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 gun laws that make it illegal for someone convicted of certain felonies to have a gun. A felony is a more serious crime than a misdemeanor. Pennsylvania state law defines felonies in terms of degrees. A felony of the first degree is a crime with a maximum prison sentence of more than 10 years; a felony of the second degree has a maximum prison sentence of no more than 10 years; and a felony of the third degree has a maximum prison sentence of no more than 7 years.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 and search the conviction records.
1 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 106
I am a victim of domestic violence and the abuser has a gun. Is that legal?
It depends. If you have a PFA order in which the judge told the abuser to give up his firearms, it would be illegal for the abuser to have a gun.1
Also, even if you don’t have a PFA order, it may be illegal for the abuser to have a gun if s/he has been convicted of certain drug crimes, felony crimes (including stalking, assault, kidnapping, and many others), is a fugitive from justice, or has been declared mentally incompetent.2 For more information, go to If the abuser has been convicted of a crime, can he keep a gun or buy a new gun?
Also, federal laws, which apply to all states, restrict a person’s right to have a gun under certain circumstances such as when the abuser has been convicted of certain domestic violence-related crimes or if you have an order of protection against the abuser that meets certain requirements. Go to Federal Gun Laws to get more information.
1 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 6105(c)(6)
2 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 6105(b) & (c)