Federal Gun Charges: An In-Depth Look
Federal gun charges refer to criminal offenses under federal law involving the possession, use, or transfer of firearms. These charges are prosecuted by federal prosecutors in federal court and often carry harsh mandatory minimum sentences. This article provides an in-depth look at federal firearms laws, common federal gun crimes, penalties, and defenses.
Common Federal Gun Crimes
There are many federal criminal statutes related to firearms. Here are some of the most common federal gun charges:
Possession of a Firearm by a Prohibited Person
Under 18 U.S.C. Section 922(g), it is illegal for certain categories of individuals to possess firearms, including:
- Convicted felons
- Drug users/addicts
- Those committed to mental institutions
- Illegal aliens
- Dishonorably discharged veterans
Penalties include up to 10 years in prison.
Possession of an Unregistered Firearm
The National Firearms Act (NFA) requires registration of certain firearms like machine guns, short-barreled rifles, silencers, and destructive devices. Possessing an unregistered NFA firearm is punishable by up to 10 years in prison under 26 U.S.C. 5861(d).
Under 18 U.S.C. 922(a)(1)(A), it’s illegal to engage in the business of dealing firearms without a federal license. Penalties include up to 5 years in prison.
Possession of a Firearm in Furtherance of a Drug Trafficking Crime or Crime of Violence
This charge under 18 U.S.C. 924(c) imposes a mandatory minimum 5-year sentence consecutive to any sentence for the underlying drug or violent crime.
Transfer of a Firearm to a Prohibited Person
It’s illegal under 18 U.S.C. 922(d) for any person to transfer a firearm to someone they know or reasonably should know is prohibited from possessing firearms. This includes selling or giving guns to felons, drug users, or other prohibited persons.
Making False Statements in Acquisition of a Firearm
Under 18 U.S.C. 922(a)(6), it’s illegal to provide false information in connection with acquiring a firearm from a licensed dealer. This includes lying on the ATF Form 4473 required for all gun purchases from dealers.
Penalties for Federal Gun Crimes
The penalties for federal firearms offenses vary but often include substantial prison time:
- Possession by a prohibited person – Up to 10 years
- Unregistered NFA firearm – Up to 10 years
- Firearm trafficking – Up to 5 years
- Possession in furtherance of a drug/violent crime – Mandatory minimum 5 years consecutive
- Transfer to a prohibited person – Up to 10 years
- False statements – Up to 5 years
Fines up to $250,000 can also be imposed. Penalty enhancements may apply for certain offenses or defendants with prior felonies.
Defenses to Federal Gun Charges
- Lack of Knowledge – For charges requiring knowledge that the defendant was part of a prohibited class, the defense can argue the defendant was unaware of their prohibited status.
- Duress/Necessity – In rare cases, a defendant can claim they only possessed the firearm under duress or absolute necessity.
- Entrapment – If the government induced the defendant to commit the crime, entrapment may provide a defense.
- Self-Defense – Possession of a firearm in self-defense may provide a legal justification.
- Second Amendment – Courts are increasingly scrutinizing gun laws under the Second Amendment right to bear arms.
- Invalid Search – If the search that uncovered the firearm is found to be illegal, the weapon and charges may be suppressed.
- Mistake of Law – For false statement charges, the defense may claim the defendant was unaware of the reporting requirements.
Sentencing Considerations in Federal Gun Cases
Unlike state courts, federal judges must impose sentences within ranges set by federal sentencing guidelines. However, judges have some discretion to depart from the guidelines. Factors that may help reduce a federal gun sentence include:
- Minimal criminal history
- Nonviolent offense
- Possession of firearm for collection, sport or self-defense
- Cooperation with prosecutors
- Strong family/community ties
- Mental health or addiction issues
Federal judges must also consider the 18 U.S.C. 3553(a) sentencing factors, which include the nature of the offense, the defendant’s history, and the need to impose just punishment.
Beyond jail or prison time, a federal gun conviction can have lasting consequences, including:
- Lifetime prohibition on firearm possession
- Loss of voting rights
- Deportation for non-citizens
- Bar from public housing
- Ineligibility for federal benefits