Federal Law on Prohibited Purchasers Generally

Posted on May 21, 2012

Federal law establishes the baseline regarding the types of persons who are ineligible to purchase firearms. The federal Gun Control Act of 1968, codified at 18 U.S.C. § 922, prohibits the sale of firearms to any person who:

  • Is underage;
  • Has been convicted of, or is under indictment for, a crime punishable by imprisonment for more than one year;
  • Is a fugitive from justice;
  • Is an unlawful user of or addicted to a controlled substance;
  • Has been “adjudicated as a mental defective” (defined by Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (“ATF”) regulations to include persons who have been determined to be a danger to themselves or to others, or who lack the mental capacity to contract or manage their own affairs, including persons found insane by a court in a criminal case, persons found incompetent to stand trial, and persons found not guilty by reason of lack of mental responsibility pursuant to articles 50a and 72b of the Uniform Code of Military Justice1);2
  • Has been “committed to a mental institution” (defined by ATF regulations to mean involuntary commitment);3
  • Is an illegal alien;
  • Has been dishonorably discharged from the military;
  • Has renounced his or her U.S. citizenship;
  • Is subject to a court order restraining him or her from harassing, stalking or threatening an intimate partner, his or her child or a child of a partner or engaging in other conduct that would place an intimate partner in reasonable fear of bodily injury to the partner or child, provided that the order: 1) was issued after a hearing of which such person received actual notice, and at which such person had an opportunity to participate; and 2) includes a finding that such person represents a credible threat to the physical safety of such intimate partner or child, or by its terms explicitly prohibits the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against such intimate partner or child that would reasonably be expected to cause bodily injury;4 or
  • Has been convicted of a misdemeanor offense of domestic violence.5

Federal law does not prohibit persons with convictions for misdemeanors other than domestic violence misdemeanors from purchasing firearms. Misdemeanor convictions have been found to be a risk factor for future criminal activity among handgun owners, however.6

Additional information on the federal minimum age to purchase and/or possess firearms is contained in Federal Law on Minimum Age to Purchase & Possess. Additional information about the federal prohibition on persons subject to domestic violence restraining orders is contained in Federal Law on Domestic Violence & Firearms, as is information about the federal prohibition on persons with domestic violence misdemeanor convictions.

In 2008 President Bush signed into law the NICS Improvement Amendments Act of 2007,7 which, inter alia, changes the standard for persons deemed to be “adjudicated as a mental defective” or “committed to a mental institution” by a federal agency or department. The Act also deems an adjudication as a mental defective or commitment to a mental institution “not to have occurred” if a state grants an application for relief pursuant to a state created relief from disabilities program. For more information on these changes and other provisions relating to persons prohibited from purchasing or possessing firearms as a result of mental illness, see Federal Law on Mental Health Reporting.

For more information on federal law relating to background checks, see Federal Law on Background Checks.

  1. 10 U.S.C. §§ 850a, 876b. []
  2. 27 C.F.R. § 478.11. []
  3. 27 C.F.R. § 478.11. []
  4. 18 U.S.C. § 922(d)(8). []
  5. 18 U.S.C. § 922(b)(1), (d), (x)(1). []
  6. Garen J. Wintemute et al., Prior Misdemeanor Convictions as a Risk Factor for Later Violent and Firearm-Related Criminal Activity Among Authorized Purchasers of Handguns, 280 JAMA 2083 (1998). []
  7. Pub. L. No. 110-180, § 105, 121 Stat. 2559 (2008). []