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 Washington law as a crime that is punishable by a prison sentence of five years or more, a fine of $10,000 or more, or both.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 or the amount of money s/he was fined 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 R.C.W. § 9A.20.021(1)
I am a victim of domestic violence and the abuser has a gun. Is that legal?
Washington law states that a person cannot have or buy a gun if any of the four conditions listed below are true:
1. S/he has been convicted, or found not guilty by reason of insanity, of a “serious offense.”1 A serious offense is any one of the following (or a felony attempt to commit any one of the following):
- any “crime of violence” (defined in RCW 9.41.010(b));
- any felony violation of the Uniform Controlled Substances Act, chapter 69.50 RCW (drug-related crimes), that is classified as a class B felony or that has a maximum term of imprisonment of at least ten years;
- child molestation in the second degree;
- incest when committed against a child under age fourteen;
- indecent liberties;
- leading organized crime;
- promoting prostitution in the first degree;
- rape in the third degree;
- drive-by shooting;
- sexual exploitation;
- vehicular assault or vehicular homicide when due to driving under the influence or in a reckless manner;
- any other class B felony offense with a finding of “sexual motivation” (defined in RCW 9.94A.030);
- any other felony with a “deadly weapon verdict” (defined in RCW 9.94A.825);
- any felony offense that was in effect at any time prior to June 6, 1996 that is comparable to a “serious offense,” or any federal or out-of-state conviction for a felony that would be a “serious offense” in Washington; or
- any felony conviction for violating background check requirements for firearm sales under (under RCW 9.41.115).2
2. S/he was convicted or found not guilty by reason of insanity of any felony or any of the following offenses against a family or household member:
- assault in the fourth degree;
- reckless endangerment;
- criminal trespass in the first degree; or
- violation of the no-contact provision of a protection order or the provision requiring the abuser to say out of the victim’s residence.3
- the protection order was issued after a hearing where the abuser had a chance to appear and participate;
- the order prohibits the abuser from harassing, stalking, threatening an intimate partner or the intimate partner’s child or doing anything that would place an intimate partner in reasonable fear of bodily injury (and prohibits the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the intimate partner or child that would reasonably be expected to cause bodily injury); and
- the order includes a determination by the judge (“finding”) that the abuser presents a credible threat to the safety of his/her intimate partner or child;4 or
- has been involuntarily committed for mental health treatment;
- is under 18 years of age and does not qualify for an exception; or
- is pending trial, appeal, or sentencing for a serious offense (listed above).5
There are also federal gun laws that prohibit someone who has a protection order issued against him/her or who was convicted of certain crimes from possessing a gun. Go to our Federal Gun Laws page for more information.
1 R.C.W. § 9.41.040(1)(a)
2 R.C.W. § 9.41.010(23)
3 R.C.W. § 9.41.040(2)(a)(i), (a)(ii)
4 R.C.W. § 9.41.040(2)(a)(iii)
5 R.C.W. § 9.41.040(2)(a)(iv),(v),(vi)