State Gun Laws
Basic Information and Definitions
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?
Throughout these gun law pages, we will refer to laws that make it illegal for someone convicted of a felony to have a gun. In North Carolina, a felony is any offense that is punishable by a prison sentence of more than one year in the state prison or a death sentence.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 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 where s/he was convicted and search the conviction records.
For information on how a felony is defined under federal law, please see the Federal Gun Laws page.
1 NCGS § 14-1
I am a victim of domestic violence and the abuser has a gun. Do I have legal options for getting the gun away from the abuser?
North Carolina law says that a person cannot have or buy a gun if s/he:
- Is on probation and does not have the court’s written permission to possess a firearm;1
- Has been convicted of a felony;2
- Has been found not guilty of a crime by reason of insanity;
- Has been determined to not have the mental capacity to proceed in a criminal case;3
- Is an illegal drug user or an addict;
- Has been found to be mentally incompetent by a judge or has been committed to any mental institution;
- Is an illegal immigrant in the United States or has renounced his or her citizenship; or
- Has been discharged from the armed forces under dishonorable conditions.4
If any of these situations apply to the abuser, it may be illegal for him/her to have a gun. Also, if you have a domestic violence protective order (DVPO) against the abuser, you can ask the judge to order that the abuser cannot have or buy a gun as part of the DVPO. Go to I have a domestic violence protective order (DVPO) against the abuser. Can s/he keep a gun or buy a new gun? for more information.
In addition, federal laws, which apply to all states, restrict an abuser’s right to have a gun if you have a restraining order against him/her that meets certain requirements. Go to Federal Gun Laws for more information.
1 NCGS § 15A-1343(b)(5)
2 NCGS § 14-415.1(a)
3 NCGS § 14-415.3(a)
4 NCGS § 14-404(c)
Guns and DVPOs
I have an emergency ex parte DVPO against the abuser. Can s/he have a gun?
Maybe. At the ex parte hearing, the judge is supposed to ask if the abuser has firearms, and should order that the abuser surrender all firearms if the court finds that the abuser:
- Has a history of using or threatening to use a deadly weapon against you or anyone else;
- Has threatened to seriously injure or kill you or your child(ren);
- Has threatened to commit suicide; or
- Has seriously injured you or your child(ren).1
If the judge does not ask you about the abuser’s firearms, please speak up and tell this information to the judge anyway. You can ask that the judge order his firearms to be removed immediately. If the judge decides not to write a firearm restriction in the ex parte order, then you may have to wait until you are given a final DVPO.
1 NCGS § 50B-3.1
I have a domestic violence protective order (DVPO) against the abuser. Can s/he keep a gun or buy a new gun?
It depends. If a judge specifically orders in the DVPO that the abuser cannot have a gun or buy a gun, then s/he cannot have a gun in his/her possession – and doing so could be a direct violation of the DVPO. When you are in court getting a domestic violence protective order (DVPO) against the abuser, you can ask the judge to specifically order that the abuser cannot have or buy a gun.1
According to North Carolina law, the judge must order that the abuser’s gun and ammunition be taken away as part of your DVPO if the judge finds that the abuser has done any of the following:
- Has a history of using or threatening to use a deadly weapon;
- Has threatened to seriously injure or kill you or your child;
- Has threatened to commit suicide; or
- Has seriously injured you or your child.
The judge should also order the abuser to give the gun(s) s/he has to a law enforcement agency within 24 hours of being served with the order. The ban on guns is valid for as long as the order of protection lasts.2
The law described above 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.
Note: Additionally, federal laws, which apply to all states, restrict an abuser’s right to have a gun if you have a restraining order against him/her that meets certain requirements even if the judge does not specifically include on the order that he cannot have a gun. Go to Federal Gun Laws to get more information.
If you are afraid for your safety, talk to your local domestic violence program about safety planning and other options.
1 NCGS § 50B-3(a)(1)
2 NCGS § 50B-3.1(a)
3 NCGS § 50B-3.1(k)
What will happen to the abuser's gun when my DVPO expires?
Once your DVPO expires (including any extensions/renewals), the abuser will have 90 days to make a request to the court that his/her gun(s) be returned. A court hearing will be held. You will have the opportunity to be present and heard at this hearing. The guns should not be returned to the abuser if:
- s/he is prohibited from owning or possessing a firearm under any other state or federal laws; or
- s/he has any pending criminal charges against him/her for a crime that was committed against you. In that case, the guns will not be returned until that criminal court case is decided and then the decision will be made.1
To find out more about how to renew your DVPO before it expires, go to How do I extend my order?
1 NCGS § 50B-3.1(f)
Is there anything I can do to make it more likely that the abuser's gun is taken away when I get a domestic violence protective order (DVPO)?
