If you have a protective order against the abuser, or if the abuser has been convicted of a felony or domestic violence misdemeanor, then Federal law states that it is illegal for your abuser to buy or have a gun in their possession. 1
Note: There are certain requirements that your protective order must meet for it to qualify under federal law. See the next question to read more about what those requirements are.
If you are not sure if your abuser has been convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor, see What crimes are considered domestic violence misdemeanors?
To read the definition of a felony, see What is the definition of a felony?
1 18 USC § 922(g)(8) & (9)
What crimes are considered domestic violence misdemeanors?
A crime is considered a domestic violence misdemeanor under Federal law if it:
Can be defined as a misdemeanor under federal or state law; and
Involves physical violence or force, or includes threats made with a deadly weapon; and
Was committed by:
- a current or former spouse;
- a parent or guardian of the victim;
- a person with whom the victim shares a child;
- a person living with the victim as a spouse, parent or guardian; OR
- a person who has a similar relationship (listed above) with a spouse, parent or guardian of the victim.1
Note: The crime does 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.2 The relationship that the victim has with the offender is what determines whether or not the misdemeanor is a “domestic violence” misdemeanor.3
For example: If Bob is convicted of a misdemeanor assault against his wife, he may no longer have or buy a gun.
If Bob is convicted of a misdemeanor assault against his neighbor, he may still be able to have or buy a gun.
If you’re not sure if a certain crime counts as a domestic violence misdemeanor, you can contact the National Center on Full Faith and Credit at 1-800-903-0111.
1 18 USC 921(a)(33)(A); IA ST § 708.2A
2 United States v. Kavoukian, 315 F. 3d 139 (2d. Cir. 2002); United States v. Meade, 175 F.3d 215 (1st Cir. 1999).
3 United States v. Denis, 297 F.3d.25 (1st Cir. 2002.); United States v. Costigan, No. 009-B0H, 2000 U.S. Dist. (D. Me. June 16, 2000).
What is the definition of a felony?
A felony under federal law is a crime that is punishable by a prison sentence of more than one year.1
1 18 USC 3559
Guns and Protective Orders
I have a final protective order against the abuser. Can s/he keep a gun or buy a new gun?
It depends. On most protective order forms in IA, there will be a firearm restriction that can be checked off by the judge. Under federal law, however, it does not matter whether or not the firearm restriction is checked off on your order - a person who has a protective order against him/her cannot have or buy a gun while the PO is in effect.1 In order for your PO to qualify under federal law, the respondent (person who the order is against) must:
- Be served (given) notice of the court hearing. In other words, the respondent must have been given paperwork that told him or her about the hearing;
- Have an opportunity to attend the court hearing; Note: The abuser does not have to be at the hearing, but s/he has to have the opportunity to come to the hearing.
- Be an “intimate partner” of the victim, which includes:
- A current or former spouse;
- A person with whom you share a child;
- A person you live with or have lived with in the past.2
Note: This law may not apply to law enforcement officials, military personnel, and other government employees who use guns while performing official duties.3 If the abuser is a police officer, member of the military, or someone else who uses a gun for their job, talk to your local domestic violence program about your options. See IA Advocates and Shelters to find a program in your area.
1 18 USC § 922(g)(8)
2 18 USC § 921(a)(32)
3 18 USC § 925(a)(1)
I have a temporary order against the abuser. Do I have to wait until I receive a final order before the abuser's gun is taken away?
Maybe. If the judge gave you an ex parte temporary protective order (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 protective order, it is possible that it is ILLEGAL for him/her to have a gun under federal law. The protective order must also meet certain other requirements, though. Read I have a protective order against the abuser. Can his/her gun be taken away? to find out more.
Is there anything I can do to make it more likely that the abuser's gun is taken away when I get a protective order?
While it does not need to be written on your protective order that the abuser cannot buy or have a gun in order for the federal law to be enforced, it may make it easier if it is written. There are a couple steps you can take to try to help make this clear:
- If the abuser has a gun, be sure to make a request on your petition for a protective order that his/her gun(s) be taken away and held while your PO is in effect. You can write this request under the “Other” section of what you ask the court to do. You may also want to write how many guns your abuser has and if s/he has ever threatened you with a gun(s).
- Ask the judge to specifically write in your protective order that the abuser cannot buy or have a gun while the order is in effect. There will most likely be a box that the judge can check off.
