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Interpreting a "Simple" Massachusetts Gun Law Question

Warning, Nothing is Simple With the Second Amendment

Disclaimer: this is an educational example not to be substituted for legal advice. Gun laws change often, either by statute or case law, so consult a gun lawyer to discuss your questions or concerns.

Demonstrating the complexity involved with State and federal gun laws can be illustrated by answering a "simple" question: Can a felon possess a loaded gun in Massachusetts? A generalized answer is: only an "antique firearm" but not any "ammunition." Furthermore, there are strict laws governing its possession, such as to where the "antique firearm" may be located and stored.

First We Look at Federal Law

The Gun Control Act of 1968 (GCA) prohibits felons and certain other persons from possessing or receiving firearms and ammunition ("prohibited persons"). These categories can be found at 18 U.S.C. § 922(g) and (n). A felon is one such "prohibited person."

However, Federal law does not prohibit these persons from possessing or receiving an antique firearm. The term "antique firearm" means:

  • (A) any firearm (including any firearm with a matchlock, flintlock, percussion cap, or similar type of ignition system) manufactured in or before 1898; or,
  • (B) any replica of any firearm described in subparagraph (A) if such replica—
    • (i) is not designed or redesigned for using rimfire or conventional centerfire fixed ammunition, or,
    • (ii) uses rimfire or conventional centerfire fixed ammunition which is no longer manufactured in the United States and which is not readily available in the ordinary channels of commercial trade; or,
  • (C) any muzzle loading rifle, muzzle loading shotgun, or muzzle loading pistol, which is designed to use black powder, or a black powder substitute, and which cannot use fixed ammunition. For purposes of this subparagraph, the term “antique firearm” shall not include any weapon which incorporates a firearm frame or receiver, any firearm which is converted into a muzzle loading weapon, or any muzzle loading weapon which can be readily converted to fire fixed ammunition by replacing the barrel, bolt, breechblock, or any combination thereof. NOTE: "fixed ammunition" is ammunition in which the projectile is permanently attached to a case that contains the primer and the propellant in distinction from separate-loading ammunition.

See 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(3), (a)(16). Thus, a muzzle loading weapon that meets the definition of an "antique firearm" is not a firearm and may lawfully be received and possessed by a prohibited person under the GCA.

However, a prohibited person may not receive or possess black powder firearms that can be readily converted to fire fixed ammunition by replacing the barrel, bolt, breechblock, or any combination thereof. ATF has classified certain muzzle loading models as firearms. All of these models incorporate the frame or receiver of a firearm that is capable of accepting barrels designed to fire conventional rimfire or centerfire fixed ammunition. These muzzle loading models do not meet the definition of "antique firearm" as that term is defined in 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(16), and are "firearms" as defined in 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(3). Furthermore, as firearms, these and similar models, regardless of the barrel installed on the firearm or provided with the firearm, are subject to all provisions of the GCA. Persons who purchase these firearms from licensed dealers are required to fill out a Firearms Transaction Record, ATF Form 4473, and are subject to a National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) check. Felons and other prohibited persons may not lawfully receive or possess these firearms or their ammunition.

Ok, a felon can possess only an "antique firearm." But can it be made operational (i.e., loaded)?

The GCA defines the term "ammunition"” to mean "ammunition or cartridge cases, primers, bullets, or propellant powder designed for use in any firearm." Because an "antique firearm" is not a "firearm" under federal law, it would is lawful for a prohibited person to receive or possess black powder designed for use in an "antique firearm." Also, the Federal explosives laws do not make it unlawful for a prohibited person to acquire and possess black powder in quantities not exceeding fifty pounds if it is intended to be used solely for sporting, recreational, or cultural purposes in "antique firearms." See 18 U.S.C. § 845(a)(5).

Finally, even though a prohibited person may lawfully possess an antique firearm under Federal law, State or local law may classify such weapons as "firearms" subject to regulation.

Next We Look at Massachusetts State Law

Massachusetts gun law is convoluted. Do not rely on the advice or lore of others. Gun penalties are steep. Seek answers, and help, from an experienced gun law attorney.

The starting point for answering this question is with the statutory definitions. General Laws ch. 140, § 121 provides:

  • The provisions of sections 122 to 129D, inclusive, and sections 131, 131A, 131B and 131E shall not apply to:
    • (A) any firearm, rifle or shotgun manufactured in or prior to the year 1899;
    • (B) any replica of any firearm, rifle or shotgun described in clause (A) if such replica:
      • (i) is not designed or redesigned for using rimfire or conventional centerfire fixed ammunition; or,
      • (ii) uses rimfire or conventional centerfire fixed ammunition which is no longer manufactured in the United States and which is not readily available in the ordinary channels of commercial trade; or,
    • (C) manufacturers or wholesalers of firearms, rifles, shotguns or machine guns.

Therefore, no gun license is required to purchase such an "antique firearm" because G. L. c. 140, § 131E does not apply.

But Massachusetts Gun Law Conflicts With Federal Firearm Law

As I said at the start, gun law is complex. It also requires exacting precision.

The defining manufacture date under federal law is 1898. But under Massachusetts law, it is 1899. Therefore, a felon who possessing an gun manufactured in 1899 will comply with Massachusetts law but violate federal law.

As for Ammunition--NO

Effective August 13, 2014, felons became disqualified from holding a Massachusetts gun license. See 2014 Mass. Acts 284, modifying G. L. c. 140, § 129B(1)(i-ii). Why?

One would think that ammunition for the "antique firearm" could be purchased because G. L. c. 140, § 131E does not apply, but that is wrong. Under G. L. c. 140, § 121, "ammunition" is defined broadly: "cartridges or cartridge cases, primers (igniter), bullets or propellant powder designed for use in any firearm, rifle or shotgun, [and] tear gas cartridges.". A Massachusetts gun license is required to purchase "ammunition." Therefore, a felon cannot possess the materials necessary to load an "antique firearm".