Federal law makes it illegal for a person to import, produce, or conduct transactions in firearms across state lines. There is an exception if the person possesses a license to import, produce, or deal in firearms.
It is also illegal for a person to sell or otherwise distribute a firearm to another person when the person transferring the weapon knows that the buyer or taker does not live in the same state. Again, the exception is if the people making the transfer are licensed to deal in such weapons. There are also some other general exceptions, such as delivering a firearm to carry out a lawful bequest or to loan a firearm to someone for lawful sporting purposes.
Federal law also prohibits the transportation of certain types of weapons. For instance, it is illegal for a person to transport any device deemed to be destructive. This includes bombs, grenades, rockets, missiles, mines, and similar weapons. A person is also generally prohibited from transporting machineguns as well as rifles and shotguns with short barrels. Machine guns include any weapon that can automatically fire more than one shot by a single function of the trigger. It may also include any part of the whole weapon such as the frame or receiver. It is also generally unlawful to convey or own a machinegun, a firearm silencer, or a “sawed-off” shotgun; however, some exceptions do apply.
Federal law prohibits “straw purchases” of firearms. These laws make it illegal for a person acquiring a firearm from a dealer to use any false written or oral statements or to present any false identification intended to deceive the dealer about the legality of the transaction or the ultimate owner of the firearm.
The preservation of serial numbers is also a concern. A person violates federal law if he knowingly delivers, transports, or accepts (possesses) any firearm with a serial number that has been changed, removed, or destroyed.
Certain classes of people are barred from possessing any firearms. These classes include: convicted felons (or people who are under indictment for a felony); people who are addicted to certain illegal drugs; people deemed to have certain mental impairments; people in the country illegally; anyone who has been dishonorably discharged from military service; and anyone restrained by a lawful court order.
Generally, a conviction under federal firearm laws may result in a sentence of 5 to 10 years and a fine, depending on the specific crime. A sentence may be greatly increased if the weapon is used, carried, or possessed in connection with certain crimes such as drug trafficking.
For convicted felons, a prior felony conviction is usually determined by the state or authority where the offense took place. Significantly, a conviction of “felon in possession” can be achieved even if the weapon was not on the convicted felon’s body. The mere intent and ability to control the weapon is enough for a conviction. Also, the government does not need to show that the firearm was working or capable of being fired for a conviction.
In defending a federal firearms violation, a criminal defense attorney will challenge the government’s evidence. The government must prove every element of a crime as charged. For instance, one element of the straw purchaser law is that the offender knew he was lying when he attempted to purchase a gun. If there is no evidence that he knew he was giving false statements, there can generally be no conviction.
Another powerful line of defense is to determine whether the search and seizure that led to the discovery of any weapons was legal. If the weapons were discovered in a vehicle, the attorney will have to determine if the officer who stopped the vehicle had cause to do so. It will also have to be determined if the officer had cause to search the vehicle, or if valid consent was given by the accused. If the weapons were discovered in a home, an attorney will have to verify that the search was based on a valid search warrant or other cause. If the police violated a person’s rights, a judge may be forced to suppress any evidence that was gathered during the search.
A defendant who illegally possessed a firearm may also argue that he was justified in possessing a gun due to duress or necessity. This defense does not negate the intent to possess the gun, but it may allow a defendant to escape liability due to dangerous conditions. Generally, a defendant will need to be able to show that he was under an unlawful and imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury that he did not place himself in, and that there was no reasonable alternative but to have a gun.
Federal firearm prosecutions can be complex. You need an experienced criminal defense attorney to defend your legal rights. If you have been charged with a federal gun crime, this firm may be able to help.
The information provided above is a very general summary of federal firearms laws at the time this text was prepared. Because this analysis is subject to change depending upon recent cases and legal developments, you should not rely on this summary as legal advice. As with any important legal question, you should always consult a lawyer experienced in federal criminal defense and licensed to practice in your jurisdiction. Brett L. Grayson is are licensed to practice in all federal and state courts in Louisiana and may practice in other federal courts by special permission.