Know the Laws:
UPDATED February 25, 2016
The following information explains how an order of protection or criminal conviction affects an abuser’s right to have a gun under federal law. However, in addition to these federal gun laws, there may also be state-specific laws that may apply. In order to fully understand all of the legal protections available, please also read your state’s laws by entering your state in our State Gun Laws section.
WomensLaw.org strongly recommends that you get in touch with a domestic violence advocate in your community for more information on gun laws in your area.
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 Sheriff Departments page.
You can find ATF field offices in your area 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 State and Local Programs 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.*
* United States v. Lippman, 369 F. 3d 1039 (8th Cir. 2004); United States v. Henson, 55 F. Supp. 2d 528 (S.D. W.V. 1999)
The abuser can get jail time for having a gun in violation of the law. Under federal law, anyone who owns, has or buys a gun in violation of the federal firearm law can be punished by a fine, jail time for up to 10 years, or both.* However, as with any criminal case, the actual sentence the abuser gets may depend on a lot of different factors.
Note: Generally, the abuser does not have to have knowledge of the law in order to be arrested (and convicted) for violating the law. If the abuser has a gun or buys a gun in violation of the law, the abuser can be arrested and convicted, whether or not the abuser knows s/he was in violation of the law. "Ignorance of the law" is no excuse or defense.**
* 18 USC § 924(a)(2)
** See, for example, United States v. Denis, 297 F.3d. 25 (1st Cir. 2002); United States v. Lippman, 369 F. 3d 1039 (8th Cir. 2004); United States v. Henson, 55 F. Supp. 2d 528 (S.D. W.V. 1999).
Before legally buying a gun, all buyers must undergo a criminal background check that is processed through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). If the abuser has a qualifying order of protection* against him/her, or has been convicted of a felony or domestic violence misdemeanor, those records should be in the NICS, which should prevent the abuser from buying a gun. However, 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.
To find out if your order of protection “qualifies” under federal law, go to I have a final order of protection against the abuser. Can his/her gun be taken away? You can also call the National Center on Protection Orders and Full Faith & Credit at 1-800-903-0111, ext. 2. You can also read the exact wording of the law 18 USC §922(g)(8) on our Federal Statutes page.
If the abuser is able to purchase a gun and you believe that s/he should not have been able to get one due to your order of protection or due to his/her criminal history, you can alert the police, and ask that his/her gun be taken away (although the police may not act on this request). 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. The criminal background check system is not foolproof.
For more information or to discuss the specific facts of your case, you can contact a local domestic violence organization in your area. Go to our State and Local Programs page to find an organization near you by choosing your state from the drop-down menu.