United States Federal Gun Laws in 2020

Federal Gun Law Overview

Federal gun laws in the US undergo changes every election cycle, but not as dramatically as some would think. The last major change was the 10-year ban on assault weapons, from 1994-2004. In general, the federal government allows states to create and maintain the majority of the country’s gun laws. The 2nd amendment of the US constitution specifically protects a citizen’s right to keep and bear arms.

Federal gun laws are the framework, the baseline, that states use to construct their own laws. It has only been in the last century or so that the Feds began to assert more laws about gun control. The first critical Federal action was the National Firearms Act (NFA) of 1934, which regulates the sale and possession of guns. This legislation focuses on taxes and registering of weapons, mainly those guns used by violent criminals. Also, the Gun Control Act (GCA) of 1968 (amended) is the standard for firearm ownership and manufacturing regulations. In general, the GCA sets guidelines for the sale, manufacture, and possession of firearms.

Also, the GCA requires federal background checks for most weapons sales. The majority of states use the NICS federal background check system as well as their own statewide system. There are a few states, like Alaska, that don't cooperate with NICS and instead ONLY use their own state background check system for sales of firearms. 

*Please note this article is for informational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice. Consult with an attorney and the official USA government website for more detailed info.*

Defining the Second Amendment

USA federal constitution on American flag graphic

An important Supreme Court Case,  District of Columbia v. Heller, helps to determine the extent of legal gun control. In 2008, the city of Washington D.C. passed a law that simultaneously made it illegal to carry an unregistered handgun AND a restriction on registering a handgun. A police officer sued the city for breaking the Second Amendment when he was denied registration for his personal handgun. The Courts upheld that it is a citizen’s right to use guns for lawful purposes, such as home self-defense. Consequently, this case is used as a reference for Congress when they amend any current Federal gun law.

This case clarified that the Second Amendment will protect certain firearm freedoms, even outside a Militia context. But, it does not give citizens the right to "keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.".

Key Federal Gun Laws to Know

List of Federally Prohibited Firearms

  • Transfer or possession of a machinegun, 18 USC 922(o);
  • Manufacture, importation, sale, or possession of any firearm not detectable by airport security devices, 18 USC 922(p);
  • and Possession of a firearm not registered as required by the National Firearms Act (NFA), 26 US C 5861(d).
  • Register firearms subject to the National Firearms Act (NFA) to the ATF. (e.g., machineguns, short-barrel firearms, silencers, destructive devices, any other weapons). 

Federally Prohibited Persons

The Federal Gun Laws clearly define firearm possession. Sates use the Federal guidelines as their legal baseline. Although, they may add to the list as the local government decides. The primary laws define the minimum age for gun purchases, require serial numbers, and expand on who is allowed to possess a weapon. Also, breaking these Federal laws can lead to up to 10 years in prison. 

The minimum age to purchase shotguns and rifles is 18. The minimum age to purchase any other type of firearm is 21 years old. The law does not clarify a minimum age for possession of a long gun. Although, a person must be 18 or older to own a handgun or handgun ammo. 

Felons, drug users, non-citizens, fugitive from justice (this one is a grey area), and someone convicted of domestic assault is among federally "Prohibited Persons". To clarify, “Non-citizens” exclude those who have a lawful green card. Also, a fugitive from justice currently only denies the person if they are transporting the weapon across state lines. It is likely that this law will change in during the next 4 years. 

Additionally, the GCA states that it is a crime to knowingly sell or give a firearm to a prohibited person.

Federal Laws for Shipping/Transferring of Guns

A typical citizen will not need to know the laws around the manufacturing and sale of weapons. Mostly, an average gun owner just needs to make sure that there is a proper serial number on their weapon and that the gun dealer is federally licensed. And, while private sales don't require background checks, the seller and the buyer should reside in the same state. If not, the seller has to transfer the gun to a dealer in the buyer's state before completing the sale.

Federal law allows any person (in whatever state) to transport a firearm unloaded and secured in the trunk of their car. Of course, the person must lawfully possess the gun. The law absolutely forbids carrying a firearm onto any aircraft. Consequently, TSA details all the rules around transporting firearms and ammo on their website here.

If mailing guns or ammo, the law requires a written statement to the carrier detailing the contents. It is against the law for an unlicensed person to ship a weapon across state lines to another unlicensed person. A licensed dealer can ship to a customer, and a customer may ship to a dealer, but only for sale/repair/customization purposes. And, only FFL (Federal Firearms License) holders or government officials may send handguns to each other through the Postal Service.


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