Federal Firearms Charges: Key Laws, Severe Penalties, and Essential Defense Strategies

Federal Firearm Charges

Federal firearms charges carry severe penalties and require a strong defense strategy. Learn the key laws, understand the potential consequences, and discover essential steps to protect your rights.

June 11, 2024

Federal firearms charges are among the most serious weapons offenses you can face, often carrying heavy prison sentences and lifelong consequences. Federal law strictly regulates the purchase, possession, sale and use of guns, and prosecutors aggressively pursue cases involving illegal firearms.

This guide explains the key federal firearms laws, the severe penalties for violations, and critical steps to take if you’re facing charges. Learn how offenses like being a felon in possession, illegal gun sales, and using a firearm in a crime are prosecuted in federal court.

Whether you’re under investigation or have already been charged, get expert insights on the unique aspects of federal firearms cases. Find out why retaining an experienced federal defense attorney is essential for protecting your rights and mounting a strong defense to these life-altering accusations.

1. Understand the Major Federal Gun Laws

    • 18 U.S.C. § 922(g) – Felon in Possession: Makes it illegal for convicted felons to possess firearms or ammunition.
    • 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) – Using a Gun in a Crime: Imposes mandatory minimums for possessing, brandishing or discharging a firearm during a drug crime or violent felony.
    • 18 U.S.C. § 922(a)(6) – Lying on a Gun Purchase Form: Criminalizes making false statements on federal firearms transaction records.
    • 26 U.S.C. § 5861 – National Firearms Act (NFA) Violations: Prohibits possession of unregistered silencers, short-barreled rifles/shotguns, machine guns, and destructive devices.
    • 18 U.S.C. § 922(d) – Selling to a Prohibited Person: Bans knowingly selling guns to felons, fugitives, drug addicts, mentally ill, and other ineligible categories.


    • John, who was convicted of felony assault 10 years ago, was charged under 922(g) when police found a pistol in his car during a traffic stop.
    • During a drug bust, Sarah was accused of violating 924(c) for having a gun in her purse while selling meth to an undercover officer.
    • Mike faces charges under 922(a)(6) for misrepresenting his criminal history on a gun purchase background check form.
    • ATF agents raided Jim’s home and charged him under the NFA after finding several unregistered silencers and a sawed-off shotgun.
    • Lori was indicted under 922(d) for selling several handguns to a neighbor she knew was a convicted drug dealer.

How to Proceed:

    • Learn the specific elements the government must prove for the firearms offense you’re facing and start building your defense.
    • Examine the facts of your arrest or charge for potential constitutional violations, such as an illegal search or false statements to law enforcement.
    • Gather records showing your firearm was legally purchased, registered or possessed to undermine the prosecution’s case.
    • Identify evidence that may support an affirmative defense, such as possessing the gun under duress or for sporting purposes.
    • Consult a federal firearms attorney to analyze the strength of the case, explain your options and start negotiating with the prosecutor.


    • Can I ever legally possess a gun if I’m a convicted felon? It depends – federal law bans possession unless your rights are restored by your state, you’re pardoned, or your conviction is expunged.
    • Is it illegal to simply carry a gun during a crime even if I didn’t use it? Yes, 924(c) only requires that the firearm was possessed in relation to the underlying crime – actual use isn’t necessary.
    • How severe is the penalty for falsifying information on a gun application form? Up to 10 years in federal prison and/or a fine, though sentences vary based on criminal history and other factors.
    • Are there any federal laws restricting assault weapons or high-capacity magazines? The federal “assault weapons ban” expired in 2004, but many states have enacted similar laws.
    • Can I be charged with a federal gun crime even if I never leave my home state? Yes, the feds can take jurisdiction if the gun or any parts crossed state lines or the offense involves federal licensees.

2. Know the Severe Penalties for Federal Firearms Convictions

    • Long Prison Sentences: Most gun charges carry up to 10 years in federal prison, with some involving mandatory minimums that restrict a judge’s discretion.
    • Felony Criminal Record: A federal firearms conviction saddles you with a permanent felony record that affects jobs, housing, financial aid and civil rights.
    • Fines and Forfeiture: Hefty fines of $250,000 or more are possible, plus forfeiture of any firearms, ammo and sometimes even vehicles involved in the offense.
    • Probation and Supervision: After prison, you face 1-5 years of supervised release with restrictive conditions and the threat of re-imprisonment.
    • Enhanced Sentences: Longer sentences apply if you have prior convictions, the gun was stolen, had an obliterated serial number or was used in another felony.


