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Gun law in the United States

A notice stating that the Turman Halfway House in Austin, Texas prohibits concealed handguns

Gun law in the United States is defined by a number of state and federal statutes. In the United States the protection against infringement of the right to keep and bear arms is addressed in the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution. While there have been vigorous debates on the nature of this right, there has been a lack of clear federal court rulings defining this right until recently. The individual right to bear arms for self-defense was affirmed in the landmark United States Supreme Court cases District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008, which overturned a handgun ban in the Federal District of Columbia, and McDonald v. City of Chicago in 2010, which incorporated the individual right to the states.

Federal gun laws are enforced by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).[1] Most federal gun laws were enacted through:[2][3]

In addition to federal gun laws, all U.S. states and some local jurisdictions have imposed their own firearms restrictions.


  • General provisions 1
    • Use of firearms 1.1
    • Carrying firearms (federal law) 1.2
    • Prohibited persons 1.3
    • Dealers 1.4
    • Acquiring from dealers 1.5
    • Sales between individuals 1.6
  • Movement and transport 2
    • Shipping firearms 2.1
    • Transporting firearms 2.2
  • Ammunition 3
  • Antiques 4
  • Undetectable guns 5
  • See also 6
  • Notes 7
  • References 8

General provisions

Use of firearms

Provided that all other laws are complied with, an individual may temporarily borrow or rent a firearm for lawful purposes throughout the United States.

Under United States federal law, the use of a firearm in a violent or drug trafficking crime is punishable by a mandatory prison sentence of up to 20 years. The minimum is one month. A second conviction, if the firearm is an automatic weapon or is equipped with a suppressor, brings life imprisonment without release.

Carrying firearms (federal law)

There is no federal law generally prohibiting the carrying of firearms by citizens for protection or other lawful purposes, with limited exception in the Federal Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990. The GFSZA does not apply to citizens licensed to possess firearms. Thus, citizens with permits to carry concealed or openly are free to lawfully do so within a school zone, so long as the laws in their state do not prohibit it. Other statutes concerning Federal property such as military installations also address the carry of firearms. By tradition and as defined in the Constitution, laws describing the bearing of arms are exclusively the business of state legislatures.
See: Gun laws in the United States (by state)

The carry of firearms for protection and other lawful purposes is legal in all 50 states, either under license or as a matter of course. Washington, D.C. is the only region that both prohibits carry by statute, and doesn't issue a license exempting one from the statute.

Open carrying of firearms without any licensing requirement is legal in thirty-one states, including: Alabama; Alaska; Arizona; Arkansas; Colorado; Delaware; Idaho; Kansas; Kentucky; Louisiana; Maine; Michigan; Missouri; Montana; Nebraska; Nevada; New Hampshire; New Mexico; North Carolina; Ohio; Oregon; Pennsylvania; South Dakota; Utah; Vermont; Virginia; Washington; West Virginia; Wisconsin and Wyoming. States urge caution while engaging in open carry to not cause a public disturbance, most under penalty of law.
Some of these states' statutes prohibit carry in vehicles without a license; concealment without a license; concealment generally; or other restrictions. It is strongly advised to be totally familiar with all aspects of gun law whether they affect you or not to be fully aware.
See: Open carry in the United States and Concealed Carry in the United States

Prohibited persons

The following list of prohibited persons[4] are ineligible to own or use firearms under the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act.[5]

  • Those convicted of felonies and certain misdemeanors except where state law reinstates rights, or removes disability.
  • Fugitives from justice
  • Unlawful users of certain depressant, narcotic, or stimulant drugs
  • Those adjudicated as mental defectives or incompetents or those committed to any mental institution and currently containing a dangerous mental illness.
  • Non-U.S. citizens, unless permanently immigrating into the United States or in possession of a hunting license legally issued in the United States
  • Those who have renounced U.S. citizenship
  • Persons convicted in any court of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence (an addition)
  • Persons under indictment for a crime punishable by imprisonment for more than one year are ineligible to receive, transport, or ship any firearm or ammunition

In addition, no Federal Firearms License holder may sell or deliver firearms or ammunition to minors, defined as under the age of eighteen for long guns and the age of twenty-one for handguns.[6]


  • Persons who engage in the business of buying or selling firearms must be licensed by the ATF of the U.S. Department of Justice. A special class of "licensed collectors" provides for the purchase and sale of firearms designated by the ATF as "curios and relics".
  • Violations of restrictions on Title II firearms and devices are punishable by a penalty of up to $10,000 and 10 years imprisonment.

