Federal law establishes a baseline national standard regarding individuals’ eligibility to acquire and possess firearms. Under federal law, people are generally prohibited from purchasing or possessing firearms if they have been convicted of a felony or some domestic violence misdemeanors, or if they are subject to certain court orders related to domestic violence or a serious mental condition. However, federal law merely provides a floor, and has notable gaps that allow individuals who have demonstrated significant risk factors for violence or self-harm to legally acquire and possess guns.
Pennsylvania law provides that, subject to certain limited exceptions, no person shall possess a firearm if he or she has been convicted of:
- Possessing, using, making, repairing, selling, or otherwise dealing in any “offensive weapon,” including machine guns, sawed-off shotguns, firearms with a silencer, and stun guns1;
- An offense relating to organized crime;
- Possessing a weapon on school property;
- Voluntary or involuntary manslaughter involving reckless use of a firearm;
- Aggravated assault;
- Assault by a prisoner;
- Kidnapping or unlawful restraint;
- Rape, involuntary intercourse, or aggravated indecent assault;
- Luring a child into a motor vehicle;
- Causing or risking catastrophe;
- Criminal trespass (at the level of second degree felony or higher);
- Robbery or robbery of a motor vehicle;
- Felony theft or felony extortion accompanied by threats of violence (if it is the second conviction for said felony);
- Felony receiving stolen property;
- Impersonating a law enforcement officer;
- Intimidation of, or retaliation against, a witness or a victim;
- Escape from “official detention”;2
- Possession of weapons or implements for escape from a detention facility, correctional institution or mental hospital;
- Paramilitary training;
- Possession of a firearm by a minor or corruption of minors;
- An offense involving “facsimile weapons of mass destruction”; or
- Unlawful sale or lease of weapons or explosives.3
Pennsylvania law also prohibits the following individuals from possessing a firearm:
- A fugitive from justice;
- A person who has been convicted of an offense under The Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act;4
- A person who has been adjudicated as incompetent or involuntarily committed to a mental institution;
- An illegal alien;
- A person adjudicated delinquent under federal or state law as a result of conduct which, if committed by an adult, would constitute specified offenses under Pennsylvania law for a period of 15 years or until the person is age 30;5
- A person who is the subject of an active protection from abuse order that provides for the relinquishment of firearms; or
- A person who is prohibited by federal law from possessing or acquiring a firearm because of a conviction for a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.6
A person who has been convicted of driving under the influence on three or more separate occasions within a five-year period is prohibited from purchasing but not possessing a firearm.7
Pennsylvania law allows persons who are prohibited by Pennsylvania law from possessing firearms by virtue of a criminal conviction to apply to the court of common pleas of the county where the principal residence of the applicant is situated for relief from the firearm prohibition.8 The court must grant the relief if ten years have passed since the applicant’s most recent conviction.9 A person prohibited from possessing firearms because he or she was adjudicated incompetent or involuntarily committed to a mental institution may similarly petition a court for relief from disability, in which case the hearing must be closed.10 The court may grant such relief as it deems appropriate if it determines that the applicant may possess a firearm without risk to himself or herself or any other person.11
Note that federal law still considers a person to be prohibited from purchasing and possessing firearms even if state law purports to have restored his or her firearms eligibility, unless the person has had all of his or her civil rights restored (not just his or her firearms eligibility).12
For information on the background check process used to enforce these provisions, see the Pennsylvania Background Check Procedures section.
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- See 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 908, which defines “offensive weapon” to mean “any bomb, grenade, machine gun, sawed-off shotgun with a barrel less than 18 inches, firearm specially made or specially adapted for concealment or silent discharge, any blackjack, sandbag, metal knuckles, dagger, knife, razor or cutting instrument, the blade of which is exposed in an automatic way by switch, push-button, spring mechanism, or otherwise, any stun gun, stun baton, taser or other electronic or electric weapon or other implement for the infliction of serious bodily injury which serves no common lawful purpose.”
- See 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 5121 (defining “official detention” as arrest, detention in any facility for the custody of persons under charge or conviction of a crime or alleged or found to be delinquent, detention for extradition or deportation, or any other detention for law enforcement purposes).
- 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 6105(b).
- See 35 Pa. Stat. Ann. § 780-101 et seq.
- See 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 6105(c)(7), (8).
- 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 6105(c).
- 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 6105(c)(3).
- 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 6105(d). A hearing must be held in open court, and the commissioner and the district attorney of the county where the application is filed and any victim or survivor of a victim of the offense upon which the disability was based may be parties to the proceeding. 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 6105(e).
- 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 6105(e)(2) . See also 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 6105.1 (purporting to restore firearms eligibility to persons convicted under certain laws previously on the books in Pennsylvania.).
- 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 6105(f)(1), (3).
- 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 6105(f)(1).
- See 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(20)(B), (33)(B)(ii); United States v. Essig, 10 F.3d 968 (3d Cir. 1993); United States v. Leuschen, 395 F.3d 155 (3d Cir. 2005); Pa. State Police v. Paulshock, 836 A.2d 110 (Pa. 2003).