Most federal gun charges are contained in Sections 922 and 924 of Title 18 of United States Code. In 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice prosecuted over 14,200 individuals for violations of federal gun laws.
What is a considered a firearm for Federal Gun Charges?
The definition of “firearm” comes from 18 U.S.C. Section 921(a)(3). A firearm means any of the following:
- Any weapon (including a starter gun) which will or is designed to or may readily be converted to expel a projectile by the action of an explosive;
- The frame or receiver of any such weapon;
- Any firearm muffler, or a firearm silencer; OR
- Any destructive device (such as a bomb, grenade or a mine).
That means, that by possessing certain parts of the gun, you are are deemed to be in possession of a gun under federal weapons charges. For example possession of a frame, receiver, muffler or silencer is considered possession of a firearm. under federal gun laws.
Importantly, however, antique firearms are excluded from the legal definition of firearm under federal weapons law. An antique firearm is any firearm (including any firearm with a matchlock, flintlock, percussion cap, or similar type of ignition system) manufactured in or before 1898) or any replica of same.
Federal vs. State Prosecutions for Gun Charges
Gun charges are prosecuted on both the federal level (by a U.S. Attorney’s Office) and a local state level (by a District Attorney or State Attorney General’s Office). Gun possession or sale cases can be prosecuted by the federal government when:
- There is a violation of a federal law (such as 18 U.S.C. Section 922 or 18 U.S.C. Section 924), AND
- Transportation of a gun or ammunition across state lines at any given time.
Which Agencies Investigate Federal Gun Charges?
Many different federal agencies investigate federal gun charges. These include:
- Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF),
- Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI),
- Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
Frequently, investigations of violations of federal weapons laws involve task forces composed of federal agents and local law enforcement, as well as local law enforcement, such as the Sheriff’s Office or the New York City Police Department.
Federal Gun Charges Explained
United States Code contains many federal gun charges. Specifically, they are:
- Sale of a Firearms Without a License,
- Sale of Illegal Firearm,
- Possession of Illegal Firearms,
- Making False Statement While Purchasing a Gun,
- Possession of a Firearm by a Prohibited Person,
- Possession of a Gun in a School Zone,
- Possession or Use of a Gun in Drug Trafficking or a Violent Crime.
These charges can result in a felony conviction, as well as significant jail time. The federal gun charges and the penalties are explained below.
Sale of Firearms Without a License
The Federal Gun Control Act (commonly referred to as “GCA”) requires that individuals who are in the business of dealing in firearms are licensed by ATF. Individuals who buy and sell firearms without the license from Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives, are subject to prosecution under 18 U.S.C. 922(a)(1)(A). This charge is punishable by up to 5 years in prison as well as a fine of $250,000.
In order to determine if you are “engaging in the business of dealing in firearms,” an analysis of specific facts and circumstances surrounding your activity must be done. ATF’s guidance provides that you generally need a license if you routinely buy and sell firearms with intention of making a profit. On the other hand, if you infrequently make sales and purchases involving your personal gun collection, you may not need a license. It is essential that you consult an attorney about federal weapons laws, before decide to proceed without getting a permit.
Factors the Courts have considered in determining whether an individual is a dealer in firearms:
- Repetitive purchases and sales of firearms;
- Circumstances of sales of firearms; AND
- Whether the individual is looking to make a profit.
The number of firearms and the frequency of transactions are factors the courts look at. However, the Courts have upheld convictions for dealing without a license when there were only two transactions or as few was two firearms were sold.
Manufacture and Possession of Illegal Firearms
Altered or Removed Serial Number
Under 18 U.S.C. Section 922(k), it is unlawful to knowingly transport, ship receive, or possess in interstate or foreign commerce, any firearm which has the importer’s or manufacturer’s serial number has been removed, obliterated or altered. This charge is punishable by up to 5 years in prison, a fine up to $250,000 or both a fine and a term of imprisonment.
Machine Gun, Destructive Device, Short-Barrel Shotgun, Short-Barrel Rifle
Section 922(a)(4) prohibits possession of machine guns, destructive devices, short-barrel shotguns, and short-barrel rifles by anyone other than a licensed importer, licensed manufacturer, licensed dealer, or licensed collector. This charge is punishable by up to 5 years in prison, a fine up to $250,000, or both a term of imprisonment and a fine.
What is Considered a Short Barrel Shotgun Under Federal Weapons Law?
A short barrel shotgun (also called a “sawed-off shotgun”) has a barrel length of less than 18″ or overall length less than 26″.
