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:
- 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:
- first or second degree sexual assault;
- first or second degree child molestation;
- first or second degree arson;
- 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:
- a felony domestic violence crime that is listed here;2 or
- one of the following misdemeanor domestic violence crimes:
- is a fugitive from justice;3
- has a final domestic violence restraining order issued against him/her from either family court or district court;4
- is in “community confinement” or otherwise subject to electronic surveillance or monitoring devices as a condition of parole;5
- 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;6 or
- 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)