18 Sep 23

18 U.S.C. § 922(a) – Unlawful acts involving firearms

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Last Updated on: 19th September 2023, 04:02 am

18 U.S.C. § 922(a) – Unlawful Acts Involving Firearms

The Gun Control Act of 1968 created several federal laws regarding firearms. One key statute is 18 U.S.C. § 922(a), which prohibits certain acts involving the sale, delivery, or movement of firearms. This law aims to keep guns away from prohibited buyers and interstate gun trafficking.

Section 922(a) makes it illegal for anyone except licensed dealers and manufacturers to engage in the business of selling guns. It also bars firearm sales to certain categories of prohibited purchasers. Let’s explore this law’s key provisions, exceptions, penalties, and role in broader gun control efforts.

Engaging in the Business of Selling Firearms

Under 18 U.S.C. § 922(a)(1)(A), only federally licensed firearms dealers and manufacturers can engage in the business of dealing guns. “Engaged in the business” means regularly selling guns with the intent to profit. This applies even to occasional sales at gun shows or online.

Without a federal firearms license, it’s illegal to repeatedly sell guns for livelihood and profit. The law targets unlicensed high-volume sellers masquerading as hobbyists. But even a few transactions can be prosecuted as illegal dealing if done for profit.


Some gun sales are exempt from needing a federal license under ATF exceptions:

  • Occasional sales between private individuals
  • Sales of personal collections acquired for private use
  • Gun exchanges between close friends or relatives

But volume, frequency, intent to profit, and other factors determine if these exceptions apply. The line between hobbyist and unlicensed dealer isn’t always clear.

Selling to Prohibited Purchasers

Section 922(a)(5) makes it illegal for anyone to transfer a firearm to someone they know or reasonably should know is prohibited from buying guns. This applies to both licensed and private sellers.

Prohibited purchasers under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g) include:

  • Felons
  • Fugitives
  • Drug users
  • Illegal aliens
  • Domestic abusers
  • Mental defectives

Licensed dealers must run background checks to avoid selling to these categories. But private sellers also bear responsibility for vetting buyers. Pleading ignorance won’t excuse delivering guns to prohibited persons.

Preventing Straw Purchases

Section 922(a)(6) specifically prohibits straw purchases. This is when someone buys a gun for an ineligible person, lying about being the true owner. Straw buyers with clean records often purchase guns for felons or domestic abusers.

To deter straw purchases, the ATF Form 4473 buyer questionnaire asks:

Are you the actual transferee/buyer of the firearm(s) listed on this form? Warning: You are not the actual buyer if you are acquiring the firearm(s) on behalf of another person.

Lying on this form by falsely claiming to be the actual buyer is prosecuted as a federal crime.

Transporting Firearms Interstate

Under 18 U.S.C. § 922(a)(3), only licensed manufacturers, dealers, and importers can transport firearms across state lines to sell them. This aims to curb interstate gun trafficking.

Individuals can only move personal firearms interstate for lawful purposes like hunting, moving residences, or antiques collection. They cannot buy guns in one state to illegally sell in another state.

Transporting to Prohibited Persons

Section 922(a)(5) also bars knowingly transporting any firearm to a prohibited person. Again, claiming ignorance about the recipient’s status provides no legal cover.

So delivering guns to felons or other ineligible buyers across state lines also violates federal law. Interstate transport amplifies the illegal sale through prohibited interstate commerce.

Record-keeping and Reporting Violations

Section 922(a)(2) requires licensed dealers to record all gun acquisitions and dispositions on ATF Form 4473. Violating these recording and reporting rules is illegal.

Straw purchasers often conspire with corrupt dealers who deliberately fudge records. Proper record-keeping provides accountability and helps trace guns found at crime scenes.

Reporting Multiple Handgun Sales

Licensed dealers must also report sales of multiple handguns to the same buyer within five days. This requirement aims to detect straw purchasing patterns.

Violating these handgun-reporting rules is a separate offense under 922(a)(6)(C). Failure to report multiple handgun sales can indicate illegal arms trafficking.


Violating 18 U.S.C. §.

Those who “willfully” violate 922(a) face up to 10 years imprisonment. Fines escalate to $500,000 for corporations. State laws may add additional penalties on top of federal charges.

Preventing Gun Violence

Section 922(a) provides several tools to combat gun violence:

  • Keeps guns from prohibited buyers – Background checks and straw purchase rules aim to block sales to criminals, abusers, and other dangerous individuals.
  • Disrupts trafficking networks – Restricting unlicensed dealing and interstate transport targets illegal gun running.
  • Deters illegal sales – Threat of stiff penalties deters unlicensed and underground sales.
  • Enables tracing – Record-keeping rules help law enforcement trace crime guns back to buyers and dealers.

But loopholes undermine these protections. Private sales still enable prohibited buyers to avoid background checks in many states. Traffickers exploit this through straw purchases at gun shows and online [1].

Universal background checks are widely seen as the most effective step to close this loophole. Research affirms background checks reduce gun homicides and suicides [2]. This policy has overwhelming public support, though past congressional efforts have stalled.

President Biden’s recent executive actions also aim to curb violence [3]. These include:

  • Cracking down on rogue dealers who supply crime guns
  • Launching community violence intervention programs
  • Improving mental health and crisis resources

Comprehensive solutions require going beyond enforcement to address root causes. Research shows early intervention, mentoring, and mental health treatment can prevent high-risk individuals from committing violence [4].

While progress is slow, Section 922(a) remains an important tool for deterring illegal sales and keeping guns from the wrong hands. Fully realizing its preventive potential requires closing loopholes and coupling with evidence-based violence reduction strategies [5].


[1] The Internet Makes Buying a Gun Like Ordering a Pizza

[2] Background Checks for Firearm Purchases: Problem Areas and Recommendations to Improve Effectiveness

[3] President Obama Announces New Measures to Prevent Gun Violence

[4] Media Agenda Setting Regarding Gun Violence before and after a Mass Shooting

[5] Gun Violence: Prediction, Prevention, and Policy