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 violent felony?
Throughout these gun law pages, we will refer to gun laws that make it illegal for someone convicted of a violent felony to have a gun. A felony in general is a more serious crime than a misdemeanor. In Vermont, the following offenses are considered violent felonies:
- aggravated stalking;
- domestic assault;
- first degree aggravated domestic assault;
- second degree aggravated domestic assault;
- sexual assault;
- aggravated sexual assault;
- lewd or lascivious conduct with a child;
- aggravated murder;
- aggravated assault;
- assault and robbery with a dangerous weapon;
- arson causing death;
- assault and robbery causing bodily injury;
- unlawful restraint in the second degree;
- unlawful restraint in the first degree;
- violation of abuse prevention order, but not including emergency orders;
- burglary into an occupied dwelling;
- aggravated sexual assault of a child;
- human trafficking;
- aggravated human trafficking;
- a felony violation of chapter 28 of title 13, relating to abuse, neglect, and exploitation of vulnerable adults;
- the attempt to commit any of the offenses listed above;
- an offense involving sexual exploitation of children;
- a conviction of possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance other than marijuana; or
- the same or similar offense committed in another state (jurisdiction) if committing that offense means the person cannot have a gun under federal gun laws.1
If you are unsure if the abuser was convicted of a violent 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 13 VT ST T. §§ 4017; 5301(7)
I am a victim of domestic violence and the abuser has a gun. Is that legal?
Vermont state law says that a person cannot have or buy a gun if any of the following apply:
- s/he has been convicted of a violent felony;1
- s/he is subject to an extreme risk protection order;2
- s/he is subject to a relief from abuse order that includes firearm restrictions;3 or
s/he is on probation and his/her order of probation restricts his/her access to firearms.4
If any of these situations apply to the abuser, it may be illegal for him/her to have a gun. Also, federal laws, which apply to all states, may restrict an abuser’s right to have a gun. Go to Federal Gun Laws to get more information.
1 13 VT ST T. §§ 4017; 5301(7)
2 13 VT ST T. § 4053(2)
3 14 VT ST T. § 1103(c)(1)
4 28 VT ST T. § 252(b)(8)
Guns and RFAs
I have a relief from abuse order (RFA) against the abuser. Can s/he keep a gun or buy a new gun?
Vermont state law does not automatically make it illegal for an abuser to have a gun if there is a relief from abuse order issued against him/her. However, a judge does have the option of including a firearm restriction in a protection order because the law allows a judge to include anything that is necessary to protect the victim of abuse and his/her children.1 Other court cases (“case law”) in Vermont confirm that this “catch all” provision can be used for gun restrictions.2 If the judge includes gun restrictions in your temporary or final protection order, then it may be unlawful for the abuser to have or buy a gun.
In addition, federal law, which applies to all states, makes it illegal to have a firearm when a final order of protection is in place. Go to Federal Gun Laws to get more information.
1 14 VT ST T. § 1103(c)(1)
2Benson v. Muscari, 769 A.2d 1291 (Vt. 2001)
Is there anything I can do to make it more likely that the abuser's gun is taken away when I get a relief from abuse order (RFA)?
Depending on the judge in your case, there may be some things you can do to increase the chances that the judge will require that an abuser’s guns are taken away. Keep in mind these tips may or may not result in the outcome that you are hoping for. Every judge is different. However, here are a few suggestions that may help:
- If the abuser has a gun, tell the judge how many guns s/he has, and if s/he has ever shown you the guns or displayed them as a way to intimidate you and maintain control over you.
- Ask the judge to specifically write in your relief from abuse order that the abuser cannot own, buy, or have a gun while the order is in effect. The form that you will have to fill out to petition for a relief from abuse order will have a place where you can request additional protections. You can ask that the abuser’s gun(s) be taken away in that section.
- 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 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.
If the gun restriction is granted, check to make sure that it is written on your order before leaving the courthouse.
Guns and Criminal Convictions
If the abuser has been convicted of a crime, can s/he have or buy a gun?
Vermont state law says that a person cannot have or buy a gun if s/he has been convicted of a violent felony.1 Additionally, a person who is on probation cannot have or buy a gun if his/her terms of probation forbid it.2
In addition, federal laws, which apply to all states, restrict a person’s right to have a gun under certain circumstances. Go to Federal Gun Laws to get more information.
1 13 VT ST T. §§ 4017; 5301(7)
2 28 VT ST T. § 252(b)(8)
How can I find out if the abuser has been convicted of a crime?
Criminal 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.
Criminal records 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.
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?
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 VT Sheriff Departments page.
You can find ATF field offices in Vermont 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 VT 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 the firearm law?
If a person who has been convicted of a violent felony possesses a firearm, s/he is guilty of a misdemeanor, which is punishable by imprisonment of up to two years, a fine of up to $1,000, or both.1
1 13 VT ST T. § 4017(b)
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 relief from abuse order against the abuser, and s/he has not been convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor or felony, is there anything I can do?
If none of these situations apply, you can still make a plan for your safety. See our Safety Tips 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 VT Advocates and Shelters page to find a local domestic violence organization near you.
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.
For additional information on gun laws in Vermont, you can go to the Giffords Law Center website.
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 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 contact a local domestic violence organization in your area. See our VT Local Programs page.
- You can write to our Email Hotline.