Dealing with Firearms

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Firearms are subject to federal, state, and local regulations, so you need to be careful in how you handle them. In general, however, an executor can usually distribute a typical firearm to any close relative of the decedent, as long as the recipient is not legally prohibited from possessing it.

NFA Firearms

Certain weapons are regulated by the National Firearms Act (NFA), including fully automatic weapons, short-barreled rifles and shotguns, and silencers. These weapons and accessories must be registered with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), and any distributions or sales must be done according to ATF rules.

Gun Registration

A few jurisdictions (such as NY and WDC) require registration for more common types of weapons, although an executor usually has a short period in which to possess and then distribute a firearm without registering the gun himself or herself (in NY, this is 15 days). You should check local rules.

FFL Dealers

Perhaps the legally safest way to transfer or sell a firearm is via a gun dealer with a Federal Firearms License (FFL), who can help you fill out any required forms, hold the gun for you, perform any background checks, and then release the gun into the possession of the recipient when everything is complete (find a local FFL dealer).


DE, DC, and OR require any firearm sale to be done via an FFL dealer. In CA only distributions to siblings or lineal family members (ancestors or descendants) can be done privately.

A number of states allow private sales, but require the seller to perform a background check on a prospective buyer (usually through an FFL dealer), including CA, CO, CT, HI, IL, MA, MD, NJ, NM, NV, NY, PR, RI, VA, VT, and WA. Some states require such a background check only when dealing with handguns: MI, MN, NE, and PA. In many states, however, if the recipient holds certain valid firearm permits, that can substitute for having to do a background check.

Prohibited Persons

Generally speaking, you cannot give a weapon to a person who is legally prohibited from possessing it, such as someone has been sentenced to more than a year in jail, dishonorably discharged from the armed forces, or judged mentally defective (see ATF Prohibitions for a more complete federal list, and note that some states impose additional restrictions, such as restrictions for minors). However, some states, such as NJ (see N.J.S. 2C:58-3j do allow prohibited heirs to take possession of a gun for up to 180 days so they can lawfully sell or otherwise dispose of it.

Heir Responsibilities

Note that some states require the recipient of a firearm to obtain and possess a firearm license, to register the firearm, and/or to take a gun safety course.

See also Gun Laws by State.

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