What is Considered a Short Rifle Shotgun Under Federal Weapons Law?
A short-barrel rifle (also called “sawed off shotgun”), has a barrel length of less than 16″ or overall length less than 26″.
Possession of a Firearm Silencer
Possession of firearm mufflers, silencers, or items that can be repurposed to be a firearms silencer is prohibited under 26 U.S. Code § 5861. This charge is punishable by up to 10 years in prison, a fine up to $10,000, or both a fine and a term of imprisonment.
Making False Statements When Purchasing a Gun
It is a violation of federal weapons law to make materially false statements when purchasing a firearm or ammunition from licensed importer, manufacturer, dealer or collector. It is also a violation of federal weapons law to display a false or fraudulent identification with intent to deceive a licensed importer, manufacturer, dealer or collector. These federal gun charges are are codified in 18 U.S.C. Section 922(a)(6).
Under 18 U.S.C. Section 924, violations of 18 U.S.C. Section 922(a)(6), are punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a fine up to $10,000.
Possession by a Prohibited Person
Federal weapons laws also prohibits possession of firearms by “prohibited persons.” Under 18 U.S.C. Section 922(g), the following individuals are prohibited from possessing firearms:
- Individuals who have been convicted of a felony (18 U.S.C. 922(g)(1));
- Fugitives from justice (18 U.S.C. 922(g)(2));
- Addicts or unlawful users of controlled substances (18 U.S.C. 922(g)(3));
- Individuals adjudicated as having a mental defect or those committed to a mental institution (18 U.S.C. 922(g)(4));
- Individuals who are in the U,S. unlawfully or illegally (18 U.S.C. 922(g)(5));
- Individuals dishonorably discharged from the Armed Forces (18 U.S.C. 922(g)(6));
- Individuals who renounced their U.S. citizenship (18 U.S.C. 922(g)(7));
- Individuals prohibited from possessing firearms by a court order (18 U.S.C. 922(g)(8)); AND
- Individuals convicted by any court of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence (18 U.S.C. 922(g)(9)).
Thee federal gun charges are punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a fine up to $10,000, or both a fine and a term of imprisonment. The categories of prohibited individuals are explained in greater detail below.
Under 18 U.S.C. Section 922(g)(1), individuals who have been convicted of a felony, or any charge punishable by over a year in jail are prohibited from possessing firearms under federal law. For the purposes of this federal gun charge, persons awaiting trial on felony charges are prohibited from possessing firearms.
Fugitives from the Law
Fugitive from justice are prohibited from possessing firearms under 18 U.S.C. Section 922(g)(2). This federal prohibition applies to individuals who fled any state to avoid being prosecuted or to avoid testifying in any criminal proceeding.
Under federal weapons law, aliens are prohibited from possessing firearms. This includes illegal aliens and aliens lawfully admitted under non-immigrant visas. This provision does not apply to lawful Green Card holders.
Individuals with Convictions for Domestic Violence
Individuals with prior convictions for domestic assault charges are prohibited from possessing firearms under federal law. This federal gun charge applies to prior conviction for any assault, or threatened use of a deadly weapon against a present or former spouse or partner or child or guardian of any such person. On the prior domestic violence case, the individual must have been entitled to a jury trial and been represented by counsel in the prior proceeding.
Addicts and users of unlawful drugs are prohibited from possessing firearms under federal law. An individual’s status as a drug user or addict for the purpose of federal gun charges is established through the seizure of paraphernalia seized, individual testing positive for drugs and individual’s statements and admissions regarding personal use.
Possession of a Gun in a School Zone
Another federal gun charge is possession of a gun in a school zone. This charge is codified in 18 USC § 922(q)(2)(A). Under this federal gun charge, individuals are prohibited from possessing or discharging a firearm in a school zone. This charge is punishable by up to 5 years imprisonment, and a fine up to $10,000.
Possession or Use of a Gun in a Drug Trafficking or Violent Crime
Additionally, under 18 USC § 924(c), it is a crime to use or carry or possess a firearm during and in relation to any crime of violence or drug trafficking. The sentencing on this federal gun charge is as follows:
- Minimum of 5 years for possession of a firearm;
- Minimum of 7 years if the firearm is brandished;
- Minimum of 10 years if the firearm is discharged.
In the event death results from the possession of a firearm, this charge can be punishable by life imprisonment. Importantly, the sentence for this federal gun charge is consecutive (meaning runs after), the sentence for any other charges.
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