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Citizens in the United States enjoy many constitutionally protected rights, one of which is the right to armed self-defense, enshrined in the Second Amendment.
However, there are specific categories of people that are prohibited by federal law from owning a firearm. Learn what these categories are and what firearm prohibitions entail.
The Federal Definition of Firearm
Before explaining what disqualifies you from owning a gun, it is critical first to explain the legal definition of a firearm which does not necessarily align with what people commonly understand to be a firearm.
According to the Gun Control Act (as outlined in 18 U.S.C. paragraph 921(a)(3)), a firearm is a weapon designed or converted to fire a projectile by the action of an explosive. The legal definition also covers the following items:
- The frame or receiver of a firearm
- Sound suppressors (as defined by the National Firearms Act)
- Destructive Devices (grenades, rockets, explosives, bombs, incendiary weapons, corresponding launchers or cannons, etc., as defined by the GCA)
The definition does not cover weapons that fire a projectile by actions other than explosives, such as air guns.
Blackpowder firearms that cannot be readily converted to shoot conventional ammunition are not legally considered firearms by mandate, instead considered antique weapons.
Therefore, a person prohibited from owning a firearm may still be allowed to own air guns or blackpowder guns.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) delineates eight categories of persons not legally allowed to possess firearms, as per the legal definition of a firearm.
A person belonging to one of these categories is called a prohibited person. Learn what disqualifies you from owning a gun and what circumstances may result in becoming a prohibited person.
#1: Convicted criminals and felons
A person may become a prohibited person if they are convicted in any court of any crime or felony resulting in at least one year of imprisonment. Falling into this category is the most common way for individuals to lose their right to own a firearm.
It is generally impossible for a convict to have their rights restored at the federal, even after serving a sentence, unless under specific circumstances:
- The conviction has been expunged or set aside.
- The President of the United States has issued a pardon to the convicted person.
There are legal processes allowing individuals to regain their right to own a firearm at the state level. However, each state’s process is different and may be subjected to specific limits and conditions.
A person considered to be a fugitive from justice is a prohibited person. A popular synonym is “wanted individual.”
In most situations, a person becomes a fugitive when they have been charged or convicted of a crime and are fleeing from law enforcement to escape custody.
#3: Illegal drug users
A person legally considered an unlawful user or addicted to any controlled substance instantly becomes a prohibited person.
A controlled substance is any drug or substance listed in the Controlled Substances Act. They may be wholly illegal to use or possess or tightly controlled prescription drugs.
One notable case is cannabis (marijuana); despite being legalized at the state level in many states, marijuana is a Schedule I substance, indicating that the federal government considers it to have no accepted medical use.
Until federal law regarding marijuana changes, gun owners should avoid using this substance in any of its forms.
#4: Mentally deficient persons
A person adjudicated by a court of law as mentally defective (or equivalent terms, such as mentally deficient or incompetent) or committed to a mental institution becomes a prohibited person.
Although the term mentally defective may seem archaic and demeaning (specific law enforcement agencies, including the ATF, have issued statements on the matter), the wording of the law is statutory; it cannot be changed or amended.
According to U.S. law, an alien is a person who is not a U.S. citizen. The law outlines two specific conditions in which aliens are prohibited persons:
- Persons legally admitted into the United States on a nonimmigrant visa or the Visa Waiver Program (e.g., tourists).
- Persons who have unlawfully entered into the United States, colloquially known as illegal aliens.
However, some exceptions do exist. Aliens may be exempt from the prohibited person status if they are one of the following:
- Non-immigrant aliens with a valid hunting license or equivalent permit issued by one of the U.S. states.
- Non-immigrant aliens entering the United States for the explicit purpose of participating in a competition shooting event, a firearm or hunting industry trade show (e.g., SHOT Show), or an equivalent approved event.
- Foreign government officials or distinguished foreign visitors with special permission from the U.S. State Department.
- Foreign law enforcement officers entering the United States for law enforcement business.
- Persons possessing a waiver signed by the U.S. Attorney General.
#6: Dishonorable discharges
A person who served in any branch of the U.S. armed forces and received a dishonorable discharge becomes a prohibited person.
A dishonorable discharge is a potential consequence of a court-martial convicting the servicemember of committing a crime, as outlined under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).
#7: Losing citizenship
Any citizen who has lost or renounced their U.S. citizenship loses all associated rights and benefits, including the right to own a firearm.
#8: Restraining orders and domestic violence
A person may become a prohibited person if they are subject to a qualifying protection order (colloquially known as a restraining order) for harassing, stalking, or threatening a romantic partner or one of their children.
A person may also become a prohibited person if they have been convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence.
If you become a prohibited person, you may not possess, receive, ship, or transport firearms or ammunition. Prohibited persons are also disqualified from obtaining a Federal Firearms License.
Other persons are also legally prohibited from knowingly selling, giving, or shipping firearms and ammunition to a prohibited person.
The specific act of purchasing a firearm or ammunition for the explicit purpose of giving them to a prohibited person is a straw purchase and potentially violates multiple federal laws.
Firearms ownership for lawful purposes is a constitutionally protected right, but it is also a serious responsibility.
Be sure to know and respect all applicable local, state, and federal laws and always stay informed of any legislation and regulations changes.