Firearm law is the combination of laws, regulations and public policy that govern the manufacture, distribution and sale of firearms in the United States. Although the basic rule is that guns are legal in the United States, there are exceptions to the rule, and firearm law remains controversial. Firearm law says who can make or buy a gun and under what circumstances. Firearm laws exist in the United States at both the federal and state levels.
The Second Amendment
The right to own and possess a firearm is so fundamental to American notions of government and individual rights that it’s in the United States Constitution. The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says that the people’s right to own and possess firearms may not be infringed upon. The law also says that a regulated militia is important to a free society.
Even though the Second Amendment protects the rights of individuals to own and possess firearms, the right is not absolute. There are limitations on who can own a firearm, what kinds of firearms individuals can own and where they may keep them. Fugitives from the law cannot buy a firearm in the United States. In addition, anyone convicted of a felony punishable by two or more years in prison may not own a firearm. Certain types of domestic violence convictions also make a person ineligible to possess a firearm. Those who are involuntarily mentally committed are also prohibited from owning a firearm under U.S. law.
U.S. firearm laws
There are several pieces of major firearms legislation in the United States:
- National Firearms Act of 1934 – Taxes the manufacture and transfer of guns. Creates registration requirements for certain firearms.
- Federal Firearms Act of 1938 – Commercial firearms dealers must have a federal license. The law also restricts sales to felons.
- Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 – You must be at least 21 to buy a handgun.
- Gun Control Act of 1968 – Prohibits the interstate sale of guns except through licensed dealers.
- Gun Free School Zones Act of 1990 – Prohibits guns in school zones with some exceptions.
- Brady Handgun Violence Protection Act of 1993 – Requires background checks for most firearm sales.
- Federal Assault Weapons Ban – Banned semi-automatic weapons that look like assault weapons. Also banned large-capacity devices.
- Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act of 2005 – Keeps manufacturers and sellers shielded from liability when crimes occur with firearms.
State firearm laws
State firearm laws often involve concealed carry laws as well as criminal laws. Most states have a handful of criminal laws that apply to use of weapons. Crimes may include brandishing a firearm or possessing a firearm after a felony conviction. States typically enforce these laws through a county prosecutor or district attorney that has the authority to prosecute violations in their jurisdiction. A conviction may bring state prison or jail time, fines, probation, restitution and other penalties.
U.S. cases interpreting firearm laws
There are recent and significant U.S. Supreme Court cases that interpret and challenge federal gun laws. The District of Columbia v Heller is a 2008 case that challenged the prohibition of handguns in Washington DC. The Supreme Court said that Washington DC violated federal gun rights when officials tried to completely ban handguns. The Court also said that Second Amendment rights are not absolute. It’s okay for governments to place some restrictions on the possession and use of weapons including for the mentally ill.
In McDonald v. City of Chicago, the Court said that the right to bear arms applies equally against state and local laws as well as against federal laws. That means a state or local government can’t prohibit possession or use of a firearm in a way that’s protected under the Second Amendment. The Court said Second Amendment protections apply to state and local regulations as well as to federal laws. The decision overturned the ruling of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals which upheld the ban. The Plaintiff in the case was a resident who wanted to purchase a handgun for his own protection.
Firearm law enforcement
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives enforces federal firearm laws and regulations. The Bureau investigates violations of federal firearm law. They recommend prosecutions and take other actions in order to stop firearms trafficking and other violations of law that contribute to violent crime in the United States. Federal prosecutors may decide to prosecute cases, and U.S. government officials may also bring civil forfeiture actions in order to seize illegal firearms, ammunition and accessories. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives generally targets organized crime and large-scale operations, but they may pursue criminal and civil penalties for any violation of federal firearms laws.
State prosecutors also play a role in enforcing firearms laws. Prosecutors may charge offenders with violations of state law for a variety of crimes involving firearms. Offenders may face jail time, fines and other penalties in accordance with state law.
Firearm laws often involves lobbying
Firearm laws are a matter of controversy and debate. Although all sides of the debate acknowledge that gun violence is a problem, they disagree on whether to change the laws and how to change the laws in order to stem gun violence. Those who practice in firearm law might serve their clients in researching and advocating for firearm laws.
Concealed carry laws
To carry a firearm by concealed carry means to carry it in a way that it’s not immediately visible on your person. It’s up to each state whether to allow concealed carry and under what conditions to allow it. All 50 states have laws that allow concealed carry with varying levels of regulation. Some allow lawful gun owners to carry concealed without a permit. Others require permitting and grant permits either liberally or sparingly.
Most state regulations say that the licensing authority must issue a concealed carry permit if the applicant meets qualifications. Other states make licensing discretionary by the agency reviewing the application. Concealed carry laws continue to change and they are still debated. Firearm law attorneys might find themselves participating in the debate as they advocate for the interests of their clients whether their client is an individual with a case or a government body making policy.
Who practices firearm law?
Firearms lawyers practice in a variety of capacities at both the state and federal level. First, firearms attorneys work on behalf of organizations that lobby for changes in firearm laws. When firearm laws are in place, attorneys work for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to enforce the laws. Federal and state prosecutors also practice firearm law to the extent that they bring cases that allege violations of law.
There are a number of other ways to practice firearm law. When a licensing agency denies a person a concealed carry permit, an attorney might get involved to challenge the denial. In addition, a defense attorney may help their client defend against an allegation of a violation of firearm law.
They may also defend against a civil forfeiture action brought by a government agency. For prosecutors and defense attorneys alike, it’s more common to encounter a firearms case on occasion than it is to devote an entire practice to only firearm issues. Lobbyists for private clients and attorneys for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are likely to devote their entire practice to firearm law.
Why Become a firearm lawyer?
Many people have strong opinions about firearm law in the United States. Whether you believe firearms should be less regulated or more regulated, practicing firearm law gives you the opportunity to advocate for change. Firearms are big business, and firearms manufacturers have legal teams that advocate for their positions with respect to changes in the laws. They also have attorneys that help them implement the laws and comply with regulations. Organizations that work for increased gun control also depend on lawyers to advocate for their position.
Government attorneys may enjoy steady and challenging work enforcing firearm laws. Whether you practice criminal or civil law as a prosecutor or you work in regulation, you may find steady work in the field of firearm laws. Firearm laws involve the challenge of understanding and applying both federal and state laws on the subject. Because many of the issues involved are constitutional issues, you may find yourself arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Practicing firearm law
Whether you enforce existing laws, defend accusations of violations or participate in the debate about gun laws, all firearm lawyers have important work to do. Firearm law involves both federal and state considerations. There are national and state laws to understand and implement while practicing firearm law. There are opportunities at all levels and in all locations for thriving in this area of practice.