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Legally Armed: V20N6

By Teresa G. Ficaretta, Esq. & Johanna Reeves, Esq.

Importing Firearms Into the United States--the Basics

Federal law governing the importation of firearms into the United States is complex, with three applicable statutes: the Gun Control Act of 1968 (GCA), the National Firearms Act (NFA), and the Arms Export Control Act (AECA). This article provides an overview of all three and the process for federal firearms licensees (FFLs) and unlicensed persons to follow to lawfully import a firearm.

I. The Gun Control Act

The GCA was enacted in 1968 to regulate interstate and foreign commerce in firearms and is administered and enforced by the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). The statute’s import provisions apply to firearms, ammunition, and barrels and apply to all importations, whether temporary or permanent. “Importation” is defined in regulations as bringing a firearm into the U.S. (defined as the 50 states, D.C., Puerto Rico, and other possessions of the U.S.). Persons engaged in the business of importing firearms must have a license as an importer under the GCA. Licensed dealers, licensed manufacturers, and licensed collectors may occasionally import firearms without obtaining an importer’s license. Entry of firearms into a Foreign Trade Zone is not an importation.

A. General Prohibitions - and Lots of Exceptions

The GCA generally prohibits the importation of three types of weapons: (1) firearms subject to the NFA; (2) nonsporting firearms; and (3) surplus military firearms. We will discuss NFA firearms and nonsporting firearms later in this article. Surplus military firearms are any firearm which has ever been possessed by a regular or irregular military force.

Like most statutory schemes, the GCA provides exceptions to the general prohibitions. Consequently, the following types of importations are specifically authorized under the statute:

Firearms imported for scientific or research purposes - ATF requires specific information about the type of scientific testing or research that will be conducted. Nonsporting firearms may be imported under this exception.
Curio or Relic firearms - Even if firearms are surplus military firearms, they may be imported if they are curio or relic, but only by a licensed importer. If the firearms...

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