State Gun Laws
Basic Info 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 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)
Guns and Protection from Abuse Orders (PFAs)
I have an ex parte temporary PFA order against the abuser. Can s/he have a gun?
The judge can order the abuser’s guns to be taken away in an ex parte temporary PFA order if based on your petition, the judge believes that:
- during the abuse, a firearm or other weapon was used; or
- there is an immediate and present danger of abuse. To determine whether an “immediate and present danger of abuse” exists, the judge will consider a number of factors, including, but not limited to:
- if the temporary PFA order will protect you without ordering the abuser to give up his/her guns;
- whether the abuser has violated a PFA order in the past;
- whether past or present abuse to the you or your children resulted in injury;
- whether the abuse occurred in public;
- whether the abuse included:
- threats of abuse or suicide;
- killing or threatening to kill pets;
- an escalation (increase) of violence;
- stalking or obsessive behavior;
- sexual violence; or
- drug or excessive alcohol use.1
Therefore, if any of these factors apply to your situation, be sure to include this information in your petition and specifically mention that you want the abuser’s guns to be removed.
If there is no specific mention of a firearm restriction in your temporary order, then you may have to wait until you are given a final PFA order.
1 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 6107(b)(3)
I have a PFA order against the abuser. Can s/he keep a gun or buy a new gun?
According to Pennsylvania state law, as part of a PFA order, the judge can:
- make the abuser give his/her guns to the sheriff or the appropriate law enforcement agency;
- prohibit the abuser from getting any firearms for the time that the PFA order is in effect; and
- order the abuser to temporarily give up any other weapons and ammunition if they were used or threatened to be used in an incident of abuse against you or your children.1
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 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 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 6108(a)(7)
Is there anything I can do to make it more likely that the abuser's gun is taken away when I get a PFA?
In Pennsylvania, it should be automatically written on the PFA order that the abuser cannot own or buy a gun while the order is in effect, but the judge can strike that provision, so it is important that you make it clear to the judge that the abuser’s weapons should be removed. Here are a few steps you can take to help make this clear:
- If the abuser has a gun, tell the judge how many guns s/he has, and if s/he has ever threatened you with a gun(s).
- Ask the judge to write on the order that the defendant must give up all firearms that s/he has or owns as well as any that you listed on your petition.
- Before leaving the courthouse, check to make sure that the gun restriction is written 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. The PFA order includes options as to what happens to the abuser’s guns, so you may also want to ask that the judge:
- Require the abuser to give his guns to the sheriff or police, or require the sheriff or 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
Guns and Criminal Convictions
If the abuser has been convicted of a crime, can s/he keep or buy a gun?
Under Pennsylvania state law, a person cannot have or buy a gun if s/he has been convicted of a number of felonies, including murder, assault, stalking, kidnapping, rape, arson, burglary, and robbery.1 For a full list of the felonies, go to 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 6105, section (b) on our PA State Statutes page.
In addition to the felonies mentioned above, it may be illegal for a convicted criminal to have a gun if:
- he was convicted of a crime and is a fugitive from justice;
- he was convicted of certain drug crimes; or
- he was convicted of driving under the influence three or more times within a five-year period.2
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 18 Pa. C.S.A. §6105(b)
2 18 Pa. C.S.A. §6105(c)
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 court clerk 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 dealers 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 gun is taken away, what will happen to it?
If the abuser is ordered to give up his/her guns at the court hearing for a final PFA, s/he must give them up within 24 hours of the time the judge makes the order. In the case of an ex parte temporary order, s/he must give them up within 24 hours of the time s/he receives a copy of the order.1 The abuser can give the guns to the local sheriff, to a “third party” for safekeeping, or to a licensed dealer for safekeeping or sale. If the abuser gives his/her guns to the sheriff or to a third party, that person will keep them until the PFA expires. If the abuser gives them to a licensed dealer, s/he can ask that the dealer to keep them until the PFA expires, or s/he can ask that the dealer sell them.Note: The “third party” must be the abuser’s attorney or a commercial armory.2
Once a temporary or final protection from abuse order has been dismissed or expires, the abuser would fill out a “weapons return form” and submit it to the sheriff or other law enforcement agency. You are then supposed to be notified that the abuser has requested to have his/her firearms, other weapons or ammunition returned.3
However, if a person is prohibited from having guns due to another reason other than having a protection from abuse order against him/her, s/he has up to 60 days to sell or transfer them to another eligible person who is not a member of same household.4
1 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 6108(a)(7)
2 23 Pa.C.S.A. §§§ 6108.3; 6108.2; 6108.1
3 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 6108.1(a), (a.2)
4 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 6105(a)(2)(i)
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 PA Sheriff Departments page.
You can find ATF field offices in Pennsylvania 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 PA 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 Pennsylvania state gun laws?
If the judge orders the abuser to give up his/her firearms as part of your PFA, and the abuser fails to do so in the time given by the judge, s/he could be charged with a misdemeanor in the second degree, which carries a sentence of up to two years in prison, a fine of up to $5,000 or both.1 S/he may also possibly be charged with the crime of contempt for violating the PFA, which could carry a penalty of a fine of between $300 - $1,000 and imprisonment or supervised probation for up to six months.2
If the abuser was convicted of one of the felonies which makes it illegal for him/her to own a gun, and s/he has a gun anyway, s/he could be charged with a felony in the second degree, which carries a penalty of a fine of up to $25,000 and prison of up to ten years.3
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 or if there is an order of protection against him/her that meets certain requirements. Violating federal law carries additional criminal penalties than the ones mentioned above. Go to Federal Gun Laws to get more information.
1 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 6105(a.1)(2); 1101; 1104
2 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 6114(b)(1)
3 18 Pa.C.S.A. §§ 6105(a.1)(1); 1101; 1103
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.
More Information and Where to Get Help
I do not have a PFA against the abuser, and s/he has not been convicted of a crime. How can I stay safe?
You can still make a plan for your safety. See our Staying Safe 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 PA Advocates and Shelters page to find a local domestic violence organization near you.
For additional information on gun laws in Pennsylvania, you can go to the Giffords Law Center website.
The abuser uses a gun for his/her job. Can the judge still take away his/her guns in my PFA order?
Under Pennsylvania state law, if the abuser is a licensed firearms dealer, the judge may order him/her to give up any federal or state license for the sale, manufacture or importation of firearms as well as all firearms in the business inventory. However, the judge has to make a reasonable effort to help the abuser keep his/her business as a means of financial security while still doing what is needed to protect you.1
However, there are federal gun laws that make it illegal for anyone convicted of a felony or a domestic violence misdemeanor to buy or have a gun, even if s/he is a police officer or a military employee. To read more, go to our Federal Gun Laws 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 Protection Order and Full Faith & Credit to find out more information: 1-800-903-0111, ext. 2.
To find a domestic violence advocate in your area, please go to our PA Advocates and Shelters page.
1 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 6108(a)(7.1)
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 PA Advocates and Shelters page for a list of resources.
- You can also contact the National Center on Protection Order and Full Faith & Credit to get more information about federal firearm laws and how they apply to you: 1-800-903-0111, ext. 2.