    • Eric was sentenced to 5 years in federal prison for being a felon-in-possession under the guidelines for his criminal history level.
    • After her conviction for lying on a gun form, Amy found it impossible to pursue her teaching career because of the felony record.
    • In addition to prison time, Stephen was fined $20,000 and required to forfeit several expensive firearms seized during his arrest.
    • Following his 7-year sentence, James will be on supervised release for 3 years with drug testing, location monitoring, and firearm prohibitions.
    • Because the gun Brian possessed was stolen, his sentencing guideline range was increased by 2 levels, adding about 2 extra years.

How to Proceed:

    • Analyze the federal sentencing guidelines to calculate the likely prison range you’re facing if convicted of the firearms charge.
    • Research any mandatory minimum statutes that may apply to restrict the judge’s sentencing discretion and require imprisonment.
    • Determine if you’re eligible for a guideline reduction through “safety valve” provisions, a minimal participant role, or acceptance of responsibility.
    • Gather mitigating evidence to argue for a downward sentencing departure or the lowest end of the guideline range.
    • Discuss the pros and cons of pleading guilty versus trial and the benefits of cooperation with your attorney.


    • Do federal sentences allow parole? No, parole was eliminated for federal crimes in 1987. You must serve at least 85% of the prison term before release.
    • Is there a mandatory minimum for felon-in-possession? The statutory range is 0-10 years but the guidelines provide for 15-21 months or more depending on your record.
    • Can the court restrict gun possession as a condition of pretrial release? Yes, and violating that condition can lead to immediate detention and more charges.
    • Will I be sent to a federal prison far away? The BOP tries to keep inmates within 500 miles of family but prison designation depends on many factors like overcrowding.
    • Can any of these gun convictions be expunged later? Expungement is not available for federal convictions – the felony record is permanent unless you’re pardoned.

3. Take Immediate Steps to Protect Your Rights & Freedom

    • Remain Silent: Remain silent and consult an attorney before speaking to police or federal agents.
    • Retain an Experienced Lawyer: Federal gun charges are extremely serious – you need a skilled federal defense attorney in your corner immediately.
    • Investigate the Evidence: Your lawyer will scrutinize police reports, witness statements and forensics to identify holes in the prosecution’s case.
    • Examine Search & Seizure Procedures: If agents violated the 4th Amendment during your stop, arrest, or search, key evidence may get suppressed.
    • Fight for Pretrial Release: Avoiding detention is critical – your attorney can argue for reasonable bond conditions so you can aid in your defense.


    • When ATF agents asked to question Rick about guns found in his garage, he firmly said “I’m invoking my right to remain silent” and ended the interrogation.
    • Maria knew she couldn’t handle federal charges alone, so she immediately retained a seasoned weapons attorney to develop an aggressive defense strategy.
    • Ken’s lawyer dug into the evidence, revealing that a key witness had recanted and the recovered guns hadn’t been properly traced to Ken.
    • Casey’s attorney argued that the gun found under her bed should be suppressed because the search warrant application lacked probable cause.
    • At Tom’s bond hearing, his lawyer presented strong family ties, stable employment, and minimal criminal history to win his pretrial release.

How to Proceed:

    • If you’re arrested, tell police you’re invoking your right to silence and to an attorney – do not discuss your case with cellmates or on jail calls.
    • Research top-rated federal criminal defense firms and schedule consultations to find an attorney you trust to fight for you.
    • Give your lawyer access to all evidence, even if it seems damaging, so they can properly assess the government’s case and mount your defense.
    • File a motion to suppress if you believe police searched you illegally or coerced your statements in violation of your constitutional rights.
    • Work with your attorney to gather character references, employment records, and other positive info to support pretrial release on bond.


