Introduction

Both state and federal law regulate firearms. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives (ATF) primarily enforces the relevant Federal laws, whereas the State Police, local police and law enforcement agencies enforce the state laws.

The major federal firearms laws are the Gun Control Act of 1968, the National Firearms Act, and the Arms Control Export Act. The Pennsylvania Uniform Firearms Act of 1995 applies to the regulation of firearms that are not preempted by the federal laws. Other various federal laws exist and important ones will be discussed below. Note: The original restrictions contained in the Brady Law expired in 1998, and were replaced by the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) for firearm sales. 18 U.S.C. 922(t)

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Pennsylvania Laws (18 P.S. 6101 et. seq.)

(18 P.S. 6101 et. seq.)

Pennsylvania Uniform Firearms Act of 1995 (18 P.S. 6101 et. seq.)

(18 P.S. 6101 et. seq.)

Firearms Defined:

For purposes of the Pennsylvania Uniform Firearms Act of 1995, a firearm is defined as any pistol (including revolvers) with barrels shorter than 15 inches and short-barreled (including "sawed-off") rifles and shotguns. Exact measurements required are 16 inches (or shorter) for rifle barrels, 18 inches for shotgun barrels, or any pistol, shotgun, or rifle with an overall length of less than 26 inches. 18 P.S. §6102

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Persons Restricted from Possessing Firearms:

18 P.S. §6105 lists categories of persons restricted from possessing, using, selling, transferring, or manufacturing firearms. This statute is very similar to the federal requirements, except that it lists various crimes for which a conviction would prevent a person from possessing firearms (federal law imposes such a restriction on all felons). Additionally, juvenile delinquents are also included in this category. Note: for purposes of this section, the term firearm includes all guns, not just those listed in §6102.

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Concealed Weapons:

It is unlawful for persons to carry a concealed firearm, or to transport a firearm in a vehicle, without a valid concealed firearms license. There are a number of practical exceptions to this law, including for law-enforcement officers, persons whose duties require them to carry firearms (such as bank couriers), target shooters, gunsmiths, and hunters. However, hunters, trappers and fishermen who carry firearms must obtain a Sportsman's firearm permit from their local treasurer to comply with this exception. Firearms must be unloaded and any ammunition must be stored separately for any recreation-related exception.

Adult residents of Pennsylvania may apply for a license to carry firearms from their county sheriff or the chief of police (if in Philadelphia). Licenses are allowed for self-defense, employment, hunting and fishing, target shooting, gun collecting, and other proper reasons. Information required on the application include the name, address, date of birth, race, sex, citizenship, Social Security number, height, weight, color of hair, color of eyes, signature of applicant, reasons for issuance and period of validation. The sheriff has up to 45 days to research the applicants past and issue or decline a license. If such a license is refused, the sheriff must notify the applicant in writing and state the specific reasons for the refusal.

Note: These restrictions do not affect a person's rights to otherwise lawfully transport weapons. 18 P.S. §6109

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Firearms and Minors:

It is unlawful for minors to possess and transport firearms within Pennsylvania, unless the minors are engaged in:

  • lawfully hunting or trapping in accordance with the game regulations; or
  • a lawful activity (such as target-shooting, safety training, or transportation to such an activity) and is under the supervision of an adult (who is acting with the express consent of the minor's custodial parent or legal guardian) 18 P.S. §6110.1

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Sale and Transfer of Firearms:

The sale and transfer of firearms is broken into two categories: sale by dealers and sale by private parties. Dealers must comply with the federal regulations concerning sales as listed in 18 U.S.C. §922(t) (see above).

Completed applications and records of sale of firearms as defined under §6102 must be sent to the Pennsylvania State Police within 14 days of the sale. Copies of the application must also be kept by the seller and by the purchaser. The State Police are obligated to destroy the application within 72 hours after the completion of the background check. For firearms that fall outside of the definition of §6102 (typical rifles and shotguns), dealers complete the background check themselves and send a statement of the sale to the state police.

Private parties that sell firearms as defined under §6102 to each other must do so at the place of business of a dealer or sheriff's office and undergo the same requirements as listed above. This does not apply to the sale of firearms that fall outside of the definition of §6102 (typical rifles and shotguns) and transfers between spouses, parents and children, and grandparents and grandchildren.