Acquiring from dealers

Provided that federal law and the laws of both the dealer's and purchaser's states and localities are complied with:

  • An individual 21 years of age or older may acquire a handgun from a dealer federally licensed to sell firearms in the individual's state of residence.[7]
  • An individual 18 years of age or older may purchase a rifle or shotgun from a federally licensed dealer in any state. However, the applicant may not purchase a pistol gripped long gun that does not have a shoulder stock until he or she is 21 years of age.
  • It shall be unlawful for any licensed importer, licensed manufacturer, or licensed dealer to sell, deliver, or transfer a firearm unless the federal firearms licensee receives notice of approval from a prescribed source approving the transfer.
  • Sale of a firearm by a federally licensed dealer must be documented by a federal form 4473, which identifies and includes other information about the purchaser, and records the make, model, and serial number of the firearm. Sales to an individual of multiple handguns within a five-day period require dealer notification to the ATF. Violations of dealer record keeping requirements are punishable by a penalty of up to $1,000 and one year's imprisonment.
  • Federal Form 4473 is retained by the dealer, and the ATF is not allowed to create an electronic registry of firearms purchases that could be used in law enforcement. Instead, the ATF queries dealers individually regarding purchases. The ATF obtains forms from dealers that have gone out of business, but it is not allowed to create an efficient electronic database of the information.[8]
  • A series of amendments to appropriations bills, the Tiahrt Amendments, restrict the use of information acquired by the ATF. The ATF cannot release anything but aggregate data to the public and the bureau from cannot use tracing data in some legal proceedings to suspend or revoke a dealer’s license. These amendments require that records of background checks of gun buyers be destroyed within 24 hours of approval.[8]
  • An individual holding a Curio and Relics License (officially a Type 03 Federal Firearms License [FFL]; also called a C&R) may directly purchase firearms that are 50 or more years old from anyone AND any firearm officially recognized by the ATF as a Curio and Relic (C&R).

Sales between individuals

For transactions that do not involve federal firearms licensees, such as private transactions, federal law is less strict when it comes to minimum age.

In a private transaction, federal law prohibits the transfer or the sale of a handgun or ammunition, for use only in handguns, to individuals under 18 years of age. Although, there are certain exceptions in federal law, that if met, would allow an individual to transfer a handgun or ammunition, for use only in handguns, to someone under 18 years of age.

There is no federal law concerning minimum age for the transfer or sale of a firearm that is not defined as a handgun, such as rifles, semiautomatic rifles, short-barreled rifles, shotguns, short-barreled shotgun, etc., for transactions that don't involve federal firearms licensees.[4]

An individual who does not possess a federal firearms license may not sell a modern firearm to a resident of another state without first transferring the firearm to a dealer in the purchaser's state.[9] Firearms received by bequest or intestate succession are exempt from those sections of the law which forbid the transfer, sale, delivery or transportation of firearms into a state other than the transferor's state of residence.[9] Likewise, antique firearms are exempt from these sections of the law in most states. (Antique firearms are defined as those manufactured pre-1899 by U.S. federal law, or modern replicas thereof that do not use cartridges. State law definitions on antique firearms vary considerably from state to state.)

Movement and transport

Shipping firearms

  • Firearms may not be mailed or shipped interstate from one non-FFL to another non-FFL but may be shipped intrastate. Personally owned rifles and shotguns may be mailed or shipped to an FFL in any state for any lawful purpose, including sale, repair, or customizing. An FFL may ship a firearm or replacement firearm of the same kind and type to a person from whom it was received. Under U.S. Postal regulations, handguns may be sent via the Postal Service only from one FFL to another FFL, or between authorized government officials.
  • A person may ship a rifle or shotgun to himself, in care of a person who lives in another state, for purposes of hunting.
  • Firearms delivered to a common carrier for shipment must be accompanied by a written declaration to the carrier of the contents of the shipment, if mailing to persons other than licensed importers, licensed manufacturers, licensed dealers, or licensed collectors. Notice to the carrier is not required when shipping to one of the licensed entities aforementioned. Letter from ATF summarizing shipping responsibilities under the law:

Transporting firearms

  • Firearms are generally prohibited on property in any K-12 school. This is mostly governed by state law instead of federal law, although a federal law does bar most such possession. A small number of states will allow concealed carry by permit holders on school property. In Utah, public schools (higher education and K-12 that receive state funding) are specifically required to allow permit holders to carry concealed on campus.[10] A larger number of states allow some gun owners, most often concealed carry permit holders, to have their guns in their vehicles while on campus to attend, or transport others to or from, a school event.
  • A provision of federal law serves as a defense to state or local laws which would prohibit the passage of persons with firearms in interstate travel: Notwithstanding any state or local law, a person shall be entitled to transport a firearm from any place where he may lawfully possess and transport such firearm to any other place where he may lawfully possess and transport such firearm if the firearm is unloaded and in a locked container. In vehicles without a locked container, the unloaded firearm shall be in a locked box other than the glove compartment or console.[11]
  • Federal law prohibits the carrying of any firearm, concealed or unconcealed, on or about the person or in carry-on baggage while aboard a commercial aircraft. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has established certain requirements for transporting firearms and ammunition. Firearms must be carried in a locked hard sided case. Ammunition must be declared and can be transported in checked baggage or in the same container as the firearm as long as the firearm is unloaded.
  • Any passenger who owns or legally possesses a firearm being transported aboard any common or contract carrier for movement with the passenger in interstate or foreign commerce must deliver the unloaded firearm into custody of the pilot, captain, conductor, or operator of such common or contract carrier for the duration of the trip.
  • The Wicker Amendment is United States federal legislation to allow rail travellers to put properly licensed, unloaded guns in checked Amtrak baggage.[12][13] It reverses a decade-long ban on such carriage and came into effect on December 15, 2010. The policy change was promoted by the National Rifle Association and United States Senator Roger Wicker.[14][15]


  • As with firearms, shipments of ammunition must be accompanied by a written notice of the shipment's contents. It is unlawful for any licensed importer, dealer, manufacturer, or collector to transfer shotgun or rifle ammunition to anyone under the age of 18, or to transfer handgun ammunition to anyone under the age of 21.
  • It is illegal to commercially manufacture or commercially import armor-piercing handgun ammunition as described in 18 U.S.C. chapter 44 §921 definitions (part 21). It is also illegal for federally licensed dealers to sell armor piercing handgun ammunition to anyone other than the government or law enforcement without keeping detailed records, or unless that dealer has a class 10 or 11 FFL and sells to another class 10 or class 11 FFL license holder as described in 18 U.S.C. chapter 44 §922 (b). Civilians in most states can legally possess pistol-caliber armor piercing ammunition. Only CA, IL, TX, KY, NJ, RI, FL, and Washington D.C. have laws restricting the use of such ammunition.


  • Under the United States Gun Control Act of 1968, antique firearms and replicas are largely exempted from the aforementioned restrictions. Antique firearms are defined as: any firearm with a frame or receiver manufactured in or before 1898 regardless of ignition system, or any firearm with a matchlock, flintlock, percussion cap, or similar type of ignition system, and any replica of an antique firearm if the replica is not designed or redesigned for using rimfire or conventional centerfire ammunition, or uses fixed ammunition, which is no longer manufactured in the United States and which is not readily available in the ordinary channels or commercial trade; any muzzle-loading rifle, muzzle-loading shotgun, or muzzle-loading pistol, which is designed to use black powder, or a black powder substitute; and which cannot use fixed ammunition. (Note: Antique firearms exemptions vary considerably under state laws.)