    • Should I just explain my side of the story to agents? No, you have the right to stay silent for a reason – your statements will only be used against you. Remain calm but firm in requesting a lawyer.
    • How can I verify an attorney’s experience? Ask about their specific federal weapons case history, how many they’ve taken to trial, and what outcomes they’ve achieved.
    • Can I access the prosecution’s evidence? Yes, your attorney will file discovery motions to obtain police reports, lab tests, and other evidence the government plans to use.
    • What if police didn’t read me my Miranda rights? Failure to Mirandize can get statements suppressed, but it doesn’t automatically make evidence inadmissible.
    • How soon after my arrest will I get a bond hearing? The court must generally set a detention hearing within 3-5 days of your initial appearance, unless you or the government seeks a continuance.

4. Build a Robust Defense Strategy Against Federal Charges

    • Constitutional Violations: Motions to suppress illegally seized evidence or statements can gut the prosecution’s case.
    • Lack of Proof: The government must prove every element of the charge beyond a reasonable doubt, giving the defense opportunities to create uncertainty.
    • Affirmative Defenses: You may have a valid defense that legally justifies your actions, such as necessity, entrapment or lack of knowledge.
    • Negotiate a Plea Deal: Where the evidence is strong, your lawyer can still negotiate for a more favorable plea bargain to minimize penalties.
    • Argue for Leniency: Presenting mitigating evidence and highlighting sentencing disparities can help persuade the judge to go below the guidelines.


    • Paul’s lawyer got his gun charges dropped after arguing that police illegally searched his car without a warrant or probable cause.
    • At trial, Vanessa’s attorney hammered on inconsistencies in federal agents’ stories, arguing they couldn’t prove beyond a doubt that she knew about the gun.
    • Jeffrey raised a necessity defense, asserting he only grabbed the gun to defend himself and others from an armed attacker in the heat of the moment.
    • Stacy’s lawyer negotiated her 924(c) charge down to simple possession, arguing that the government lacked solid proof she actually used the gun.
    • At sentencing, Luke’s attorney cited his military service, family hardship, and rehabilitation efforts to convince the judge to vary below the guidelines.

How to Proceed:

    • Collaborate closely with your lawyer to review all discovery for gaps in the evidence or signs that your rights were violated.
    • Insist that your attorney file a motion to dismiss the indictment if the government’s evidence is too weak to sustain a conviction.
    • Research legal defenses that may apply to your case, like possessing the gun under duress or not knowing it was actually a firearm.
    • If a plea is advisable, have your lawyer aggressively negotiate for dismissal of counts, a lower offense level, or a favorable sentencing recommendation.
    • Provide your attorney with a detailed personal history and any mitigating factors to argue for the most lenient sentence possible.


    • Can I get my federal gun case dismissed? It’s possible if your rights were seriously violated or the evidence is too flimsy, but dismissals are quite rare in federal court.
    • What if the firearm wasn’t mine? The government must show you knowingly possessed the gun either actually or constructively (access and intent to control).
    • Does pleading guilty improve my case outcome? It depends, but pleading often leads to a lower offense level and sentencing range than if you lost at trial.
    • Are there any alternatives to prison? Federal guidelines allow probation, home detention or intermittent confinement in certain lower-risk cases.
    • What factors can push my sentence higher? Prior felonies, using or brandishing the gun, obliterated serial numbers, trafficking, stolen weapons and other enhancements.


Astronaut in blue suit firing gun with orange smoke explosion.

Did You Know? Nearly 10,000 people are charged with federal firearms offenses each year, with the vast majority ending in convictions and over 5 years in prison on average.

Federal gun charges are among the most aggressively prosecuted crimes in America, with steep prison sentences and life-altering consequences for those convicted. Even without a criminal record, simply possessing an illegal firearm or accessory can land you behind bars for years.

The key federal firearms laws have tough penalties that often include mandatory minimums, heavy fines, and permanent restrictions on your gun rights. Facing charges? Hire an experienced federal weapons attorney to safeguard your freedom.

Possible defenses may involve challenging illegal searches, poking holes in the prosecution’s proof, or arguing legal justifications for your actions. An effective defense strategy could get evidence suppressed, charges reduced, or the case dismissed.

Charged with a Federal Gun Crime? Get a Free Attorney Consultation

If you’re under investigation or have been charged with a federal firearm offense, you can’t afford to face the government’s lawyers alone. Your freedom is at stake and you need the best legal representation.

Speak to a federal weapons attorney today for a free consultation. Get an experienced legal expert to assess your charges, explain your options, and start building your defense immediately.

