Author: Mike Wood
With the start of a New Year, many states often usher in new restrictions on the sale, purchase, transfer, ownership and use of firearms and ammunition. Many of these restrictions will have an effect on law enforcement officers, so it’s worth a moment to discuss some of them.
Citizens in California, Florida and Vermont will now be subject to additional restrictions that prohibit the purchase of firearms by adults under 21 years of age. Previously, young adults in these states could purchase long guns after age 18, but new laws will now prohibit them from making these purchases.
Additionally, young adults under 21 years of age in Washington State will be prohibited from purchasing semiautomatic rifles – including rimfire rifles – and generally may not possess them in public. While some states provide exemptions for law enforcement officers under 21 years of age, it’s not yet clear if the exemptions apply to firearms purchased or possessed for personal use, instead of duty use.
Background checks and waiting periods
Citizens in Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, Oregon, Tennessee, Vermont and Washington will see changes to background check requirements in their states. Florida residents purchasing long guns will now have to abide by the existing three-day waiting period for handguns, and Illinois residents will have to wait three days to get their long guns as well. Residents of Washington will have to undergo a new 10-day waiting period after purchasing a semiautomatic rifle.
Bump stocks and trigger activators
Citizens in California, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Maryland, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Washington will face new restrictions on the purchase, ownership or use of bump stocks and trigger activating devices. It’s important to note that some of these laws are drafted in a way that their language could be interpreted to place restrictions on commonly used aftermarket replacement triggers, like those that are frequently installed as upgrades to stock factory units. A federal ban on similar devices has been announced, but has yet to be published in the federal register as of the date of publication of this article.
Citizens in Washington will be subject to new laws that impose penalties on people who store their guns in a way that they remain accessible to prohibited persons. Officers with children at home who are not yet 21 years of age should be particularly concerned about the impact of this new law on their storage practices, since young adults are now considered “prohibited persons” in respect to semiautomatic rifles.
In California, certain provisions of the new ammunition laws will come into effect in 2019. The import or purchase of ammunition across state lines – such as internet sales, or purchasing ammo out of state and driving it back to California – without a license is already prohibited, and all ammunition sales must be processed through a registered dealer. But in June 2019, the background check requirement for ammunition sales will become active. This has the potential to effect law enforcement officers who want to purchase ammunition for training and practice, and will have a dramatic effect on the supply and demand of ammunition in the state, which will influence price and availability for agencies wishing to place orders.
Residents of New Jersey and Vermont will be subject to new laws that limit magazine capacity. In New Jersey, the new limit will be 10 rounds, and in Vermont, the new limit will be 10 rounds for a long gun and 15 rounds for a handgun. The New Jersey law is troubling because there is no grandfather provision for citizens who lawfully owned these magazines prior to the effective date of the legislation. After December 10, 2018, any New Jersey resident in possession of a magazine capable of holding more than 10 rounds is guilty of a fourth-degree felony. It’s important for officers to understand that the New Jersey law doesn’t currently provide an exemption for police officers. As of January 2019, the New Jersey legislature is working on language that would amend the law to allow officers to carry magazines that hold up to 17 rounds (for their duty weapon only, not for personal-use firearms), but to date these changes have not passed both houses of the state legislature and have not been signed into law.
Exemptions for officers
Some of these new laws have specific exemptions for law enforcement officers, but others (like the New Jersey magazine capacity limit) do not. In the case where law enforcement exemptions are provided, it’s not always clear whether or not these exemptions apply strictly to firearms and ammunition that are used for duty, or if they also extend to firearms and ammunition that are privately-owned and/or kept for personal use. Officers in the affected states will want to fully understand the details of these exemptions before they make assumptions that could get them in legal trouble.
What about your family?
Even if it’s determined that a law enforcement exemption applies to the personal property of the individual officer, there is no provision to extend that exemption to the officer’s family. A spouse, child, parent or other relative will be subject to the same restrictions as any other citizen of the state, which may create a problem for officers wishing to gift or transfer a firearm or ammunition, or allow access to them to family members that have suddenly become “prohibited persons” in the eyes of the law.
I don’t live there. Who cares?
Some of these laws have the potential to effect officers all over the United States because they apply to officers who want to carry their firearms under the guise of the Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act (LEOSA), often referred to as “H.R. 218.” For example, Vermont House Bill 25 placed K-12 school buildings off limits to armed persons who are not law enforcement officers engaged in law enforcement duties. This would place these areas off limits to a retired or off-duty officer carrying under the terms of LEOSA. Additionally, the magazine capacity restrictions present in some states might arguably be applied to officers carrying under LEOSA, because the federal law doesn’t provide a specific exemption to these restrictions.
More important, once these laws take hold in some states, they may spread to other states not currently affected by them. You may not live in a state with these restrictions right now, but these ideas could be introduced in your legislature.
A unique LEOSA challenge
An additional concern for officers is the apparent rejection of federal law by states who have declared that the provisions of LEOSA don’t apply within their borders.
The Hawaii Attorney General, for example, has published guidance that rejects the idea that off duty or retired law enforcement officers are covered by the terms of the federal law. Instead, Hawaii holds that officers in Hawaii who are not on official duty with their agency “are not considered a ‘law enforcement officer’ in the State of Hawaii,” and the state’s laws will be applied “as if they were civilians.” This, of course, is the very situation that LEOSA was signed into law to eliminate.
In practical terms, the Hawaii guidelines mean that off-duty or retired officers will be required to comply with registration requirements, pay registration fees ($43.25, as of January 1, 2019), comply with a 10-round magazine capacity limitation, and comply with restrictions on the type of ammunition that may be carried, to include a ban on ammunition that is designed to “segment” – a vague term that could be construed to apply to many types of commonly carried duty and defensive ammunition.
The constitutionality of such a move by the state of Hawaii is certainly suspect, but while the legal battle is waged, officers should be aware that they may be subject to legal jeopardy and may unwittingly become pawns in a political chess game if they don’t comply with the Hawaii guidelines.
Not over yet
Many of these laws have been challenged in the courts, and others will see challenges in the near future. While some may be declared unconstitutional, they are still the law in their respective jurisdictions until they are stricken or enjoined by the courts.
Most of us have strong opinions about the constitutionality and effectiveness of these laws, but the reality is that officers are required to comply with these laws until they are voided by the courts. If you disagree with the laws, use the power of your voice and your vote to correct the situation for you, your family and your community.
In the meantime, make sure you stay educated on the status of gun laws in the areas where you live and travel with firearms. It’s important – for your sake, as well as the profession’s reputation – to ensure you don’t run afoul of these laws.
God bless you all and be safe out there.