Here are some steps you can take to try to emphasize to the judge that the restriction should be written into the order:
- Be sure to include information in your complaint if the abuser has done any one of the following:
- s/he has a history of using or threatening to use a deadly weapon;
- s/he has threatened to seriously injure or kill you or your child;
- s/he has threatened to commit suicide; or
- s/he has seriously injured you or your child.1
- If the abuser has a gun, tell the judge how many guns s/he has, where those guns are (if you know) and if s/he has ever threatened you with a gun(s).
- Ask the judge to check the box on your DVPO that the abuser cannot own, buy or have a gun while the DVPO is in effect.
- Before leaving the courthouse, check to make sure that the gun restriction is checked on your DVPO.
It also may be helpful if the judge explains what will happen to the abuser’s guns once you leave the courthouse, who will take them, and where they will be held.
1 NCGS § 50B-3.1
Guns and Criminal Convictions
If the abuser has been convicted of a crime, can s/he keep or buy a gun?
If a person has been convicted of a felony, s/he cannot have or buy a gun under North Carolina state law. Having a firearm in violation of this law is a class G felony.1
In addition, federal laws, which apply to all states, also restrict a person’s right to have a gun if s/he has been convicted of certain crimes. Go to Federal Gun Laws to get more information.
1 NCGS § 14-415.1(a)
How can I find out if the abuser has been convicted of a crime?
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.
Federal law specifically prohibits possession of a firearm if the person is convicted of any felony or of a domestic violence misdemeanor. Criminal records that would make a person ineligible to purchase a firearm 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?
The Abuser Isn't Supposed to Have a Gun...Now What?
If the abuser's right to possess a gun is taken away in a DVPO, what will happen to it?
The abuser must immediately surrender all firearms to the sheriff. If firearms cannot be surrendered at the time the DVPO is served, the abuser must surrender all firearms within 24 hours of service. The sheriff will store the firearms and other items or contract with a licensed dealer for this service. The sheriff can charge the abuser a reasonable storage fee.1
Failure to surrender all firearms and ammunition, or providing false information about the location of the firearms is a Class H felony.2
1 NCGS § 50B-3.1(d)
2 NCGS § 50B-3.1(j)
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 NC Sheriff Departments page.
You can find ATF field offices in North Carolina 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 NC 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 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.
What is the penalty for violating the state firearm law?
Anyone who has or buys a gun in violation of a domestic violence protective order that has a term that specifically says s/he cannot have a gun is guilty of a class H felony.1 If a person has been convicted of a felony, s/he cannot have or buy a gun under North Carolina state law. Having a firearm in violation of this law is a class G felony.2
For information on the penalty for violating the federal firearm laws, go to Federal Gun Laws page.
1 NCGS § 50B-3.1(j)
2 NCGS § 14-415.1(a)
More Information and Where to Get Help
I do not have a DVPO against the abuser and s/he has not been convicted of a crime. Can s/he have a gun?
There can be other reasons (aside from criminal convictions and being the respondent on a protection order) that can make it illegal for someone to possess a gun. Under North Carolina law, a person has to first apply for a permit before legally owning a firearm. The following people should be denied the permit according to the law and, therefore, cannot legally possess a firearm:
- someone who was found not guilty of a crime by reason of insanity;
- someone who was determined to not have the mental capacity to proceed in a criminal case;1
- someone who is an illegal drug user or an addict;
- someone who has been found to be mentally incompetent by a judge or has been committed to any mental institution;
- an illegal immigrant in the United States or someone who has renounced his/her U.S. citizenship; or
- someone who has been discharged from the armed forces under dishonorable conditions.2
If none of these situations apply, you can still make a plan for your safety. See our Safety Planning page for more information. You can also contact your local domestic violence organization for additional help.
For additional information on gun laws in North Carolina, you can go to the Giffords Law Center website.
Also, federal laws, which apply to all states, restrict an abuser’s right to have a gun under other circumstances. Go to Federal Gun Laws to get more information.
1 NCGS § 14-415.3(a)
2 NCGS § 14-404(c)
If the abuser is a law enforcement officer or other government official, do the state firearm laws still apply?
Maybe. If the abuser has not been convicted of a crime, and you have a DVPO against him, the abuser may still be able to use the gun for work purposes, but not for personal use.1 You can ask the judge at your DVPO hearing to order that the abuser cannot have a gun for work purposes . If the judge decides to check this box, the abuser cannot use a gun at work or for personal use. To see a copy of the DVPO order online, go to our NC Download Court Forms page.
If you are confused or not sure whether the abuser can still use his/her gun for work purposes, you can talk to a domestic violence advocate in your area or call the National Center on Full Faith and Credit to find out more information.
1 NCGS § 50B-3.1(k)
I read through all of this information, and I'm still confused. What can I do?
Trying to understand both federal and state laws can be confusing, but there are people who can help you better understand the law and your rights under the law. You can: