GUN POSSESSION

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PHILADELPHIA GUN CHARGE DEFENSE

Gun laws are a hot topic in politics today and the matter is affecting gun owners around the country. Over the years, debates surrounding the meaning, extent, and nature of the Second Amendment have resulted in a plethora of complex federal, state, and local gun control laws that most owners can hardly keep up with. It may seem counterintuitive, but with the dangers posed by certain weapons, you can’t simply borrow or buy a gun from a friend, nor can you take a hunting trip to New York. If you don’t follow the specific federal and state gun regulations applicable to gun owners in Pennsylvania, you may find yourself subject to serious felony charges that may put you in prison and prevent you from ever owning a firearm in the future.

Gun crimes are very serious, and when charged with a violation of the Pennsylvania Uniform Firearms Act (VUFA) there are often mandatory sentences if you are convicted. Our lawyers understand the different charges associated with gun possession and VUFA and are experienced in defending these matters in criminal court in Pennsylvania. If you have been charged with gun possession or a violation of the uniform firearms act, contact a lawyer from the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania criminal defense office of The Zeiger Firm. Our attorneys understand the differences between these crimes and will zealously defend you.

Overview of Pennsylvania Firearms and License Laws

Both the United States Constitution and the Pennsylvania Constitution make it clear that citizens have the right to keep and bear arms. In Pennsylvania, citizens are specifically endowed with the right to keep and bear arms in defense of themselves and the Commonwealth. Accordingly, Pennsylvania is considered a relatively pro-gun state with limited restrictions on gun ownership and possession. Under Pennsylvania law, a firearm is defined by barrel size as any pistol or revolver with a barrel length of less than 15 inches, any shotgun with a barrel length less than 18 inches, any rifle with a barrel length less than 16 inches, or any pistol, revolver, rifle or shotgun with an overall length of less than 26 inches. There are certain means by which the length of the barrel is determined, and if you are cited for having too long of a barrel length, then you should immediately speak with the attorneys at the Zeiger Firm to discuss whether law enforcement was using the proper standards of measurement.

In Pennsylvania, you are permitted to purchase and own a firearm, subject to the exceptions as explained below, without a license provided the firearm does not leave your home or fixed place of business. You may not, however, carry a firearm in a vehicle or concealed on your person without a valid license. If you would not otherwise be eligible for a license and you carry a concealed firearm or transport it in a vehicle, you have committed a felony of the third degree. This is punishable by up to 7 years in prison on its own, not to mention those additional charges that would apply if you used the firearm in the commission of a crime. On the other hand, if you would have been eligible to get a license and simply didn’t do so because you either didn’t have time or were only planning on keeping your firearm at home, this is only considered a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to 5 years in prison. If you have been charged with unlawful possession or transportation of a firearm, the attorneys at the Zeiger Firm can argue that you qualified to carry and, as such, are not subject to felony charges. The following is a list of additional exceptions to the license requirement:

  • Law enforcement officials, including jail wardens and deputies;
  • Members of the armed forces or national guard when on duty;
  • Members of an organization authorized to purchase or receive firearms from the Federal or State government;
  • If you are traveling to or from target practice and the firearm is not loaded;
  • Officers or employees of the United States authorized to carry, i.e., U.S. Marshals or FBI agents;
  • Security guards as long as the firearm is required for the discharge of their duties;
  • Any person who is engaged in the business of manufacturing, repairing, or dealing firearms as a part of his or her usual course of business;
  • If you just bought the firearm and it is not loaded and it is wrapped and you are carrying it back to your home, or you are carrying it for repair, to sell, or the be appraised, or between your home and place of business;
  • If you have a license to hunt or fish and you are actually in the process of doing so;
  • You are training dogs;
  • You have a license to carry in another state;
  • You have an expired license to carry that is less than six months expired and you are eligible to renew;
  • Those lawfully engaged in the transportation of firearms; and
  • Those “otherwise” qualified.

As you can tell, there are an extensive amount of exceptions written into the Pennsylvania code. The police might not be aware of each exception if you are arrested or charged with carrying a firearm without a license, but attorney Brian Zeiger and the attorneys at the Zeiger Firm are well aware of each and every exception that applies to this charge. Accordingly, they will analyze every area of law to see if you qualify under the statutory exceptions, and they may be able to get your charges dropped early in the litigation process before reputations are ruined.

