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Legal Information: Rhode Island

Rhode Island State Gun Laws

State Gun Laws

Basic Info

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 a felony to have a gun. A felony is a more serious crime than a misdemeanor. It is defined under Rhode Island law as a crime that can be punished by imprisonment of more than one year, or by a fine of more than $1,000.1 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 local criminal courthouse and try to search the records.

1 RI Gen Laws § 11-1-2

I am a victim of domestic violence and the abuser has a gun. Is that legal?

Rhode Island state law says that a person cannot have or buy a firearm if s/he:

  1. has been convicted of a “crime of violence” in Rhode Island or elsewhere. “Crimes of violence” include any of the following crimes or an attempt to commit any of them:
    • murder;
    • manslaughter;
    • rape;
    • first or second degree sexual assault;
    • first or second degree child molestation;
    • kidnapping;
    • first or second degree arson;
    • mayhem;
    • robbery;
    • burglary;
    • breaking and entering;
    • any felony violation involving the illegal manufacture, sale, or delivery of a controlled substance; possession with intent to manufacture, sell, or deliver a controlled substance; or conspiracy to commit manufacture, sell, or deliver a controlled substance;
    • assault with a dangerous weapon;
    • assault or battery involving grave bodily injury;
    • assault with intent to commit any offense punishable as a felony;
    • conviction of a domestic violence offense punishable as a felony;1
  2. was convicted of –or pled “no contest” (“nolo contendere”) to– in Rhode Island or elsewhere:
  3. is a fugitive from justice;3
  4. has a final domestic violence restraining order issued against him/her from either family court or district court;4
  5. is in “community confinement” or otherwise subject to electronic surveillance or monitoring devices as a condition of parole;5
  6. is under guardianship, treatment, or confinement due to being mentally incompetent;
  7. has been adjudicated, is under treatment, or is under confinement as a drug addict;6 or
  8. is in the U.S. illegally (an “alien”).7

Also, 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 or if s/he has been convicted of a felony or domestic violence misdemeanor. Go to Federal Gun Laws to get more information.

1 RI Gen. Laws §§ 11-47-5(a); 11-47-2(5)
2 RI Gen. Laws §§ 11-47-5(a); 12-29-5; 12-29-2
3 ​RI Gen. Laws § 11-47-5(a)
4 RI Gen. Laws § 11-47-5(b)
5 RI Gen. Laws § 11-47-5(c)
6 RI Gen. Laws § 11-47-6
7 RI Gen. Laws § 11-47-7(a)

Guns and Restraining Orders

I have a temporary restraining order against the abuser. Can his/her gun be taken away?

Rhode Island law says that the judge can issue “any” temporary ex parte order that s/he believes is necessary to protect you from abuse.1 If you are thinking about asking for this to be included in your ex parte order, it may be helpful to list the known firearms that s/he has (or the possible access to firearms) in your petition and specifically request that the abuser be prohibited from possessing firearms while your temporary order is in effect.

If the judge does not include this restriction in your temporary order, then you may have to wait until a final order is issued.

1 RI Gen Laws § 8-8.1-4(a)(1)

I have a restraining order against the abuser. Can s/he keep a gun or buy a new gun?

Under Rhode Island state law, as part of a final restraining order (after notice to the defendant and a hearing), the judge can order that the abuser hand over any firearms in his/her possession to the authorities and forbid him/her from buying or possessing firearms. One exception to this, however, is if the abuser is a law officer, active member of the military, or in any other position where s/he is required by law or departmental policy to carry departmental firearms while on duty. For these defendants, they can have a firearm only during the course of their employment but at all other times, it must be stored at the place of employment.1

In addition, Rhode Island’s gun laws make it illegal for anyone to possess or buy a firearm if there is a final domestic violence restraining order issued against him/her from either family court or district court.2

Lastly, 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 s/he cannot have a gun. Go to the Federal Gun Laws page to get more information.

1 RI Gen. Laws §§ 8-8.1-3(a),(k); 15-15-3(a),(f)
2 RI Gen. Laws § 11-47-5(b)

Is there anything I can do to make it more likely that the abuser's gun is taken away when I get a restraining order?

Here are a few things that may help:

  • 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;
  • Ask the judge to specifically write in your restraining order that the abuser cannot own, buy or have a gun while the order is in effect; and
  • 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. If the judge agrees to add language that the abuser cannot keep his/her guns while the restraining 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; and
  • Order that the police notify you when the guns are returned to the abuser.

Guns and Criminal Convictions

If the abuser has been convicted of a crime, can s/he keep or buy a gun?