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Confidentiality Issues:

It is a felony for a dealer or other person who requests confidential information from the State Police to conduct a criminal background check or use or disseminate this information for any purpose other than compliance with the Uniform Firearms Act. It is important to note that these records are not public under Pennsylvania's Right to Know Law (Open Records Act) because they enjoy statutorily granted confidentiality under §6111(i). Strict penalties are imposed for violating this confidentiality.

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Municipal Preemption:

No counties, municipalities, cities, or townships may regulate the possession, transfer, or transportation of firearms, ammunition, or ammunition components in a way inconsistent with the laws of the Commonwealth. For example, a township may not prohibit the ownership or possession of a pistol within its borders.

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Use of force (18 P.S. §§ 505 - 507)

Note: This section contains a brief and abridged summary of the law and is intended only for informational purposes. It is not to be construed as legal advice and PNA. assumes no responsibility for the use of this information.

Use of force for the protection of others (§505)

In 2011, the Pennsylvania Legislature passed, and Governor Tom Corbett signed into law, amendments dealing with what is known as the "Castle Doctrine." The bill now permits, in certain circumstances, for individuals to use deadly force without retreating. 

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Use of force for the protection of others (§506)

A person is justified in using force against another person for the protection of a third person (including strangers) in situations where the use of force would be justified if he were the person threatened or under attack.

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Federal Laws

Gun Control Act of 1968 (18 U.S.C. Chapter 44)

The Gun Control Act of 1968 (GCA) is the major law regulating the sale and possession of firearms. It was enacted to require federal licensing for the interstate sale of firearms, prohibit the possession and sale of certain types of weapons, and to prohibit certain people from possessing and selling firearms. This licensing requirements of this law applies only to the interstate (between two or more states) sales of firearms, and persons who only sell firearms to citizens of the state they are located in are not required to be federally licensed.

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Prohibited Firearms:

Under this statute, the term "firearm" means any weapon (including a starter gun) which will or is designed to or may readily be converted to expel a projectile by the action of an explosive; the frame or receiver of any such weapon; or any firearm muffler or silencer. Antique firearms (including modern replicas of such weapons and most high-tech black-powder rifles) are not considered firearms under this statute.

The GCA prohibits the possession and sale of certain types of firearms. Major categories of prohibited firearms include:

  • Machineguns
  • Firearms not detectable by airport security devices
  • Semiautomatic assault weapons
  • Unregistered firearms (of the type required to be registered by the National Firearms Act, such as pistols and sawed-off shotguns)

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Other GCA Provisions:

Licensing:

The GCA also lists requirements for a person to obtain a firearms license. These requirements include, among other things, that the licensee be at least 21 years old, is not the type of person prohibited from engaging in the sale or possession of firearms (see above) and complies with all applicable state and local laws.

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Enhanced Penalties:

Under the GCA, certain criminal offenses carry a minimum mandatory penalty. Among these are: the use or possession of a firearm during a crime of violence or drug trafficking crime (5 years); use of a semiautomatic assault weapon or a sawed-off shotgun or rifle (10 years); and use of a machinegun or a firearm equipped with a silencer (30 years). Second offenses carry a penalty of 20 years to life imprisonment.

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Semiautomatic Assault Weapons:

for the purposes of the GCA, the term semiautomatic assault weapon includes:

1) Any versions of the following weapons (this is a partial list):

a) Avtomat Kalashnikovs (including AK-47's, AKM's, and AK-74's)
b) UZI's and Galil assault rifles
c) Colt AR-15 (including M-16's)
d) Fabrique National FN/FAL, FN/LAR, and FNC;
e) Steyr AUG
f) INTRATEC TEC-9, TEC DC-9, and TEC-22; and
g) Revolving cylinder shotguns, such as (or similar to) the Street Sweeper and Striker 12;

2) A semiautomatic rifle that has an ability to accept a detachable magazine and has at least 2 of the following characteristics:

a) a folding or telescopic stock;
b) a pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon;
c) a bayonet mount;
d) a flash suppressor or threaded barrel designed to accommodate a flash suppressor; and
e) a grenade launcher;

3) a semiautomatic pistol that has ability to accept a detachable magazine and has at least 2 of the following characteristics:

a) an ammunition magazine that attaches to the pistol outside of the pistol grip;
b) a threaded barrel capable of accepting a barrel extender, flash suppressor, forward handgrip, or silencer;
c) a shroud that is attached to, or partially or completely encircles, the barrel and that permits the shooter to hold the firearm with the nontrigger hand without being burned;
d) a manufactured weight of 50 ounces or more when the pistol is unloaded ; and
e) a semiautomatic version of an automatic firearm; and

4) a semiautomatic shotgun that has at least 2 of the following characteristics:

a) a folding or telescoping stock;
b) a pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon;
c) a fixed magazine capacity in excess of 5 rounds; and
d) an ability to accept a detachable magazine.

