Federal law bars certain people from possessing, owning, receiving, or buying guns. The list of prohibited persons includes those with misdemeanor or felony domestic violence convictions and anyone who's subject to a domestic violence restraining order.
Read on for an overview of federal gun bans for domestic violence offenders and answers to questions like: What counts as a domestic violence conviction under federal law? How long does a federal firearms ban last? Can gun rights be restored after a domestic violence case? And what is the penalty for violating federal gun laws?
Federal law prohibits certain categories of people from buying or possessing firearms and ammunition. The list of "prohibited persons" includes any person:
All felony domestic violence convictions trigger the federal firearms ban—as do most felony convictions in general—whether they occur in federal or state court. Given the breadth of this ban, a violation is commonly referred to as a "felon-in-possession."
On the other hand, the federal firearms ban only applies to those with misdemeanor convictions that are "misdemeanor crime[s] of domestic violence."
The U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted the meaning of "misdemeanor crime of domestic violence" broadly. Basically, most misdemeanor crimes prohibiting assault, battery, and terroristic threats will fall under this definition when the offense involves:
This rule holds true whether or not the statute specifically defines the offense as a domestic violence misdemeanor as long as the underlying elements are met. (United States v. Hayes, 555 U.S. 415 (2009).) Learn more in our article on Federal Firearm Ban for Misdemeanor Convictions.
Federal law also prohibits some people who are subject to domestic violence protective orders from purchasing or possessing firearms and ammunition. A protective order prohibits a person from harassing, stalking, harming, or threatening to harm an "intimate partner" or a child of either person. Intimate partners for these purposes are limited to co-parents or those who share the relationship of current or former spouses or cohabitants. States use different names for these orders, such as protective orders, relief from abuse orders, and injunctions for protection.
The federal gun ban doesn't apply to ex parte orders issued after the court has only heard from one side, the alleged victim. To trigger the ban, the alleged abuser must have received notice and an opportunity to respond to the protective order request. (Ignoring the hearing won't avoid the order or the ban.) The order must also find the restrained person poses a credible threat of physical harm or must expressly prohibit the person from causing or threatening to cause harm to the intimate partner or child. (18 U.S.C. §§ 921, 922 (2020).)
Under federal law, defendants convicted of felony or misdemeanor domestic violence typically face a lifetime ban on owning or possessing firearms. Sometimes, the time of restriction is shorter than that. For example, gun bans triggered by domestic violence restraining orders remain in effect for the duration of the restraining order.
A person's gun rights can be restored after a domestic violence conviction in some jurisdictions if:
But states can—and do—limit the restoration of gun rights in some cases. For example, California's expungement law doesn't restore gun rights, meaning the federal ban would still apply. (Cal. Penal Code §§ 1203.4, 1203.4a (2020).)
The federal penalty for violating a domestic violence gun ban is steep—a $250,000 fine, up to ten years in prison, or both. (18 U.S.C. § 924 (2020).)
If you've been accused of a domestic violence crime or are the subject of a domestic violence restraining order, talk to an experienced lawyer. A lawyer can represent you in the case, answer questions about your situation, and advise you on how the rules of gun ownership and possession apply to your case.