Key federal regulations build upon the framework established by the National Firearms Act and the Federal Firearms Act.
The National Firearms Act
The National Firearms Act (“NFA”) was enacted in 1934 as part of the Internal Revenue Code. It was the first federal regulation of the manufacture and transfer of firearms. An exercise of the taxing power, the NFA levied a federal tax on the manufacture, sale and transfer of certain classes of firearms. The NFA has been amended and revised by subsequent federal firearms acts (see other Acts described on this page). Currently the National Firearms Act imposes an excise tax and registration requirements on narrow categories of firearms, including machine guns, short-barreled shotguns or rifles, and silencers.1 The NFA also includes, in a category defined as “any other weapon,” certain smooth-bore handguns.2 The vast majority of handguns are excluded. The current provisions of the NFA are codified at 26 U.S.C. § 5801 et seq. Additional details about the NFA may be found in Federal Law on Registration of Firearms.
The Federal Firearms Act
The Federal Firearms Act of 1938 (“FFA”) imposed a federal license requirement on gun manufacturers, importers, and those persons in the business of selling firearms. The term federal firearms licensee (“FFL”) is commonly used today to refer to the members of the gun industry on whom this license requirement is imposed. In addition to the licensing component of the FFA, the Act required licensees to maintain customer records and made illegal the transfer of firearms to certain classes of persons, such as people convicted of felonies. These classes of persons are commonly referred to as “prohibited purchasers.” The circumstances resulting in the prohibition (such as a felony conviction) are often referred to as “disabilities.” The FFA was repealed by the Gun Control Act of 1968. However, many of its provisions were reenacted as part of the subsequent act.
The Gun Control Act
The Gun Control Act of 1968 (“GCA”) revised the NFA and the FFA, reenacting and expanding upon provisions of the prior acts, and repealing the FFA. The GCA also enacted prohibitions on the importation of firearms “with no sporting purpose.” However, neither the GCA nor any other federal law regulates the domestic manufacture or sale of firearms which would not pass the federal criteria for determining whether a firearm has “a sporting purpose.” Among the other major provisions of the GCA were the establishment of minimum ages for firearms purchasers, the requirement that all firearms (domestic and imported) be affixed with a serial number, and the expansion of the categories of prohibited persons. The GCA is codified at 18 U.S.C. § 921 et seq., and the provisions of the FFA as reenacted by the GCA are also found in these sections. Additional details about the GCA may be found in the posts discussing federal law on Ammunition Regulation, Background Checks, Prohibited Purchasers Generally, and Dealer Regulations.
The Firearms Owners’ Protection Act
The Firearms Owners’ Protection Act of 1986 (“FOPA”), also known as the McClure-Volkmer Act, significantly amended the GCA and effectively liberalized many of the restrictions on sellers of firearms. Among other things, the FOPA enacted provisions that legalized sales by licensed dealers away from the location shown on the dealer license if at a “gun show” within the same state; limited the number of inspections of dealers’ premises which could be conducted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (“ATF”) without a search warrant; prevented the federal government from maintaining a central database of firearms dealer records; and loosened the requirement for what constitutes “engaging in the business” of firearms sales for purposes of a federal license.
The FOPA also repealed several key public safety provisions originally enacted by the GCA, eliminating the requirements that dealers keep sales records of ammunition transfers (except armor-piercing ammunition transfers) and that sellers of ammunition be licensed, and lifting the ban on interstate transfers of ammunition to unlicensed purchasers. Additional details about the FOPA may be found in Federal Law on Ammunition Regulation and Federal Law on Private Sales.
The Brady Act
The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993 (“Brady Act”) effected amendments to the GCA, originally imposing a five-day waiting period for law enforcement to review the background of a prospective handgun purchaser before a licensed dealer was entitled to complete the sale of a handgun to that person. The purpose of the check is to allow law enforcement to confirm that the prospective buyer is not a prohibited purchaser (see discussion of “prohibited purchaser” in connection with the FFA, above, and the posts on Background Checks and Prohibited Purchasers Generally) before the sale is consummated. The five-day waiting period has now been replaced with an instant check system, which can be extended to three days when the results of the check are not clear. Persons who have a federal firearms license or a state-issued permit to possess or acquire a firearm (such as a state-issued concealed carry permit that is valid for not more than five years) are not subject to the waiting period requirement. As more states enact “shall issue” concealed carry permit laws, this category of persons exempt from the Brady Act increases. In 1998, the Act became applicable to shotguns and rifles. The Brady Act is codified at 18 U.S.C. § 921 et seq. Additional details about the Brady Act may be found in the posts discussing federal law on Background Checks, Prohibited Purchasers Generally and Dealer Regulations.
The Federal Assault Weapons Ban
The Federal Assault Weapons Ban, or Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act (Title XI, Subtitle A of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994) (“AWB”) was a subtitle of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, enacted on September 13, 1994. Formerly codified at 18 U.S.C. § 921 et seq., the AWB prohibited: 1) the manufacture, transfer and possession of semi-automatic assault weapons; and 2) the transfer and possession of large capacity ammunition feeding devices (i.e., devices capable of holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition). The law banned 19 types, models and series of assault weapons by name (and copies or duplicates of those weapons), and any semi-automatic firearm with at least two specified military features coupled with the ability to accept a detachable magazine (this last criterion did not apply to shotguns). The law only banned the transfer and possession of assault weapons and large capacity feeding devices manufactured after the date of the ban’s enactment. The AWB contained a sunset provision declaring that it would expire ten years from enactment. Congress allowed the ban to expire on September 13, 2004.
