Federal Gun Laws

The right of American citizens to bear arms is enshrined in the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution. It is a right that is often the subject of much debate within both the American judicial and political system. There have been numerous attempts to regulate the manufacturing, trade, possession, record keeping, transport, sale and destruction of firearms in the United States. 

Some of the more notable pieces of legislation that have been acted are: the National Firearms Act (1934), the Federal Firearms Act (1938), Gun Control Act (1968), Firearm Owners Protection Act (1986), Fun-Free School Zone Act (1990), the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act (1993), and the Federal Assault Weapons Ban (1994-2004). While the laws are constantly changing, there are few common threads that can be sewn together using these pieces of legislation.

For the most part, the legislation enacted can be summarized in a few key points. Citizens and legal residents must be at least 18 years of age to purchase a shotgun or rifle and ammunition in the United States, while handguns may be only be sold to individuals 21 years of age or older. While states are free to implement higher age restrictions, they may not lower the federal minimum age requirements.

Fugitives, those convicted of a felony with a sentence of more than 1 year (past or present), military veterans who were dishonorably discharged, a drug user or addict, and those who were involuntarily admitted to a mental facility are generally prohibited from purchasing a firearm, unless and until their rights to possession are restored. These categories of people are often referred to in federal law as “prohibited persons.”  

Federal Gun Law Enforcement

The federal law enforcement body that creates and enforces the federal gun regulations is the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (“ATF”).  The federal regulations created by ATF are the methods used to carry out and enforce current federal law, the bureau does not create the laws themselves.

By law, ATF must consult the public when creating, deleting or modifying rules in the Code of Federal Regulations (“CFR”). The bureau typically does this by publishing the proposed changes in the Federal Register and asks for public comment. After consideration of the public feedback has been taken, the final version of the rule will be published in the Register.

ATF mainly focuses its investigations around armed violent offenders and career criminals, narcotics traffickers, narco-terrorists, violent gangs, and domestic and international arms traffickers. ATF is also responsible for the issuance of firearms licenses and conducts firearm licensee qualification and compliance inspections. ATF agents are highly trained to investigate violations of federal law, and are deployed all across the United States, its territories, and select international locations as well. The bureau also works closely with the states to enhance community safety.

Common Federal Gun Charges

There are many different types of charges that can be brought against a defendant. Often times defendants don’t even know the actions they’ve taken are in violation of federal law, especially given the fact that these laws are constantly being debated in Congress and are subject to frequent revision. Below are some of the most common gun charges brought under federal gun law and a brief description of what they entail.

            Unlawful Possession – Unlawful possession is typically charged when a “prohibited person” (as mentioned above) receives or is found in possession of a firearm, in which that firearm (or the ammunition) was transported across state lines at some point in time. This crime is punishable by up to 10 years in prison, unless the offender has three or more prior convictions for a violent crime, then the maximum is 15 years imprisonment.  These types of cases are often referred to as “ex-felon in possession” cases and are prosecuted under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1) which makes it a felony offense for a person previously convicted of a felony to possess a firearm.   

            Sale of a Firearm to a Prohibited Person – Similarly to the charge of unlawful possession, any person who knowingly sells, gives, or otherwise disposes of a firearm (or ammunition) to a “prohibited person” as described above can be charged with this crime. This crime applies even if the seller doesn’t know for sure the buyer is a prohibited person but has “reasonable cause to believe” he or she is a prohibited person. If convicted, defendants can face up to 10 years in prison.

            False Statements Relating to Gun Purchases – Federal gun law criminalizes the making of false statements to a dealer about a material fact on ATF Form 4473, which is the form required to be completed when purchasing a firearm from a licensed dealer in the United States. The instance in which this regulation is most common is with “straw purchasing.”  Straw purchasing is when one person purchases a firearm on behalf of another person. Straw purchases are illegal because Form 4473 requires the purchaser to confirm that he or she is the “actual buyer.”  Often these false statement cases are prosecuted under 18 U.S.C. § 1001 which makes it a crime to lie to government agents or a government agency. 

            Possession of a Firearm in Connection with a Crime – Federal gun law prohibits the use, carrying or possession of a firearm in relation to, or in furtherance of a drug felony or a federal violent crime. Punishment for this offense ranges from a minimum of 5 years up to life imprisonment if the use of the firearm results in a death. Any sentence imposed for possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime must be served consecutively to any sentence imposed for the underlying crime itself.

If You’re Facing Federal Gun Charges

Having an attorney experienced in the federal criminal court system, who is familiar with these types of cases, can make all the difference when it comes to achieving the best possible outcome. If convicted, these charges not only carry hefty fines and penalties, but also serious prison time.

Furthermore, these convictions will be visible on any background check, which can seriously limit available opportunities. The experienced attorneys at The Federal Defenders will help you put forward the best defense possible in fighting these types of cases.


The law is very nuanced. Federal prosecutors have almost unlimited advantages and resources at their disposal. Having attorneys on your team that understand the law, keep abreast of legal developments in the law, have the experience dealing with the complexities of federal statutes and, finally, possess the skills to stand before a jury to make a compelling case on behalf of a client are not just important qualities, they’re critical.

At The Federal Defenders. we pride ourselves on being advocates for our clients. With decades of experience with all variety and manner of federal criminal issues and defenses, we understand what it takes to put our clients in a winning position. For a free and confidential consultation, call us today at (800) 712-0000. Just like our toll-free number, we operate nationwide.