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Large Capacity Ammunition Feeding Devices:

The GCA prohibits the possession or transfer of any large capacity ammunition feeding device that was obtained after November 29, 1990. A large capacity ammunition feeding device is defined as: a magazine, belt, drum, feed strip, or similar device manufactures after the date of enactment of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 that has a capacity of, or that can be readily restored or converted to accept, more than 10 rounds of ammunition.

Note: this definition does not include an attached tubular device designed to accept, and capable of operating only with .22 caliber rimfire ammunition, as is common on many .22 caliber rifles.

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Armor Piercing Ammunition:

The GCA prohibits the manufacture, import, and sale of ammunition that may be used in a handgun and is either:

(1) constructed entirely from one or a combination of tungsten alloys, steel, iron, brass, bronze, beryllium copper, or depleted uranium; or
(2) a full jacketed projectile larger than .22 caliber designed and intended for use in a handgun and whose jacket has a weight of more than 25 percent of the total weight of the projectile.

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National Firearms Act (26 U.S.C. Chapter 53)

The National Firearms Act (NFA) requires that certain types of firearms and devices be registered. Regulated firearms and devices include machineguns, short-barreled (including sawed-off) shotguns and rifles, and silencers.

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Arms Control Export Act (22 U.S.C. 2778)

The Arms Control Export Act (ACEA) allows the President to control the importation and exportation of defense articles, including firearms and ammunition. Under the ACEA, persons are required to obtain permits and licenses to import and export defense articles.

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Firearms Waiting Periods (18 U.S.C. §922(t))

(18 U.S.C. §922(t))

The Brady Law (18 U.S.C. §922(s)) amended the GCA in 1993. Among its major provisions was the establishment of a 5 day waiting period during which time law enforcement officials were able to a conduct criminal records check on the purchaser. The Brady law expired in 1998 and was replaced with the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS (18 U.S.C. §922(t)).

Under this new law, dealers are required to conduct a background check before selling a firearm to a customer. If the system does not provide the dealer with a unique identification number for the customer (which means that the customer is cleared to buy the weapon), the customer must wait three days before the transaction can be completed. This is to provide authorities enough time to conduct a background check of the customer. These background checks are required unless the customer has a valid firearms permit, the transaction has been authorized by Secretary of the Treasury, or compliance is impractical (because of remoteness of location, such as with a sporting goods store in the wilds of Alaska).

Once the background check is complete, the background check system will assign a unique identification number to the transfer, provide the licensee with this number, and destroy all records in the system with respect to the background check (other than the identifying number and the date the number was assigned) and all records of the system relating to the customer or the transfer.

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Persons prohibited from possession firearms:

The background check screens persons who are prevented from possessing, transporting, and buying firearms under §922. These include:

  • convicted felons (persons convicted in any state or federal court of a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year)
  • fugitives from justice
  • unlawful users of, or addicts to, any controlled substances
  • persons who have been declared to be mentally defective by a court (or persons who have been committed to a mental institution)
  • illegal aliens (and immigrants in the United States under a nonimmigrant visa)
  • persons who have been discharged from the Armed Forces under dishonorable conditions
  • former United States citizens who have renounced their citizenship
  • persons who have been convicted in any court of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence
  • persons under a restraining order that was issued to prevent them from harassing, stalking, or threatening an intimate partner or the intimate partner's children, or engaging in other conduct that would:

Additionally, it is unlawful for any person who is under indictment for a (felony) to ship, transport, or receive, in interstate or foreign commerce any firearm or ammunition.

Note: this statute affects only those transactions that affect "interstate commerce." While this covers the vast majority of firearms transactions, there may be a number of rare exceptions to this law. However, the interstate commerce clause has been broadly interpreted by the courts and most, if not all, purchases of firearms will ultimately fall within the control of this law.

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The Arms Export Control Act

(AECA) also prohibits the issuance of firearms licenses to persons who have been convicted of various activities, such as espionage, sabotage, and spying.

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