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?
Massachusetts state law defines a felony as a crime that is punishable by death or imprisonment in a state prison.1 Usually a prison sentence is for one year or more while a jail sentence is for less than one year. However, you cannot always tell if someone was convicted of a felony only by looking at the amount of time s/he actually served 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 courthouse and search the conviction records.
1 Mass. Gen. Laws 274 § 1
I am a victim of domestic violence and the abuser has a gun. Is that legal?
In Massachusetts, anyone who wants to buy or have a gun must get a firearm license first, before s/he can possess any firearm. Massachusetts state law says that a person is only eligible for a license to have or buy a gun if s/he:
- has not been convicted (or adjudicated a “youthful offender” or “delinquent child”) of any of the following either in Massachusetts or in another state:
- has not been committed to a hospital/institution for mental illness, alcohol, or substance abuse (unless after five years from the date of the confinement, the applicant submits an affidavit of a licensed physician or clinical psychologist to say that the person’s condition is not one that should prevent firearm possession);
- is not subject to an order from the probate court appointing a guardian/conservator on his/her behalf due to lacking mental capacity;
- has not been committed to treatment by a court due to being a drug addict or alcoholic;
- is age 21 or older;
- is not an undocumented immigrant, an “alien who does not maintain lawful permanent residency,” or was a citizen of the United States but has renounced that citizenship;
- is not currently subject to an order for suspension and surrender of firearms license as part of a temporary or ex parte abuse prevention order;
- is not subject to a final abuse prevention order issued in Massachusetts or another state;
- is not currently subject to an extreme risk protection order issued by Massachusetts or another state;
- is not currently subject to a temporary or permanent harassment prevention order issued by Massachusetts or a similar order issued by another state;
- has not been discharged from the armed forces of the United States under dishonorable conditions;
- is not a fugitive from justice; and
- is not subject to an outstanding arrest warrant.1
1 Mass. Gen. Laws 140 § 131(d)