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Facing federal firearms charges? Contact us now for a free attorney consultation to discuss your case and protect your rights.

Quiz: Test Your Knowledge of Federal Gun Charges

Questions: Federal Gun Charges Basics

    • 1. Which of the following is NOT a federal firearms offense?
      • A) Felon possessing a firearm.
      • B) Unlicensed firearm sales
      • C) Possessing an unregistered machine gun
      • D) Carrying a gun in a school zone
    • 2. Under federal law, who is considered a “prohibited person” barred from possessing guns?
      • A) Anyone convicted of a felony
      • B) Fugitives from justice
      • C) Illegal drug users
      • D) All of the above
    • 3. Which of these is a common federal gun possession charge?
      • A) Felon in possession under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)
      • B) Knowingly selling to a prohibited person under 922(d)
      • C) Possessing an unregistered NFA firearm under 26 U.S.C. § 5861
      • D) All of the above
    • 4. What’s the most severe federal gun charge in terms of mandatory prison time?
      • A) Gun sales without license
      • B) Firearm possession with obliterated serial number
      • C) Gun use during a drug trafficking crime or violent felony
      • D) Interstate gun trafficking
    • 5. Who investigates and prosecutes federal firearms offenses?
      • A) Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
      • B) Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)
      • C) Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Bureau (ATF)
      • D) United States Secret Service (USSS)

Answers: Federal Gun Charges Basics

    • 1. B) Unlicensed firearm sales between private parties are generally legal under federal law as long as the buyer and seller reside in the same state.
    • 2. D) Federal law prohibits gun possession by felons, fugitives, drug addicts, those adjudicated mentally ill, illegal aliens, domestic abusers and other high-risk categories.
    • 3. D) All of these are frequently charged federal gun crimes, often carrying 10-year maximum sentences and sometimes longer for aggravating factors.
    • 4. C) Using a firearm in drug trafficking or violent crimes incurs 5-25 year mandatory minimums under 18 U.S.C. § 924, consecutive to other sentences.
    • 5. C) The ATF is the primary federal agency that investigates and assists in prosecuting federal firearms offenses, often in partnership with local law enforcement.

Questions: Defending Federal Gun Charges

    • 1. What percentage of federal weapons offenders are sentenced to prison?
      • A) 36%
      • B) 57%
      • C) 79%
      • D) 93%
    • 2. How can you contest a federal gun charge?
      • A) Move to suppress evidence from an illegal search
      • B) Argue you didn’t know you possessed the firearm
      • C) Assert an affirmative defense like duress or necessity
      • D) All of the above
    • 3. What’s the most essential step if charged with a gun crime?
      • A) Do not speak with law enforcement and ask for lawyer
      • B) Explain your side of the story to investigators
      • C) Plead guilty immediately for leniency
      • D) Represent yourself to save money
    • 4. What factors can increase a federal gun possession sentence?
      • A) The firearm was stolen
      • B) The gun’s serial number was obliterated.
      • C) The defendant has prior felony convictions
      • D) All of the above
    • 5. How much prison time does a conviction for possessing an unregistered silencer carry?
      • A) 1 year or less
      • B) 5 years or less
      • C) 10 years or less
      • D) 20 years or less

Answers: Defending Federal Gun Charges

    • 1. D) Upwards of 90% of defendants convicted of federal weapons charges end up sentenced to prison time, with an average sentence of around 5-7 years.
    • 2. D) Potential defense strategies include challenging illegal searches, arguing lack of knowledge or intent, and asserting affirmative defenses when supported by the facts.
    • 3. A) Invoke your right to remain silent and have a lawyer present during questioning—don’t attempt to talk your way out or strengthen the government’s case.
    • 4. D) All of these are common aggravating factors under the federal sentencing guidelines that can significantly increase the recommended prison term.
    • 5. C) Possessing an unregistered silencer, short-barreled rifle, machine gun or destructive device is punishable by up to 10 years imprisonment under the NFA.


The legal information contained in this article on federal firearms charges is for general informational purposes only and should not be construed as formal legal advice. For case-specific advice, consult a licensed criminal defense attorney in your jurisdiction.


Laws and sentencing practices can vary by district and are subject to change. Do not rely on this information without first seeking personalized counsel from a qualified federal weapons lawyer who can properly assess your charges and advise you of your rights and options.

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