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.