Unauthorized Purchase and Possession of Firearms in Pennsylvania

When it comes to possession of firearms in Pennsylvania, there are a plethora of exceptions available to those who are otherwise lawfully allowed to possess a weapon but have not done the paperwork. However, it is a much more serious crime if you possess, use, manufacture, control, sell, or otherwise transfer a firearm if, no matter the eventual sentence or state in which you were convicted, you were adjudicated guilty of any of the following offenses:

  • Possession of an illegal offensive weapon;
  • Involvement in organized crime or corruption;
  • Possession of a weapon on school grounds;
  • Murder;
  • Voluntary manslaughter;
  • Involuntary manslaughter based on the reckless use of a firearm;
  • Aggravated assault;
  • Stalking;
  • Terrorism-related charges;
  • Kidnapping;
  • Unlawful restraint;
  • Luring a child;
  • Rape;
  • Sexual assault;
  • Arson;
  • Burglary, criminal trespass, robbery, and any theft offense;
  • Intimidation or retaliation against witnesses; and/or
  • Crimes related to minors or weapons offenses.

In the text of the Pennsylvania Uniform Firearms Act, there is a Pennsylvania criminal code section linked to each type of offense, so it is easy to tell whether you’ve been convicted of the specified offense. However, because it is illegal to possess, use, sell, etc., a firearm if you’ve been convicted of an equivalent offense in any of the 50 states, territories, or federally, the convictions may not match up. Accordingly, if you have a conviction in another jurisdiction and you’ve been charged with illegal possession of a weapon with that conviction serving as the base for the arrest, the attorneys at the Zeiger Firm can work to see whether the underlying out-of-state offense actually qualifies under the enumerated Pennsylvania code sections. This is an important potential defense because if a criminal statute is vague or unclear, it is always interpreted in favor of the defendant, not the government. If Attorney Brian Zeiger can raise a question as to whether your past offense qualifies, then this may be enough to get the charges dismissed.

Even if you were not convicted of a qualifying offense, there are still some addition possession prohibitions you should keep in mind. You are not permitted to possess, use, manufacture, control, sell, or otherwise transfer a firearm if you are fugitive from justice, you were convicted of a drug-related offense that was punishable by more than two years in prison, you were convicted of a DUI more than three times in a five-year period, you’ve been adjudicated incompetent or been involuntarily committed, you are not lawfully in the country, you are subject to a protective order for abuse, or you’re a minor and you’ve been adjudicated delinquent under an equivalent adult offense that would qualify as specified above. The exemption in some instances is if you make an application to the court in the county where you live asking for relief. This is possible if the following are true:

  • The conviction has been vacated and all appeals have been exhausted, i.e., there is no chance that the conviction will be reinstated; or
  • The conviction has been the subject of a full pardon; or
  • Each of the following is true: (1) the applicant has been relieved of a federal conviction and (2) it has been ten years since a drug conviction.

If you are making such an application, you must appear for a hearing where the defense attorneys at the Zeiger Firm can advocate for your rights under the United States and Pennsylvania Constitutions.

Pennsylvania Firearm Concealed Carry Permits 

Pennsylvania firearm licensure requirements are designed to ensure that those applying to carry or transport firearms are competent and responsible gun owners. Accordingly, if you are charged with possession a firearm without a license or with an expired license and believe you qualified for a reduction in the charges, you should be sure to review the following requirements for licensure:

  • You must be 21 or older;
  • You must set forth one of the following reasons to carry – self-defense, employment, hunting and fishing, target shooting, gun collecting, or another properly set forth reason. Accordingly, even if you can’t articulate a precise reason for carrying, as long as your explanation is reasonable you may be eligible for a license; and
  • You must affirm that you have never been convicted of a crime that prohibits you from acquiring or possessing a firearm under federal or state law and that you are of sound mind and have never been committed to a mental institution.

If you make a false statement on your concealed carry application, whether intentional or otherwise, then this is a crime subject to penalty. For example, if you have some juvenile convictions that were expunged, you may not think you have to admit to having been convicted of a crime. However, if the Sheriff’s department in Philadelphia conducts an investigation and sees the conviction, it may mean criminal penalties for you. For this reason, if you have ever been convicted of even a juvenile offense and are applying for a concealed carry license, it is important to contact a Philadelphia criminal defense attorney who can both help you apply for the expungement of your juvenile convictions and review your application for accuracy. They will also be able to advocate on your behalf if you are denied a permit or you are charged with making a false statement on your application.

The Philadelphia Gun Court Program

Philadelphia is a city of the first class in Pennsylvania, and as such, there are actually some gun laws and regulations that are unique to Philadelphia. For example, in Philadelphia, no person is permitted to carry a firearm, rifle or shotgun at any time on public street or on public property unless they have a license or meet one of the above-listed exemptions. This is a bit more stringent of a regulation than those applicable in more rural areas of Pennsylvania, so it is important you are applying the right law when it comes to firearm possession in Philadelphia.

