Gun and Ammo Laws in the USA

To help you fully understand the laws governing the purchase of guns and ammo in your state, we have created this state by state guide for the entire country. Click your state below to learn about any special rules or regulations around buying guns or ammo in your state, how sales tax works in your state for our products, concealed/open carry laws in your state, etc.

Firearm and Ammunition Laws by State:

Firearm and Ammunition Laws by Territory:

Additional USA Firearm and Ammo Legal Info:

Additionally, below is a full overview of Federal gun and ammo laws in the USA, as these apply to every state in the nation:

Gun and Ammo Regulations in the USA

This piece explains the general framework for buying and owning ammunition and firearms in the United States of America at the Federal level. Before we can begin with firearms-specific information, there is one vitally important concept in general American law for you to understand: Federalism.

Federalism paints a somewhat complicated legal picture of the United States’ legal system (which is the reason we have sub-guides for every state). There is one central government, headquartered in Washington DC, which has the power to make laws for the entire country. The laws made in DC apply in all fifty states, and every territory that the US holds.

But, that is not the only government that applies to you. There are also state and local governments that make their own rules. Because these governments are made up of many different kinds of people, with a lot of variation in the political leanings of those people, laws in the US can vary greatly at the state level. But even with those variations, the current federal laws apply in every single square inch of the country, regardless of how state governments might feel about those laws. So, as folks who want to buy and own firearms, we have to know not only state and local laws, but federal laws as well.

With that in mind, every firearms transaction in the country is of interest to federal law. As you may know, firearms laws in the US begin with the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, which reads in its entirety:

A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

That single sentence, ratified in 1791, both promised us the right to possess arms and also kicked off more than two centuries of vigorous legal debate. In this piece, the aim is to cut through much of that debate and explain as clearly as possible the necessary steps for ordinary folks to purchase firearms and ammunition in ways that satisfy current federal law. This piece is not legal advice, nor does it cover state laws at all, but it should serve as a good first step in understanding the legal processes for purchasing ammunition and firearms in the US.

Ammo Laws/Buying Ammo in the USA 

In general terms, the United States has some of the most lax laws on the planet in terms of civilian ownership of firearms and ammunition. There are, however, a few categories of restrictions that the federal government enforces.

The possession, use, and disposal of nuclear materials is highly regulated within the country.

This, in effect, bars civilians from owning, purchasing, or producing nuclear weapons. While this might seem almost fantastical to think through at first, it also basically forbids the possession and use of depleted uranium rounds, which are certainly more available than atom bombs. These restrictions are run through the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (usually abbreviated as ATF or BATF), is the federal organization that does most of the regulation and enforcement for firearms and ammunition. Before getting into specific regulations, it’s worth noting that there are restrictions on the kinds of records that the ATF can keep on us, notably a prohibition on maintaining a searchable database of firearms and ammunition owners in the country.

The ATF restricts a large number of arms and types of ammunition. For example, explosives are highly regulated and it is fairly difficult to legally manufacture any quantity of them. A quick skim of that linked regulatory document shows an important theme: the ATF does not outright forbid much of anything, and instead has a process for licensing and monitoring many activities. When it comes to buying or making ammunition in the USA, then, it is all a matter of finding out how to legally do so, and what level of paperwork and fees one is willing to put up with.

For ordinary firearms enthusiasts, there are only two sets of rules that apply to the purchase of ammunition that we have to worry about: age and status as a prohibited person.

Currently, people have to be 18 years old to purchase ammunition for rifles and shotguns, and 21 to buy handgun ammunition.  In addition to the age requirement, the buyer of the ammunition cannot be a prohibited person, which usually includes felons, folks convicted of domestic violence, and people who have been adjudicated as mentally unfit in court. 

Federal Firearms Laws 

In addition to the Constitution, there are a few other major pieces of legislation that guide what the ATF enforces. Specifically, the National Firearms Act of 1934 defines several kinds of firearms such as Short Barreled Rifles and Shotguns, and classifies suppressors as firearms as well. These are now called NFA items, and the Act sets up the tax stamp process that citizens follow to this day to own or manufacture those items.

The 1986 Firearm Owners Protection Act, in effect, prohibited new machine guns from being manufactured for sale to the US civilian market, and required owners of pre-1986 machine guns to register them with the ATF. This is why machine guns are so expensive today: the vast majority of those on the US open market are coming from a limited supply of guns made before 1986.

Those are the two laws that govern much of what ordinary people can purchase, and how much they may have to spend to get NFA items or machine guns.  Aside from people simply purchasing firearms, there is a licensing framework for those who would like to buy and sell firearms as a business: these are called Federal Firearms Licenses or, more commonly, FFLs.

There are many types of FFLs: the least difficult license to attain, a type 3, allows the holder of the license to have guns labeled as “Curious and Relics” shipped to their home, which is fairly popular among serious collectors of military surplus from the World Wars or before. It is also possible to, if one is willing, undergo the multi-year and very expensive process of becoming a licensed manufacturer or importer of everything up to and including cruise missiles. For most gun enthusiasts, our interactions will be with Type 1 or 3 FFLs, being gun dealers and pawnbrokers, respectively.

These Type 1 and 3 FFLs have responsibilities to the ATF in addition to passing background checks of their own, and following strict safety requirements for the products they receive, store, and sell. It is these FFLs that ensure that no prohibited persons or folks who are underage buy firearms at the federal level. This process is done through ATF Form 4473, which is a federal form that everyone who legally buys a firearm at an FFL fills out for each and every firearm that they buy. This process consists of a background check and a listing of the firearm bought or sold, though, as mentioned previously, the ATF cannot currently store these records in a way that can be digitally searched for information like name and address.

For the average gun buyer, much of this process is behind the scenes: as long as you’re over 18 or 21 and have no criminal history, all the ATF requires of you to buy a gun off the shelf at the local gun store is, usually, a driver’s license and a willingness to fill out a 4473. With NFA items, the process is slightly more lengthy, involving more forms, fingerprints, and, likely, a fairly substantial wait time, as well as a mandatory $200 tax stamp for said NFA item.

Sales Tax on Guns/Ammo in the United States

The federal government places taxes on pistols and revolvers (10%) as well as rifles, shotguns, and ammunition (11%).

Keep in mind that these taxes are in addition to the general sales taxes found in most states, as well as the limited state-based examples of specific taxes on firearms and ammunition.

More Resources

The US might well be the biggest exporter of arms in the world, as this report handily puts into context.

Please reach out to us with any additional questions, and note that we are not lawyers and this is not legal advice.

USA Gun Laws FAQ:

Although there is no way of knowing for sure, some studies estimate that a little over half of American adults own firearms, although this varies quite a bit by state.

On the federal level, yes. But with that said, there are only two ways to legally acquire an automatic weapon in the US. The buyer has to fill out the appropriate NFA paperwork, and will likely have to pay several tens of thousands of dollars for a machine gun that was registered before 1986. Or, the potential owner of a machine gun has to become an FFL that is authorized to own and manufacture machine guns as “dealer samples” to be sold to law enforcement or militaries.

The US has the most legally-held firearms in civilian hands per capita on the planet. With that said, since there are so many firearms unaccounted for from wars, stolen shipments, etc., there is no way of knowing how many firearms there are in civilian hands in many parts of the world.

Some: the Post Office and other carriers impose their own safety restrictions, and there are many, many regulations to follow for the shipment of explosives and nuclear materials. Aside from those restrictions, ammunition can usually be shipped to residential addresses as far as the federal government is concerned, but state laws vary.