Misdemeanor Conviction Firearm Prohibition

Under Federal law, a conviction of some misdemeanor offenses could invoke a lifetime firearm possession prohibition, meaning the person would not be able to possess a firearm for the rest of his or her life. Under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1), it is unlawful for a person to possess a firearm if the person has been convicted, pleaded guilty, or pleaded nolo contendre or no contest to a crime “punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year.”

While the law appears to be clear that a conviction exceeding one year invokes the Federal firearms prohibition, the phrase “crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year” does not actually mean what it says. Instead, the phrase is defined at 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(20) and does not include state misdemeanor convictions that are “punishable by a term of imprisonment of two years or less.” In Pennsylvania, most second and third-degree misdemeanors offenses are punishable by two years or less, which means convictions of such offenses normally would not trigger the firearm ban. A misdemeanor of the first degree is punishable by up to five years in jail, so a conviction of a first-degree misdemeanor would prohibit a person from possessing a firearm under Federal law.

Max Sentence and Not Actual Sentence Imposed

It is also important to note that the prohibition is triggered based upon the maximum sentence that a judge could impose and not based upon the sentence that the judge did impose. For example, a second offense of driving under the influence in the highest range of penalties is a first-degree misdemeanor and thereby carries a maximum sentence of five years in jail. In such cases, the judge may impose a sentence of two years. Many people hear the actual sentence, meaning a maximum of two years, and thereby think that they are permitted to possess a firearm. However, because the maximum sentence that is permitted or allowed is the important factor, such a person is prohibited from possessing a firearm.

The max sentence versus actual sentence issue often arises when people try to purchase a firearm and incorrectly complete the prior criminal record portion of the background check portion of the application. Regrettably, an incorrect answer about a prior misdemeanor conviction on a gun application can lead to a felony charge.