- Before leaving the courthouse, check to make sure that the gun restriction is written (or checked) on your order. It also may be helpful if the judge explains what will happen to the abuser’s guns, who will take them, and where they will be held once you leave the courthouse, and a time frame in which the guns must be turned over. If the judge agrees to add language that the abuser cannot keep his guns while the protective order is in effect, you may also want to ask that the judge:
- 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;
- 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.1
1 Americans for Gun Safety; “Domestic Violence and Guns: A Guide to Laws that can Remove Guns from a Domestic Abuser”
The abuser did not show up for the protective order hearing. Can his/her gun still be taken away?
Maybe. 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 no hearing is scheduled, and/or no notice is given about the protective order, then the federal firearm law might not apply to the abuser. 2
1United States v. Bunnell, 106 F. Supp. 2d 60 (D. Me. 2000), aff’d 280 F. 3d 46 (1st Cir. 2002)
2United States v. Spruill, 292 F. 3d 207 (5th Cir. 2002)
Guns and Criminal Convictions
If the abuser has been convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor or felony, can s/he keep or buy a gun?
No. Under federal law, if the abuser has been convicted of a felony or a domestic violence misdemeanor, s/he cannot have or buy a gun.1 Under Iowa state law, a person who has been convicted of:
- a felony; or
- any serious or aggravated misdemeanor defined in chapter 708 (for example, assault, stalking, harassment) within the previous three years which does not involve the use of a firearm or explosive.1
If you’re not sure if the abuser has been convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor, see What crimes are considered domestic violence misdemeanors?
1 18 USC 922(g)(9)
2 IA ST § 724.8
If a law enforcement officer or other government employee is convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor, can s/he have or buy a gun?
No. Law enforcement officers and other government officials who have been convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor or felony cannot have or buy guns for any purpose, including their official duties, according to federal law.1
1 18 USC 925(a)(1)
How can I find out if the abuser has been convicted of a crime?
Domestic violence 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.
Domestic violence misdemeanor and felony records 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?
More Information and Where to Get Help
If the abuser's gun(s) is taken away, what will happen to it?
If the abuser’s gun is ordered to be taken due to your protection order, the abuser will most likely be given directions to deliver the gun(s) to the sheriff department or local law enforcement agency for safe keeping while the PO is in effect. When the PO expires, the gun will be returned to the abuser.
If the abuser’s gun is taken by the police because it was used while committing a crime, it will either be sold or destroyed if the abuser is convicted of the crime. If the abuser is not convicted of the crime, the gun will most likely be given back to him/her.
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 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 IA Sheriff Departments page.
You can find ATF field offices in Iowa 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 IA Advocates and Shelters 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.1
1United 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 is the penalty for violating the federal firearm 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
1 18 USC 924(a)(2)
I do not have a protective order against the abuser, and s/he has not been convicted of a crime. Can s/he have a gun?
Under Iowa state law, a person cannot get a permit to carry a weapon if s/he is:
- under 18 years old for a professional permit, or under 21 years old for a nonprofessional permit;
- addicted to alcohol;
- there is probable cause, based on documented specific actions of the person and at least one of the actions happened within two years before the date of the permit application, that the person is likely to use the gun unlawfully or that it would put that person or others in danger; or
- prohibited by federal law from shipping, transporting, possessing, or receiving a firearm.1
If this is your situation, please talk to someone in your area about how this law is being enforced.
If none of these situations apply, you can still make a plan for your safety. See our Safety Tips 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 Places that Help page to find a local domestic violence organization near you.
For additional information on gun laws in Iowa, you can go to the Giffords Law Center website.
1 IA ST § 724.8
What 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). The National Instant Criminal Background Check System is used by federal firearms licensees (FFLs), such as firearms dealers or pawnbrokers, to instantly determine whether someone is eligible to receive (own, possess, transport) firearms or explosives.1 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 legally 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 and so in those situations, the seller is not looking in the NICS.
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.
The abuser uses a gun for his/her job. Does the law still apply?
Maybe. If the abuser is a law enforcement officer, military employee or government employee, then s/he might be able to continue to use his/her gun for work purposes, but not for personal use.
However, if the abuser has been convicted of a felony or a domestic violence misdemeanor, then under federal law, s/he cannot buy or have a gun, even if s/he is a police officer or a military employee.1
If you are confused or not sure whether or not the abuser can still use a gun for work purposes, you can talk to a domestic violence advocate in your area or call the National Center on Protection Orders and Full Faith & Credit to find out more information: 1-800-903-0111.
To find a domestic violence advocate in your area, please go to our Places that Help page.
1 18 USC § 925(a)(1)
I'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, but there are people out there who can help you better understand the law and your rights under the law.
You can write to our Email Hotline.
You can contact a local domestic violence organization in your area (See our IA Advocates and Shelters page).
You can also contact the National Center on Full Faith and Credit to get more information about the federal firearm law and how it applies to you: 1-800-903-0111.