Can I Own a Gun?

Man holding a rifle at a gun store
(Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

While gun owners and dealers often cite the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution when arguing against restricting any American citizen from owning a gun, the fact is that all gun owners and dealers must follow federal and state laws in order to legally own or sell guns.

Since as early as 1837, federal gun control laws have evolved to regulate the sale, ownership, and manufacture of firearms, various firearm accessories, and ammunition.

Highly Restricted Types of Firearms

First, there are some types of guns most civilian Americans simply cannot legally own. The National Firearms Act of 1934 (NFA) greatly restricts the ownership or sale of machine guns (fully automatic rifles or pistols), short-barreled (sawed-off) shotguns, and silencers. Owners of these types of devices must undergo deep FBI background checks and register the weapon with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives' NFA registry.

In addition, some states, like California and New York, have enacted laws completely banning private citizens from possessing these NFA-regulated firearms or devices.

Persons Restricted From Owning Guns

The Gun Control Act of 1968, as amended by the 1994 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, prohibits certain people from possessing a firearm. The possession of any firearm by one of these "prohibited persons" is a felony offense. It is also a felony for any person, including a registered Federal Firearms Licensee to sell or otherwise transfer any firearm to a person knowing or having "reasonable cause" to believe that the person receiving the firearm is prohibited from firearm possession. There are nine categories of people prohibited from possessing firearms under the Gun Control Act:

  • Persons under indictment for, or convicted of, any felony crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year
  • Fugitives from justice
  • Persons who are unlawful users of, or addicted to, any controlled substance
  • Persons who have been declared by a court as mental defectives or have been committed to a mental institution
  • Illegal aliens or aliens who were admitted to the United States under a nonimmigrant visa
  • Persons who have been dishonorably discharged from the Armed Forces
  • Persons who have renounced their United States citizenship
  • Persons subject to certain types of restraining orders
  • Persons who have been convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence

In addition, most persons under 18 years of age are prohibited from possessing handguns.

These federal laws impose a life-long ban on gun possession by anyone convicted of a felony, as well as those merely under indictment for a felony. In addition, the federal courts have held that under the Gun Control Act, persons convicted of felonies are banned from owning guns even if they never serve jail time for the crime.

Domestic Violence

In cases involving an application of the Gun Control Act of 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court has rather broadly interpreted the term “domestic violence.” In a 2009 case, the Supreme Court ruled that the Gun Control Act applies to anyone convicted of any crime involving “physical force or the threatened use of a deadly weapon” against any person with whom the accused had a domestic relation, even if the crime would be prosecuted as simple “assault and battery” in the absence of a deadly weapon.

State and Local ‘Right to Carry’

While the federal laws regarding the basic ownership of guns apply nationwide, many states have adopted their own laws regulating how legally-owned guns may be carried in public. 

As in the case of fully automatic firearms and silencers, some states have enacted gun control laws that are either more or less restrictive than federal laws. Many of these state laws involve an individual’s “right to carry” handguns openly in public.

In general, these so-called “open carry” laws, in the states that have them, fall into one of four categories:

  • Permissive Open Carry States: People are allowed to carry their legally-owned guns openly and in public.
  • Licensed Open Carry States: People are allowed to carry their legally-owned guns openly and in public only with a permit or license to do so.
  • Anomalous Open Carry States: While openly carrying a gun may generally be legal under state law, local governments are allowed to enact more restrictive open-carry laws.
  • Non-Permissive Open Carry States: State law allows persons to openly carry legally-owned guns only in limited circumstances, like while hunting, during target practice, or when legally carried for self-defense.

According to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, 31 states currently allow the open carrying of handguns without the necessity of a license or permit. However, some of those states require that guns carried in public must be unloaded. In 15 states, some form or license or permit is required to openly carry a handgun. 

It is important to note that open carry gun laws have many exceptions. Even among those states that allow open carrying, most still prohibit open carrying in some specific locations such as schools, state-owned businesses, places where alcohol is served, and on public transportation, among many other locations. In addition, individual property owners and businesses are allowed to ban openly carried guns on their premises.

Finally, some—but not all—states grant visitors to their states “reciprocity,” allowing them to follow the “right to carry” in effect in their home states.

Gun Rights and the COVID-19 Pandemic of 2020

In January 2020, the deadly novel coronavirus COVID-19 flu pandemic brought concerns for public health and government control of gun ownership rights into sharp conflict. As fears that public reaction to the rapidly-spreading COVID-19 outbreak could lead to nationwide food shortages, sales of guns and ammunition soared to near record levels.

At the same time, state governments sought to control the spread of the deadly virus by enacting emergency “social distancing” orders requiring all but “essential” businesses be temporarily closed to the public. While most of states listed businesses like grocery stores and pharmacies as essential, some states, like New York, New Jersey, and California ordered gun stores closed as “non-essential” businesses.

Gun rights groups bristled, calling such orders a clear violation of their civil and Second Amendment rights. On April 2, 2020, the N.R.A. filed a lawsuit against the state of New York on behalf of a Suffolk County, New York gun retailer. “The people have spoken through by choice of purchases over the past few weeks, what is essential to them… hand sanitizer, toilet paper, guns and ammo,” said a co-owner of the gun dealer.

The New York suit came on the heels of two similar suits filed by the N.R.A. against California, where Governor Gavin Newsom had left the decision up to induvial counties.

“There isn’t a single person who has ever used a gun in self-defense who would consider it nonessential,” said N.R.A. chief executive Wayne LaPierre in a press statement, calling the closures of gun stores an assault “on our Second Amendment freedoms.” However, LaPierre’s statement and the suits against California and New York, came after the N.R.A. had canceled its 2020 annual convention scheduled for April 16 to 19 over COVID-19 concerns.

On March 28, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security amended its “essential critical infrastructure workforce” list to include “workers supporting the operation of firearm or ammunition product manufacturers, retailers, importers, distributors, and shooting ranges.” While the federal list is not binding, many states cited it in allowing gun stores inside their borders to remain open during the COVID-19 crisis. On March 30, 2020, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy quoted the updated federal guidance in reversing his March 1 executive order that had shutter gun stores across the state.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Longley, Robert. "Can I Own a Gun?" ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Longley, Robert. (2021, February 16). Can I Own a Gun? Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "Can I Own a Gun?" ThoughtCo. (accessed May 10, 2021).