27 Nov 23

Philadelphia Federal Firearms Trafficking and Gun Charges

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Last Updated on: 4th January 2024, 08:45 pm

Philadelphia Federal Firearms Trafficking and Gun Charges: An Overview for Defense Lawyers

Firearms trafficking and gun charges are complex areas of federal criminal law that carry severe penalties. As a Philadelphia defense lawyer, it’s crucial to understand the applicable statutes, sentencing guidelines, and potential defenses to mount an effective representation. This article provides an overview of key issues when advising clients facing federal firearms trafficking or gun charges in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

Laws and Charges

The main federal laws used to prosecute gun trafficking and firearms offenses in Philadelphia federal court are 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(a)(1)(A) and 924(c). Section 922(a)(1)(A) prohibits engaging in the business of dealing firearms without a license. This includes repeatedly buying and reselling guns for profit or livelihood over time — even just a few transactions can lead to charges if done for commercial purposes. Section 924(c) prohibits possessing, using, or carrying a firearm in relation to any federal crime of violence or drug trafficking offense. This stacks an additional mandatory minimum 5-30 years onto the underlying crime if a gun was involved.

In a typical Philadelphia federal gun trafficking case, a person will be charged with dealing firearms without a license under 18 U.S.C. § 922(a)(1)(A) for buying guns from straw purchasers that are destined for criminals. They may also face § 924(c) charges if the guns were meant to be used to facilitate drug deals or violent crimes. Defense lawyers need to scrutinize the evidence about the number of sales, reasons for purchases, and intended recipients to contest or mitigate these charges.


The penalties for federal firearms trafficking and gun charges in Philadelphia can be severe depending on the statutes involved:

  • Dealing firearms without a license (18 U.S.C. § 922(a)(1)(A)): Up to 5 years in prison. Fines up to $250,000 for individuals or $500,000 for corporations.
  • Possessing a firearm in furtherance of violent/drug trafficking crime (18 U.S.C. § 924(c)): Mandatory minimum 5 years in prison consecutive to any other counts. Up to life imprisonment depending on the firearm and type of underlying crime.
  • Sentencing enhancements for trafficking, using semiautomatic weapons, high-capacity magazines, armor-piercing ammunition, etc.

So a defendant faces at least 5 years just for unlicensed dealing plus any additional mandatory consecutive years under § 924(c) if the guns were connected to other crimes. The enhancements can quickly ratchet up sentences into de facto life imprisonment ranges. These severe penalties give prosecutors huge leverage in demanding plea deals.

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Several factual and legal defenses are available that a skilled Philadelphia gun crimes attorney can raise to fight the charges or mitigate penalties:

  • Contesting “engaged in the business” element: Argue the lack of profit motive, volume of sales, and other factors to show dealing activity didn’t meet the legal threshold for requiring a license.
  • Challenging the interstate nexus: The government must prove the guns traveled across state lines under Scarborough’s minimal standard. This can be attacked through expert testimony.
  • Duress/coercion: Argue the defendant only engaged in trafficking due to threats of violence against themselves or family.
  • Sentencing entrapment: Argue that government informants improperly lured the defendant into trafficking more guns than they otherwise would have absent the inducement.
  • Manipulation of sentencing factors: Challenge any disputed enhancements under § 3553(a)’s parsimony principle.
  • Safety valve provision: Defendants who cooperate fully can qualify for relief from some mandatory minimums under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f) .

An experienced Philadelphia gun crimes lawyer will leverage these defenses to seek charge dismissals or bargain for better plea deals in light of the ultra-high stakes.

Case Studies

Two notable recent Philadelphia federal gun cases help illustrate the dynamics at play:

U.S. v. White: White bought legally purchased handguns from straw buyers that he resold on the street for 2-4 times the purchase price. He was recorded negotiating these sales with informants. White argued he was coerced into trafficking the guns due to threats from violent drug dealers. But the jury convicted him on multiple § 922(a)(1)(A) and § 924(c) charges. With sentencing enhancements, White received an effective life sentence of over 65 years.

U.S. v. Doe: Doe purchased handguns from gun stores that were passed to a trafficking ring and ended up in New York City. Doe claimed she was manipulated into buying the guns by her boyfriend who emotionally and physically abused her. Prosecutors considered her a lower-level player. Doe cooperated fully under the safety valve and received just 33 months on a single § 922(a)(1)(A) count through a plea deal.

These cases highlight how the specific facts surrounding intent, coercion, and culpability can make all the difference from both trial and negotiating standpoints.


Defending federal gun trafficking and firearms charges in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania requires navigating a complex web of strict liability statutes carrying extreme sentences. But an experienced Philadelphia criminal defense lawyer can carefully construct a defense theory challenging the interstate nexus, profit motives, sentencing factors, and other issues. When convictions occur, skilled negotiating can still mitigate the most severe penalties — especially for minor players who cooperate fully. The stakes are enormously high, so retaining an attorney well-versed in these niche issues is critical.