Gun Possession Laws in the US

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 What Is the History of Gun Possession Laws in the United States?

Gun laws in the U.S. regulate many different aspects of gun possession. Both federal and state laws address the sale, possession, carrying, and use of firearms and ammunition. State laws, and the laws of Washington, D.C., and U.S. territories, vary quite a bit. Moreover, they are independent of existing federal law regarding firearms.

It is imperative to note before discussing the history of gun possession laws in the United States that current gun possession laws vary greatly from state to state. A person who is interested in this topic would want to consult gun laws by state, especially those concerning gun ownership, before going out to purchase a firearm.

Perhaps the most significant past event with respect to U.S. gun laws is the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2010 in the case of McDonald v. Chicago. In the McDonald case, the Supreme Court confirmed that U.S. citizens have a right to possess firearms. This ruling gave definition to the right to bear arms expressed in the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Prior to this decision, it was highly contested as to whether the right to bear arms applied only to “well-regulated militias” as stated in the 2nd Amendment or to individual American citizens. Every other aspect of the history of gun use and possession in the U.S. was the subject of heated controversy as well.

After the McDonald decision, a person’s right to own a gun has now been clearly stated as the law in the U.S. by the Supreme Court. This is why many current gun laws focus on aspects other than the right of ownership, such as:

  • When an individual may legally carry a concealed weapon;
  • When a person can carry a weapon openly;
  • The type of weapons that may be owned;
  • The carrying capacity of firearms;
  • Open-carrying handguns;
  • In which places a person may carry a weapon, whether concealed or openly;
  • Gun owner liability.

The McDonald case also resolved another important gun control case, Columbia v. Heller, which upheld the right to bear arms for “federal enclaves” such as the District of Columbia. This means that the McDonald decision essentially extends an individual’s right to bear arms to all states, the District of Columbia, and all federal territories. Again, a person does not need a license to have a gun.

However, many states’ permit requirements are still subject to challenge in the courts. An example of this would be how, in early 2014, a citizen of California filed suit challenging many of the permit requirements in effect in the cities of San Diego, San Jose, and San Francisco in California.

Can I Possess a Gun Legally Without a Permit?

People must still obey state statutes that require permits for the carrying of guns, either in a concealed manner or openly. Otherwise, of course, they risk violating their state’s permit laws. However, states do not require a permit simply to own a gun.

Statutes in all states do prohibit convicted felons from possessing firearms. A convicted felon who possesses a firearm would be in violation of gun laws in all states. In many states, people who are subject to restraining and protective orders, drug users and addicts who have been through the court systems, and dishonorably discharged military veterans are also not allowed to own firearms.

To reiterate the above, different states have different laws governing gun possession. In the vast majority of states, a person does not need a permit simply to own a gun. A person must be 18 or 21 years old to buy a gun.

Generally, laws forbidding the carrying of handguns include limited exceptions. This means there are certain places in which it is legal to carry a handgun without a valid permit or license to do so. These exceptions are usually limited to a person’s home or their place of business. These are the two places where a person can carry a handgun if it is otherwise forbidden in most places.

Even in jurisdictions in which it is illegal to carry a gun without a valid permit, a person may be allowed to do so in their own home. The law allows a person to protect their home with a firearm.

However, there are exceptions to this exception:

  • What constitutes “home” may or may not include a residential dwelling that a person rents;
  • Ownership alone may not satisfy the exception. Courts are hesitant to extend this exception to property that a person owns but does not actually live in; and
  • This exception does not include possession of a gun when a person is in another person’s home. However, if the person who is carrying the gun stays overnight in the other person’s home frequently, a court may apply the exception.

In terms of possession of a gun in a place of business, laws that make the concealed carrying of a gun without a valid permit illegal frequently include an exception for a person who is in their place of business. This exception is intended to allow gun possession for the purpose of protecting a business. What constitutes a “place of business” is determined by the courts and is an area of debate when a gun possessor claims to come within the exception.

Exceptions to Laws Requiring a Permit to Carry a Gun

Gun possession may be restricted based on various factors, including but not limited to:

  • Age vs. the Type of Gun: Federal law prohibits the sale of a handgun to anyone who is under age 18. The same restriction does not apply to long guns, such as rifles and shotguns. However, each state has the ability to implement age requirements. The minimum age to purchase a handgun in many states is either 18 or 21 years of age;
  • Background: A person’s criminal background can also make it illegal for them to possess a gun when gun laws would otherwise allow them to do so. Federal law prevents the sale of a gun to anyone who:
    • Has been convicted of or charged with a crime in federal court that carries a possible sentence of over 1 year in jail which, is generally a felony charge;
    • Has been convicted of or charged with a crime in state court that is either a felony or a misdemeanor punishable by more than 2 years of incarceration;
    • Is a fugitive from the law;
    • Is known to be addicted to controlled substances, which requires that they have “lost the power of self-control with reference to the use of controlled substances.”
    • Has been found by a court or other lawful authority to be a danger to themselves or others, or has been involuntarily committed for drug/alcohol abuse or mental health issues;
    • Has been convicted of specific crimes or is subject to a court order associated with domestic violence or a serious mental condition;
    • Is in the U.S. illegally; and/or
    • Was an individual dishonorably discharged from U.S. Military Service.

There are some locations in which gun possession is prohibited, even by someone who can legally possess a gun elsewhere. Federal law prohibits gun possession at:

  • Federal facilities;
  • Post offices;
  • Airports and on airplanes, except when the weapon is unloaded, in a checked bag, and the airline was made aware of the weapon; and
  • School zones for K-12 schools, except for a person who has a state-issued concealed carry permit.

While most states prohibit guns in courthouses and other government-owned buildings, laws frequently differ in the states that grant permits for open carry. Some other areas in which guns are commonly prohibited by states include:

  • Bars or restaurants that serve alcohol;
  • Churches;
  • Polling places;
  • Daycare facilities.

What Guns Can I Have Without a Permit?

Again, this depends on state law. For example, in Alabama, a person must be 18 to purchase a gun. There is no permit or license requirement. There is no limitation on the type of gun a person may buy in Alabama. An 18-year-old can buy an assault weapon or a machine gun in Alabama.

In California, on the other hand, a buyer cannot purchase more than one handgun within a 30-day period. California applies a 10-day waiting period to all gun purchases. A person must be 18 or older to buy a long gun, and 21 or older to buy a handgun.

Carrying a concealed weapon is allowed in California as long as a person has a license for concealed carry. In addition, a person must complete a firearm safety course. The license to carry a concealed weapon is valid for only 2 years.

California prohibits the open carrying of firearms, although the law allows sheriffs to issue licenses in counties with populations under 200,000. Also, the chiefs of police of cities in these low-population counties may issue licenses for open carrying.

A person can carry a firearm on a college or university campus if the college or university allows it. The college or university is allowed to decide this issue for its campuses. California requires that assault weapons be registered, and machine guns are prohibited.

Other states would fall somewhere between Alaska and California.

Should I Need the Help of a Lawyer With My Gun Charge?

If you are accused of illegal gun possession or any other firearm offense, you should speak with a criminal defense lawyer immediately. can connect you to an experienced attorney who can help you understand your legal rights and options according to your state’s specific gun laws. They will also be able to represent you in court as needed.

You may be unsure if you can buy a particular gun, carry it openly, or carry it in a concealed manner, or where you may go with your gun. If so, a criminal defense lawyer may provide you with the guidance you need for your state.

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