Laws Banning Gun Possession After a Criminal Conviction

Federal and state laws lay out the kinds of criminal offenses that bar people from having guns.

Both federal and state laws place restrictions on firearm possession after a criminal conviction. State laws often overlap with the federal ban. In some cases, state lawmakers have enacted more expansive gun restrictions than federal law.

Federal Gun Ban

Federal law makes it unlawful for certain individuals to possess firearms. These "prohibited persons" include those who have been convicted of any felony or a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence. Either type of conviction will typically result in a lifetime ban. (The law also prohibits those subject to most domestic violence restraining orders from having a gun while the order is in effect.)

Felony conviction. A felony includes any crime punishable by more than one year's imprisonment, regardless of how much time a person actually spends behind bars. The ban covers nearly all felony convictions. A person who violates this provision is often referred to as a "felon-in-possession."

Misdemeanor conviction of domestic violence. The federal ban on firearms applies only to certain misdemeanor convictions. Misdemeanors often carry the possibility of a year or less of imprisonment as punishment. To fall under the ban, the misdemeanor must involve a crime of domestic violence against a victim who meets the federal definition of intimate partner.

Penalty. A person convicted of unlawful possession of a firearm faces up to ten years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine. (18 U.S.C. §§ 922, 924 (2021).)

State Gun Bans

State law often overlaps with or expands on the federal ban. So, even if a conviction doesn't trigger the federal ban, it could trigger a state law prohibition.

In California, for instance, convictions for misdemeanor domestic violence offenses bar offenders from owning or possessing guns within ten years of conviction. A lifetime ban applies to those with felony convictions. (Cal. Penal Code §§ 29800 and following (2021).)

Other states have enacted laws that seek to close what they consider "loopholes" in the federal law. Some states broadened victims of misdemeanor domestic violence crimes to include dating partners, roommates, or any family member (as opposed to intimate partners under federal law). Other states apply the ban to any misdemeanor assault, battery, or stalking and not just those committed against an intimate partner.

Penalties under these laws vary by state but are often aggravated misdemeanors or felonies.

Restoration of Gun Rights

Restoration of gun rights tends to be a tricky area. Federal law allows for the restoration of gun possession rights if the person received a pardon, had civil rights restored, or had the conviction expunged or set aside. But states can limit these federal restoration rights by placing restrictions in state law on the effect of an expungement, set aside, or pardon. And the reverse is true—it's possible to have the right to firearms restored under state law but still be subject to the federal prohibition.

Talk to a Lawyer

The rules on gun ownership and possession can be complex—they can also change. Restoration of gun rights is another complicated area. To learn how the law applies to your specific situation, speak with a knowledgeable criminal defense lawyer.

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