Who can inherit guns legally?

This is a tricky question because state laws vary so much. Compounding the problem is that law enforcement doesn’t pay attention to who inherits guns unless the heir gets into trouble. If it turns out that the heir owns the gun illegally, it will make his or her problems worse.

Rifles and shotguns can usually be transferred easily (ID cards are needed in some states), but pistols generally require permits. You can’t mail guns to the resident of another state. The only way to send guns, legally, is to take them to a gun dealer, who will mail them to another dealer in the heir’s hometown. When the heir picks up the guns, he or she will normally have to show any required permits and undergo an instant background check.

Some people aren’t allowed to own guns at all — for example, people convicted of domestic violence, drug users, or those dishonorably discharged from the military. Many states have special laws for “assault rifles,” which are high-powered target or hunting rifles tricked up to look like the military AK-47s.

The laws are especially tough on weapons that have to be registered under the National Firearms Act (NFA), such as machine guns, deactivated war trophies, silencers, and sawed-off shotguns. They can be transferred to new owners only with the approval of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE).

What’s more, the local law-enforcement chief has to sign off on the transfer. Most do, but you can’t count on it. For example, some suburban cops might resist silencers, which can make it easy for people to target-shoot illegally in their yards. Some states ban silencers for hunting. If your NFA weapons are owned by a gun trust, the local police chief doesn’t have to sign off on the purchase but the BATFE still has to approve any transfer of ownership.

If you own guns, you need to pay attention to these and other issues when drawing your will. So does your lawyer. The lawyer can’t, legally, carry guns to heirs (or even to a gun dealer) if he or she doesn’t have the right permits in the state. Odds are the lawyer won’t be caught, but it’s a risk. For more on gun trusts and other inheritance questions, see my Dimespring column, here.


Tags: , ,

Rob // 05/20/2013 at 6:11 pm

This is something to think about, but the risks are mostly overstated here until some ‘universal background check’ law is passed.

A person, lawyer or otherwise, does not need a permit to transport unloaded firearms from one jurisdiction to another where he or she is allowed to possess the weapon. If you are allowed to possess a handgun in Virginia and Pennsylvania (meaning you’re not a felon or wife-beater), then Federal law says you are allowed to drive straight through D.C. – where handguns are practically banned – as long as you don’t plan to stop.

Unless a serialized weapon is included in the will, it is unlikely to attract the attention of the courts or law enforcement. The key is to follow current law and not transfer weapons to known ‘restricted persons’, ie felons and wife-beaters. In most states there is no requirement to involve law enforcement or Federal dealers – for now – as long as the recipient is a law-abiding citizen.

You are correct that the laws are many and varied. But your statement that “The lawyer can’t, legally, carry guns to heirs (or even to a gun dealer) if he or she doesn’t have the right permits in the state” is false in a wide majority of States, unless you concede that ‘right permit’ = ‘no permit’ for most states.

Rob // 05/20/2013 at 9:01 pm

Just to clarify:
Interstate TRANSFERS require a licensed dealer, but interstate TRANSPORT does not.
A lawyer can very likely legally transport a weapon for a client without a ‘permit’, but would need to engage a federally ‘licensed’ dealer to conduct a background check to turn the weapon over to an out-of-state heir, even if the heir is a direct relation.

Jane // 05/30/2013 at 4:16 pm

Lawyer Jeff Crown says that if a lawyer without a permit were passing through New Jersey, for example, with guns to deliver to someone else, and he was discovered for some reason, he’d be arrested. Ditto NY and CT. It depends on the state.

Leave a Reply

To prove you're a person (not a spam script), type the security word shown in the picture. Click on the picture to hear an audio file of the word.
Anti-spam image

Have Jane Speak

"In the five years I have been with the organization, I have never before seen the audience give any speaker a standing ovation." — Ceramic Tile
Distributors Association
learn more

Jane’s Book Club

The Number by Lee Eisenberg

THE book to read, when you’re puzzling over how much to save for retirement.

Past book recommendations

Jane’s Bio

Jane Bryant Quinn is a nationally known commentator on personal finance, with books and columns read and trusted by millions.
learn more