Undetectable guns

The Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988 made it "unlawful to manufacture, import, sell, ship, deliver, possess, transfer, or receive any firearm" that is not detectable by a walk-through metal detector or "of which any major component, when subjected to inspection by x-ray machines commonly used at airports, does not generate an image that accurately depicts the shape of the component."[16] It was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan on November 10, 1988.[17] The law included a ten year sunset clause, which has since been renewed on the following occasions:

  • For five years in 1998 (Pub.L. 105–277, H.R. 4328, 112 Stat. 2681, enacted October 21, 1998)[18]
  • For ten years in 2003 (Pub.L. 108–174, H.R. 3348, 117 Stat. 2481, enacted December 9, 2003)[19]
  • For ten years in 2013[20][21]

See also


  1. ^ As status and responsibilities of the agency have changed over the years, it has used the acronyms ATF, BATF, BATFE and currently ATF.
  2. ^ "Federal Gun Control Legislation - Timeline". Retrieved 2013-11-14. 
  3. ^ "Crime Control: The Federal Response". Retrieved 2013-11-14. 
  4. ^ a b "ATF Federal Firearms Regulations Reference Guide" (PDF). Retrieved 2013-11-14. 
  5. ^ "18 USC § 922 - Unlawful acts | Title 18 - Crimes and Criminal Procedure | U.S. Code | LII / Legal Information Institute". Retrieved 2013-11-14. 
  6. ^ "18 USC § 922 - Unlawful acts | Title 18 - Crimes and Criminal Procedure | U.S. Code | LII / Legal Information Institute". Retrieved 2013-11-14. 
  7. ^ [1]
  8. ^ a b Goode, E. and Stolberg, S.G. Legal Curbs Said to Hamper A.T.F. in Gun Inquiries. New York Times, December 25, 2012.
  9. ^ a b Gutmacher, Esq., Jon H. (2006). "Qualifications for Purchasing or Possession of Firearms (Chapter 2)". Florida Firearms Law, Use & Ownership. Warlord Publishing. pp. 25–26. Federal law strictly prohibits the transfer or receipt of any firearm to a non-resident by a non-licensee... Rifles and shotguns are treated somewhat differently from handguns, and federal law does not prevent a qualified citizen who resides in another state from purchasing a rifle or shotgun in a face-to-face transaction with a federally licensed firearms dealer outside his state if: the purchase would be legal in both states, and if the regulatory requirements of both states are complied with. 18 USC 922 (b)(3) 
  10. ^ "Possession of a dangerous weapon, firearm, or sawed-off shotgun on or about school premises". Utah Legal Code. Retrieved 4 April 2011. 
  11. ^ "Title 18 § 926A, Interstate transportation of firearms". Retrieved 2013-11-14. 
  12. ^ Becker, Bernie (September 16, 2009). "Senate Votes to O.K. Checked Guns on Amtrak", The New York Times
  13. ^ Bizjak, Tony (30 November 2010). "Amtrak to let passengers bring guns on most trains".  
  14. ^ Schone, Mark (December 9, 2009). "Congress: Passengers Can Bring Guns on Amtrak Trains", ABC News.
  15. ^ Wicker, Roger (December 9, 2009). "Wicker Hails Amtrak Secure Firearm Transport Provision as Important Second Amendment Victory", Roger Wicker's U.S. Senate web site
  16. ^ Congressional Research Service. "Summary of Public Law 100-649". Library of Congress. Retrieved 5 December 2013. 
  17. ^ "H.R. 4445 - Major Congressional Actions". Library of Congress. Retrieved 5 December 2013. 
  18. ^ Public Law 105-277, Oct. 21, 1988, Government Printing Office. Retrieved August 5, 2014.
  19. ^ "H.R. 3348 (108th): To reauthorize the ban on undetectable firearms", Retrieved August 5, 2014.
  20. ^ "House votes to renew ban on plastic firearms". 3 December 2013. Retrieved 5 December 2013. 
  21. ^ "H.R. 3626 - All Actions". United States Congress. Retrieved 5 December 2013. 


  • A Citizen's Guide to Federal Firearms Laws, National Rifle Association of America, Institute for Legislative Action, 2006.
  • USA Carry — Concealed Firearm Laws, Information and Resources
  • Reciprocity Map of the United States
  • State Laws regarding CCW Permits World Gun Issues (Pro-Gun site)
  • 2009 United States Traveler's Guide To The Firearm Laws of the 50 States
  • Transporting Firearms Within The USA
  • Implications for non-U.S. citizens
  • US Concealed Carry: Resource for Concealed Carry Laws, Reciprocity, CCW Permits, Gun Safety
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