PLCAA and Child Safety Lock Act
THE PROTECTION OF LAWFUL COMMERCE IN ARMS ACT AND CHILD SAFETY LOCK ACT
The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act and Child Safety Lock Act of 2005 (“PLCAA” and “CSLA”) provided the gun industry with immunity from most tort liability. The PLCAA prohibited a “qualified civil liability action” from being brought in any state or federal court and required immediate dismissal of any such action upon the date the PLCAA was enacted (October 26, 2005). A “qualified civil liability action” is a civil or administrative action or proceeding brought against a manufacturer or seller of firearms or ammunition, or a trade association that has two or more members who are manufacturers or sellers of firearms or ammunition for relief, if the action resulted from the criminal or unlawful misuse of a qualified product by the person or a third party, with certain exceptions. “Unlawful misuse” is defined as conduct that violates a statute, ordinance or regulation. Actions excluded from the definition of “qualified civil liability action” include those:
- Against a transferor convicted of knowingly transferring a firearm with the knowledge that it will be used to commit a crime of violence (so long as the action is brought by the person harmed by the transfer);
- Against a transferor for negligence per se or negligent entrustment (the latter is defined in the Act to mean supplying a firearm or ammunition to a person the seller knows or reasonably should know is likely to, and does, use the firearm or ammunition in a manner involving unreasonable risk of physical injury);
- Against a manufacturer or seller who knowingly violated a state or federal law applicable to the sale or marketing of firearms or ammunition if the violation of law was the proximate cause of the harm for which relief is sought;
- For breach of contract or warranty in connection with the purchase of the firearm or ammunition;
- For death, physical injuries or property damage resulting directly from a defect in design or manufacture of the product, when used as intended or in a reasonably foreseeable manner, except that where the discharge of the product was caused by a volitional act that constituted a criminal offense, such act shall be considered the sole proximate cause of any resulting death, personal injuries or property damage; or
- Commenced by the Attorney General to enforce certain federal firearms laws.
The PLCAA is codified at 15 U.S.C. §§ 7901 — 7903. Additional details about the PLCAA may be found in the section entitled Federal Law on Immunity Statutes.
The CSLA, adopted as part of the PLCAA, made it unlawful for any licensed importer, manufacturer or dealer to sell or transfer any handgun unless the transferee is provided with a secure gun storage or safety device (defined under 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(34)). The CSLA also immunized any person who possesses or controls a handgun and who uses a secure gun storage or safety device with the handgun, from a “qualified civil liability action.” The CSLA defines “qualified civil liability action” as a civil action for damages resulting from the criminal or unlawful misuse of a handgun by a third party if: 1) the handgun was accessed by another person who did not have the authorization of the lawful possessor; and 2) at the time the handgun was accessed it had been made inoperable by the use of a secure gun storage or safety device. The CSLA is codified at 18 U.S.C. § 922(z). Additional details about the CSLA may be found in the section entitled Federal Law on Locking Devices.
NICS Improvement Amendments Act
NATIONAL INSTANT CRIMINAL BACKGROUND CHECK SYSTEM IMPROVEMENT AMENDMENTS ACT
The National Instant Criminal Background Check System (“NICS”) Improvement Amendments Act of 2007 (“NICS Act”) provided financial incentives for states to provide to NICS (the database used to perform a background check when a firearm is purchased from a federally licensed dealer) information relevant to whether a person is prohibited from possessing firearms, including the names and other relevant identifying information of persons adjudicated as a mental defective or those committed to mental institutions.3 The NICS Act also changed 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 authorized the Attorney General to make grants to states for use in establishing and upgrading the states’ ability to report information, including mental health information, to NICS. In order to be eligible for the grants authorized by the NICS Act, a state must implement a “relief from disabilities” program that meets the Act’s requirements. For detailed information about the NICS Act’s provisions, see the section entitled Federal Law on Mental Health Reporting.
The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act
The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act (“BSCA”),4 enacted in 2022, amended the GCA to require additional investigative steps as a part of the background check process before an 18 to 20 year old is able to purchase a long gun;5 clarify which gun sellers must obtain a federal firearms license and conduct background checks; establish federal statutes to clearly define and penalize trafficking and straw purchasing; and prohibit a person convicted of a violent misdemeanor against a “current or recent former dating” partner from possessing firearms for five years. The BSCA also authorized federal Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant funding for the implementation and establishment of state crisis intervention court proceedings, including state Extreme Risk Protection Orders. The BSCA invested $250 million over five years for a community violence intervention and prevention initiative. The BSCA also invested in children and family mental health services; codified the SchoolSafety.gov clearinghouse, which provides resources on evidence-based strategies to keep schools safe; and increased funding for mental health and supportive services in schools. Additional details about the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act may be found in the posts discussing federal law on Background Check Procedures, Firearm Prohibitions, Trafficking & Straw Purchasing, Domestic Violence & Firearms, Extreme Risk Protection Orders, and Intervention Strategies.
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- 26 U.S.C. § 5845(a).
- 26 U.S.C. § 5845(a), (e).
- Pub. L. No. 110-180, §§ 102, 104, 121 Stat. 2559 (2008).
- Pub. L. No. 117-159, 136 Stat. 1313 (2022).
- These provision sunset on September 30, 2032, except for the provision clarifying that juvenile conduct can prohibit a person from purchasing firearms and that mental health adjudications or commitments to mental health institutions that occur before the age of 16 do not prohibit a person from purchasing firearms.