Rhode Island state law says that a person cannot have or buy a firearm if s/he has been convicted of or has pled “no contest” to certain crimes. Firearm possession if prohibited if the abuser:

  • has been convicted of a “crime of violence” in Rhode Island or elsewhere. “Crimes of violence” include any of the following crimes or an attempt to commit any of them:

    • murder;
    • manslaughter;
    • rape;
    • first or second degree sexual assault;
    • first or second degree child molestation;
    • kidnapping;
    • first or second degree arson;
    • mayhem;
    • robbery;
    • burglary;
    • breaking and entering;
    • any felony violation involving the illegal manufacture, sale, or delivery of a controlled substance; possession with intent to manufacture, sell, or deliver a controlled substance; or conspiracy to commit manufacture, sell, or deliver a controlled substance;
    • assault with a dangerous weapon;
    • assault or battery involving grave bodily injury;
    • assault with intent to commit any offense punishable as a felony;
    • conviction of a domestic violence offense punishable as a felony;1
  • was convicted of –or pled “no contest” (“nolo contendere”) to– in Rhode Island or elsewhere:
  • is a fugitive from justice;3
  • is in “community confinement” or otherwise subject to electronic surveillance or monitoring devices as a condition of parole.4

Also, federal laws, which apply to all states, restrict an abuser’s right to have a gun if s/he has been convicted of a felony or domestic violence misdemeanor. Go to Federal Gun Laws to get more information.

1 RI Gen. Laws §§ 11-47-5(a); 11-47-2(5)
2 RI Gen. Laws §§ 11-47-5(a); 12-29-5; 12-29-2
3 ​RI Gen. Laws § 11-47-5(a)
4 RI Gen. Laws § 11-47-5(c)

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 gun is taken away as part of my restraining order, what will happen to it?

If the abuser is ordered to surrender his/her firearms as part of your restraining order, the judge will order him/her to surrender the possession of the firearm(s) to:

  • someone who is not related to the defendant by blood, marriage, and is not an intimate partner1 (and this person is prohibited by law from returning the firearms to the abuser at any point while the restraining order is still valid);2
  • the Rhode Island state police or local police department; or
  • a licensed gun dealer.1

If the abuser is present at the restraining order hearing, s/he must surrender of the firearms within twenty-four hours of the judge issuing the order. If the abuser is not present at the hearing, s/he has forty-eight hours after being served with the order to surrender the firearms. If the abuser chooses to surrender the firearms to someone s/he knows or to a licensed gun dealer, s/he has to file a receipt with the court within 72 hours, showing that firearms were surrendered.1

1 RI Gen Laws §§ 8-8.1-3(d); 15-15-3(d)
2 RI Gen Laws §§ 8-8.1-3(b); 15-15-3(b)

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 RI Sheriff Departments page.

You can find ATF field offices in Rhode Island 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 RI 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 

1 United 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.

1National Criminal Justice Reference Service website

What is the penalty for violating state and federal firearm laws?

In Rhode Island, the penalty for possessing a gun if any of the following circumstances apply can be incarceration for 2 to 10 years:

  • has  been convicted of a “crime of violence” in Rhode Island or elsewhere;
  • is in “community confinement” or otherwise subject to electronic surveillance or monitoring devices as a condition of parole; or
  • is a fugitive from justice.1

If you have a restraining order against the abuser and s/he fails to surrender his/her firearm after being ordered to do so by the judge, s/he can be found in contempt.  The penalty for contempt, which is a misdemeanor crime, can be a fine of up to $1,000, imprisonment for up to 1 year, or both.2

In addition, anyone who owns, has or buys a gun in violation of the federal firearm laws (which prohibit gun possession by someone who is the respondent on a restraining order or who was convicted of a felony or domestic violence misdemeanor) can be punished by a fine, jail time for up to 10 years, or both.3  Go to Federal Gun Laws for more information.

1 RI Gen Laws § 11-47-5(a),(c),(d)
2 RI Gen Laws §§ 15-15-3(h)(1),(i)(1); 8-8.1-3(g),(j)
3 See 18 USC § 924(a)(2)

More Information and Where to Get Help

I do not have a restraining order against the abuser and s/he has not been convicted of a crime. Can s/he have a gun?

Even if the abuser has not been convicted or a crime and doesn’t have a restraining order issued against him/her, s/he cannot have or buy a gun for the following other reasons according to Rhode Island state law:

  • is a fugitive from justice;1
  • is under guardianship, treatment, or confinement due to being mentally incompetent;
  • has been adjudicated, is under treatment, or is under confinement as a drug addict;2 or
  • is in the U.S. illegally (an “alien”).3

If any of these apply to your situation, please talk to an advocate 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 Planning 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 RI Advocates and Shelters page to find a local domestic violence organization near you.

For additional information on gun laws in Rhode Island, 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 ​RI Gen. Laws § 11-47-5(a)
2 RI Gen. Laws § 11-47-6
3 RI Gen. Laws § 11-47-7(a)

I've read through all of this information, and I am still confused. What can I do?

Trying to understand both federal and state laws 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 also contact the National Center on Protection Orders and Full Faith & Credit to get more information about the federal firearm law and how it applies to you: 1-800-903-0111, ext. 2.
  • You can write to our Email Hotline.
  • You can contact a local domestic violence organization in your area. See our RI Advocates and Shelters page for referrals.