Laws Banning Gun Possession After a Criminal Conviction

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

By , Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law

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 Following a Conviction

Federal law makes it unlawful for certain individuals to possess firearms and ammunition. These "prohibited persons" include those who have been convicted of nearly all felonies and misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence. Either type of conviction will typically result in a lifetime ban.

Felony Convictions

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, whether the conviction occurs in state or federal court. 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 committed by:

  • a current or former spouse or dating partner
  • a person who shares a child with the victim
  • a current or former parent or guardian of the victim
  • a person similarly situated to a spouse, parent, or guardian of the victim, or
  • a person who lives or has lived with the victim as a spouse, parent, or guardian.

Federal Penalty

A person convicted of unlawful possession of a firearm faces up to 15 years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine.

(18 U.S.C. §§ 921, 922, 924 (2023).)

State Gun Bans Following a Conviction

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.

Some states use a definition of "misdemeanor domestic violence crimes" that's broader than the federal definition by including roommates or any family member. Other states apply the ban to any misdemeanor assault, battery, or stalking and not just those committed against someone in a domestic relationship. For instance, California law bars a person convicted of one of many specified misdemeanors from owning or possessing guns for 10 years. A lifetime ban applies to those with a felony conviction. (Cal. Penal Code §§ 29800 and following (2023).)

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

Is Restoration of Gun Rights Possible?

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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