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What Legal Defenses Can Be Used Against Federal Firearms Charges?

By Spodek Law Group | October 19, 2023
(Last Updated On: October 20, 2023)

Last Updated on: 20th October 2023, 11:44 am


What Legal Defenses Can Be Used Against Federal Firearms Charges?

Getting charged with a federal firearms crime can be scary. The penalties are harsh, and the government has lots of resources to come after you. But don’t panic! There are defenses you can use to fight the charges. This article will break down the most common federal firearms crimes and the defenses that may apply. We’ll also look at real case examples so you can see how creative lawyers have beat the charges.

Unlawful Possession of a Firearm

One of the most common federal gun crimes is unlawful possession under 18 U.S.C. Section 922(g). This makes it illegal for certain people to have firearms, including:

  • Convicted felons
  • Fugitives
  • Illegal drug users
  • People with mental illness
  • Illegal immigrants
  • Discharged military
  • People with domestic violence convictions

The main defense here is you didn’t actually have possession of the gun. For example, in U.S. v. Beverly, the court said having a gun locked in a safe in your house doesn’t count as possession if someone else owns the safe.

You can also argue you didn’t know you were prohibited. In U.S. v. Games-Perez, the defendant’s domestic violence conviction was under a different name, so he didn’t know he couldn’t have guns. The court said this might be a valid defense.

Entrapment is another option if the government pressured you into getting a gun illegally. And if you really need protection from threats, you may claim justification, altho this rarely works.

Selling Guns Without a License

Under Section 922(a), only licensed dealers can sell firearms for profit. If your just a collector selling your private collection at a gun show or online, you need a license.

Here, a good defense is you were just selling a few of your own guns, not “engaged in the business” of selling. In U.S. v. Tyson, the defendant sold 67 guns over 2 years but was found not guilty since he had a regular job and was just selling his collection.

You can also argue you didn’t make a profit, or the sales were isolated and sporadic. Or if you really weren’t involved in the sales at all, you may claim no involvement.

Transporting Guns Across State Lines

If you take guns across state lines to sell or give to someone else, you could face charges under Section 922(a)(3). But there are exceptions, like for moving, inheritance, or antique collectors.

A good defense here is you fall under one of the exceptions. Or if you truly didn’t know the guns crossed state lines, you can argue no knowledge. In U.S. v. Nichols, the court said drivers aren’t automatically responsible for what’s in their vehicles.

You may also claim the gun movement was incidental to travel, like stopping for gas on a road trip. Or argue there’s no evidence the guns were for sale or distribution.

Receiving Guns Shipped Interstate

Under Section 922(a)(3), it’s also illegal to receive guns shipped from another state. But again, there are exceptions if your not a prohibited person.

A good defense is you didn’t actually receive the guns, or didn’t know they were shipped illegally. In U.S. v. Gardner, the court said just being present when guns are delivered isn’t enough to prove receiving them.

You can also argue the guns were intended for lawful activities like collection, self-defense, or sport. Or if someone used your address without your knowledge, you may claim no involvement.

Transferring Guns to Prohibited People

Under Section 922(d), its illegal to sell or give guns to someone you know is prohibited (like felons, drug users, etc). But you can defend yourself by proving you didn’t actually transfer the gun.

In U.S. v. Moore, the defendant let a friend store guns at his place. Even tho the friend was prohibited, the court said this wasn’t an illegal “transfer.”

You can also argue you didn’t know the person was prohibited. Or if you were coerced or threatened, you may claim duress. But you’ll need evidence of a real threat.

Making False Statements

Lying on ATF firearm forms can get you charged under Section 922(a)(6). But you may not have made a technically “false” statement.

In U.S. v. Johnson, the defendant misunderstood a question about drug use on the form. Since he didn’t intend to lie, the court dismissed the charges.

You can also defend yourself by arguing any false statements weren’t material to the sale. Or if you correct errors on the form, some courts will drop charges.

Obstructing Gun Sales Records

Under Section 922(m), you can’t hide records that dealers are required to keep on gun sales. But if you bought a gun as a gift or for someone else, you may not have known records were being falsified.

In U.S. v. Ortiz, the defendant didn’t realize the dealer was keeping two sets of books. The court said the government needs to prove you knew about the false records.

You can also defend yourself by showing you didn’t actually make false entries or destroy required records. Creative lawyers may even challenge whether the records were properly required under the law.

Possessing Unregistered Firearms

Under the National Firearms Act, certain guns like machine guns, silencers, and sawed-off shotguns must be registered. If you possess them without proper registration, you could face charges under 26 U.S.C. Section 5861.

Here, a good defense is you truly didn’t know the gun had to be registered. The law only requires “knowing” possession. In U.S. v. Freed, the defendant received a silencer as a gift and didn’t realize it needed to be registered. The court dismissed the charges.

You can also challenge whether the gun actually meets the technical definitions under the law. Minor details like barrel length measurements can make a difference.


As you can see, there are many potential defenses against federal firearms crimes if you have a creative and aggressive lawyer. The examples above are just a sample of what’s worked in real cases.

The main takeaways are:

  • Argue you didn’t actually commit the prohibited acts
  • Claim exceptions and exemptions under the law
  • Challenge whether you had real knowledge or intent
  • Dispute technical definitions and requirements
  • Make prosecutors prove every element

With sharp legal thinking, many federal gun cases can be successfully defended. But you need experienced counsel who knows the nuances of firearms law. Don’t go it alone against the power of the government. Consult with a lawyer about the defenses that may apply to your specific case.


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