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Gun-Running and Gun Trafficking Lawyers


Gun-Running and Gun Trafficking: A Complex Web of Laws and Legal Precedents

Gun-running and gun trafficking laws in the United States are complex, with statutes at both the federal and state levels. For lawyers representing clients accused of weapons trafficking crimes, it is essential to understand the applicable laws and how courts have interpreted them. This article provides an overview of key laws and precedents related to gun-running and trafficking that defense attorneys should know.

Federal Laws on Gun Trafficking

Several federal statutes address the illegal trafficking of firearms from legal to illegal markets. The main law is 18 U.S.C. § 922(a)(1)(A), which prohibits engaging in the business of dealing in firearms without a federal license. This applies to anyone who repeatedly buys and sells guns “with the principal objective of livelihood and profit.” Penalties include up to 5 years in prison.

Prosecutors often rely on § 922(a)(1)(A) in gun trafficking cases because it does not require proof that the defendant knew they were selling guns illegally. However, defense lawyers can argue this law was intended for unlicensed dealers, not one-time transfers.

In response to the limited scope of § 922(a)(1)(A), Congress passed 18 U.S.C. § 922(d) in 1968. This law bars licensed dealers from selling guns to those they know or have reasonable cause to believe are prohibited from buying guns, such as felons or mentally ill people.

Section 922(d) requires knowledge on the defendant’s part, making it harder to prosecute. Prosecutors must prove the seller knew or should have known the buyer was prohibited. But this law only applies to licensed dealers, not private sellers.

The Gun Control Act of 1968 also created 18 U.S.C. § 922(b)(2), prohibiting licensed dealers from selling handguns to out-of-state residents. And 18 U.S.C. § 922(b)(3) makes it illegal for licensed dealers to sell firearms to people who do not reside in the state where the dealer’s business is located. These laws aim to curb interstate gun trafficking.

In addition, 18 U.S.C. § 922(a)(6) prohibits knowingly making false statements in connection with acquiring firearms from licensed dealers. This includes using straw purchasers to buy guns for prohibited persons.

Despite these laws, prosecuting gun traffickers can be challenging. Cases often rely on straw purchaser defendants testifying against ringleaders in exchange for immunity or reduced charges. Strong evidence is needed to prove the defendant knew the guns would be trafficked.

State Laws on Gun Trafficking

Many states have also enacted laws specifically targeting gun trafficking or straw purchasing. For example, California’s law bars anyone from purchasing or receiving firearms with the intent to resell them to a prohibited person. New York makes it illegal to sell, exchange, give or dispose of firearms to another person outside limited exceptions.

Some state gun trafficking laws don’t require prosecutors to show the defendant knew the guns would end up in illegal markets. But defense lawyers can still argue their client did not have this knowledge or criminal intent.

State laws also vary in how they define illegal gun sales. In Florida, a person commits a felony by transferring two or more firearms within a 90-day period to any person not authorized to own guns. But other states may require a higher number of transactions over a shorter timeframe to qualify as gun trafficking.

Sentencing Considerations in Gun Trafficking Cases

The baseline federal penalties for gun trafficking under 18 U.S.C. § 922(a)(1)(A) are 0-5 years in prison. But sentences can be much harsher based on the number and type of firearms involved.

Under 18 U.S.C. § 924(a)(2), if the trafficking offense involves semiautomatic assault weapons or machine guns, the penalty jumps to 10-30 years. Trafficking guns with obliterated serial numbers also brings a 5-year mandatory minimum consecutive sentence under 18 U.S.C. § 924(i).

The U.S. Sentencing Guidelines provide recommended sentencing ranges based on the number and type of firearms, the defendant’s role in the offense, and other factors. Defense lawyers should thoroughly analyze the guidelines to identify grounds for a below-guidelines sentence.

Judges have discretion to depart from the guidelines and statutory minimums through “safety valve” and substantial assistance provisions. But prosecutors must file motions for defendants to qualify for these sentencing breaks.

Defenses in Gun Trafficking Cases

Several legal defenses may apply in gun trafficking prosecutions, giving defense attorneys opportunities to beat the charges or win acquittals at trial.

  • Lack of knowledge – As mentioned above, some gun trafficking laws require prosecutors to prove the defendant knew or had cause to believe the guns would end up in illegal markets. The defense can argue the client did not have this requisite knowledge or intent.
  • Entrapment – If undercover agents pressured or induced the defendant into committing the crime, an entrapment defense may succeed.
  • Duress – Defendants can claim they engaged in gun trafficking due to threats of force against themselves or loved ones. But the threat must be immediate and severe.
  • Second Amendment – Courts have rejected Second Amendment challenges to gun laws prohibiting sales to certain classes of individuals. But defense lawyers may still raise novel constitutional arguments.
  • Compliance with state laws – In states with permissive gun laws, defendants can argue they complied with state requirements and did not knowingly violate federal laws.


Defending gun-running and trafficking cases requires a deep understanding of the patchwork of federal and state laws, sentencing rules, and judicial precedents. Lawyers should look for weaknesses in the prosecution’s evidence regarding the defendant’s knowledge and intent. Entrapment, duress and compliance with state laws also offer possible defenses. But because of harsh penalties, the risks of trial are high, so plea negotiations should be pursued aggressively.


U.S. v. Anaya, 638 F.Supp.2d 1249 (D.N.M. 2009)

U.S. v. Moore, 109 F.3d 1456 (9th Cir. 1997)

Combating Illicit Firearms Trafficking and Gun Crime

California Penal Code 27590

New York Penal Law § 265.17

[Florida Statutes § 790.33](http://www.leg.state.fl.us/statutes/index.cfm?App_mode=Display_Statute&URL=0700-0799/0790/Sections/0790.33.html)

[Federal Sentencing for Gun Trafficking Crimes](https://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/federal-sentencing-gun-trafficking-crimes.html)

[U.S. v. Squillacote, 221 F.3d 542 (4th Cir. 2000)](https://casetext.com/case/us-v-squillacote-3)

[Montana Shooting Sports Association v. Holder, 727 F.3d 975 (9th Cir. 2013)](https://casetext.com/case/montana-shooting-sports-assn-v-holder-3)

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