Juvenile Weapons Possession

Federal and state laws impose minimum age requirements for the possession and purchase of firearms. Juveniles who unlawfully possess weapons are typically sent through the juvenile justice system.

By , J.D.
Updated 4/21/2023

All states limit the right to purchase, own, or possess weapons to some extent, though restrictions vary widely from state to state. States commonly make it a crime to possess specific types of weapons, to possess weapons in specified locations, or to use weapons in a prohibited manner. When juveniles illegally possess weapons, they can be sent through the juvenile justice system and even charged in adult criminal court in some cases.

Juvenile Justice vs. Criminal Courts

Criminal laws apply to adults and juveniles. But when juveniles break the law, their cases are typically handled differently than those of adults. Most of the time, juveniles are sent through the juvenile court system, where the aim is to counsel, support, and rehabilitate, rather than punish.

Adults who violate weapons laws face penalties such as jail, prison, probation, or fines in criminal courts. Juveniles who violate weapons laws are more likely to receive supervision and services in juvenile court in an attempt to rehabilitate the young offender.

What Weapons Are Minors Not Allowed to Possess?

Each state and the federal government ban certain kinds of dangerous weapons. Federal law typically focuses on firearms, but states often restrict many other categories of weapons. State laws prohibiting weapons vary significantly, but often ban adults and juveniles from possessing weapons like explosives, exploding projectiles, switchblade knives, brass knuckles, and any weapon prohibited under federal law. States also usually have their own gun laws.

Can a Minor Have a Gun?

Possession of firearms is a Second Amendment right, but it's not an unlimited right. Each state and the federal government imposes some minimum age requirements for gun possession. Federal law prohibits the possession of a handgun or handgun ammunition by any person under the age of 18 with some exceptions for specified activities. Federal law has no minimum age for the possession of long guns or long gun ammunition. (18 U.S.C. § 922(x)(2),(3),(5) (2023).)

Many states and the District of Columbia also impose minimum age requirements, some of which go beyond federal law and prohibit the purchase and possession of handguns and long guns by anyone under the age of 21. Gifford Law Center, an anti-gun violence organization, has compiled a summary of state minimum age laws.

States might also prohibit children from owning or possessing non-powder guns, like BB and pellet guns, without parental consent or adult supervision. Depending on the state, the term "child" is defined as being anywhere from under 18 years old to under 12 years old.

Exceptions to Laws Banning Minors From Having Guns

Many juvenile weapons laws allow for exceptions. For example, under federal law, a juvenile (under 18) can temporarily possess a handgun and ammunition if the juvenile is using the handgun for:

  • work
  • ranching or farming activities (at home or with permission on someone else's property)
  • target practice
  • hunting, or
  • instruction in the safe and lawful use of a handgun.

(18 U.S.C. § 922(x)(3) (2023).)

What Constitutes Being a Minor in Possession of a Firearm?

Possession means both physically carrying a weapon on you or having a weapon in an area that is under your control. For example, a student who brings a gun to school in a backpack is in possession of the weapon. And if that same student brings the gun to school and stores it in a locker, that's also considered possession even if the student is away from the locker.

Potential Penalties for a Juvenile Gun Charge

Juvenile courts have wide discretion in determining the appropriate sentence (usually called a "disposition order") for a juvenile offender. If a judge finds that there's enough evidence to show the juvenile committed an offense, it will find the charge true (similar to a guilty finding in adult court). The judge will then impose a sentence aimed primarily at rehabilitating the juvenile. Here are some possible actions a judge might take, and in any given case, there might be more than one.

  • Verbal Warning. In some cases, a judge may decide that a strict warning from the court is enough, and might let the juvenile go without a penalty. The judge might choose such a course when, for example, a teen has no prior history, shows remorse, and expresses a sincere desire to not violate any other laws.
  • Fine. The juvenile may be required to pay a fine to the government or pay compensation to the victim.
  • Counseling. The judge might order the juvenile to attend counseling, and can also order that the parents attend as well.
  • Community service. A judge may order a juvenile to perform community service as a consequence for a weapons possession offense. Community service sentences require the juvenile to perform a number of hours as a volunteer at a local charity or other approved organization.
  • Diversion. First-time juvenile offenders are often given the chance to avoid prosecution by entering a diversion program. These programs require the juvenile to spend a specific amount of time, typically six months or so, participating in community service programs, after-school programs, or other programs designed to rehabilitate the child. In exchange, the prosecutor agrees to drop any charges against the child. So, diversion allows the juvenile to be rehabilitated without a formal juvenile delinquency adjudication.
  • Probation. A judge can order probation for a juvenile who has committed a weapons offense. Probation is similar to diversion, but it's imposed by the court after the court sustains the juvenile delinquency charge. Probation usually lasts at least six months and requires the child to obey specific court orders, such as staying out of trouble, staying in school, maintaining a specific grade point average, or maintaining employment.
  • Detention. Sometimes, the judge finds that there's not enough structure and discipline at home to keep the juvenile from engaging in criminal activity. In those cases, the judge can order the juvenile into a group home, juvenile detention center, weekend detention program, summer "boot camp" program, or another form of detention. Detention sentences are less common than they used to be, and are usually used only in situations involving violence, repeat offenders, or when the court determines the juvenile poses a threat to others.
  • Adult charges. All states have transfer laws that allow or require some juveniles to be prosecuted as adults for more serious offenses, regardless of their age. In some situations, a juvenile can be charged as an adult for a weapons violation charge. The juvenile court can refer a juvenile case to an adult criminal court, but this typically happens only when the crime is really serious.

Selected State Gun and Weapon Laws

Choose your state from the list below to find information about your state's laws regarding guns.

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