Further, Philadelphia is one of the few cities in the United States that actually experimented with a “Gun Court” in response to the increasing number of weapons offenses committed in the city and those who are charged with illegal weapons possession. The city states that the main focus of the gun court was to educate those charged about gun safety but also provide oversight and immediate responses to those who violate court orders or are repeat offenders. All gun cases that stemmed from an alleged violation of the Uniform Firearms Act (VUFA) were consolidated into one “gun court” docket within the Court of Common Pleas, and although the program has ended, attorneys such as Brian Zeiger who litigated cases before the gun court gained ample experience focusing on a docket that dealt only with firearms offenses in Pennsylvania. In fact, when Philadelphia established “Gun Court” in 2005, our lawyers were among the first to try cases in that pilot program. Indeed, our firm consulted on the very first Gun Court jury trial, and we were lead counsel on the second Gun Court jury trial.

Federal Firearm Violations

While all cases involving firearms violations are serious, if you are charged with a federal firearms offense this is among one of the most serious federal charges because the government will often try and link you to organized crime, terrorism, and gun trafficking. In the first place, federal law defines a “firearm” in a much broader sense than in Pennsylvania. In the federal system, a “firearm” is defined as “any weapon (including a starter gun) which will or is designed to or may readily be converted to expel a projectile by the action of an explosive.” The definition also includes frames, receivers, mufflers, silencers, or any other “destructive device” and further includes disassembled, dismantled, or altered firearms even if they were inoperable when the “offense” was committed. If the weapon could be “readily converted” to cause harm, then it counts as a firearm under federal law.

The only thing specifically excluded is an “antique firearm,” which is defined as a firearm manufactured before 1898 that does not have the same ignition capabilities of guns today. Accordingly, the first thing attorney Brian Zeiger will look to do if you have been charged with a federal firearms offense in Pennsylvania is argue that your weapon did not qualify as a firearm under the act, which would necessarily prevent the U.S. Attorney for maintaining the charges. Your attorney could argue that the weapon was not one that could be easily converted or that it was an antique.

It is not illegal to possess a firearm (other than certain firearms such as sawed-off shotguns) per se, but it is illegal under federal law to possess any firearm or ammunition that has traveled in interstate commerce if you are a(n):

  • Felon;
  • Fugitive;
  • Convicted user or addicted to a controlled substance;
  • You’ve been adjudicated mentally “defective” or you’ve been involuntarily committed to a mental institution;
  • Illegal alien;
  • You’ve been dishonorably discharged from the armed forces;
  • You are subject to a protective order; or
  • You’ve been convicted of a domestic violence offense, even if only a misdemeanor charge.

As you can see, there are some categories of illegal ownership under federal law that are not present under Pennsylvania law. For example, being dishonorably discharged from the armed forces that is not an automatic disqualification from ownership in Pennsylvania as it is federally. You may have been confused, therefore, if charges against you were filed in one of these categories. In this case, the attorney at the Zeiger Firm will try to argue that the firearm or ammunition, typically including all pieces, did not travel in interstate commerce (meaning over state lines). If the prosecutor is unable to present evidence sufficient to show that the pieces of the firearm at some point in time traveled over state lines, then the federal courts do not have jurisdiction over the crime and the charges must be dismissed.

Federal “Felon in Possession” Charges & Travel

Pennsylvania is a unique state in that it does not adhere to typical categories of “felonies” and “misdemeanors” as they are defined in most states. Traditionally, a felony is a crime that is punishable by more than one year in prison, even if you are sentenced to less than that. A “misdemeanor” is a crime that is punishable by less than a year in prison. However, you will notice that in Pennsylvania a first-degree misdemeanor is punishable by up to five years in prison, which falls within the traditional “felony” category in federal court. According, if you’ve been convicted of any crime in Pennsylvania not labeled a “felony” but punishable by more than a year in prison on its own, i.e., anything other than a summary offense, you are considered a felon under federal law and would be prohibited from possessing a firearm that traveled in interstate commerce. Federal courts do not adhere to the labels placed on state-based crimes but rather define the offense based on traditional standards as articulated in case law. If you were confused by the federal terms and prohibitions on firearm ownership such that you have been charged as a felon in possession even though you’ve never had more than a misdemeanor conviction, contact the attorneys at the Zeiger Firm immediately. They may be able to review the case law and argue that you do not qualify as a felon under federal or state law.

Along these same lines, it should be noted that although Pennsylvania offers reciprocity to those with a concealed carry permit from another state, not all states do the same, notably New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and Delaware. Accordingly, just because you have a license to carry in Pennsylvania does not mean you can drive over the border to hunt in New York. Further, just because you are traveling to Virginia, which does give reciprocity, does not mean you can have your weapon in the car as you drive through Maryland, which does not. You would actually have to travel through West Virginia in order to go to a Virginia gun show. There are many gun possession charges that arise both federally and in other states based on a misunderstanding that just because certain possession and use of firearms are permitted in Pennsylvania does not mean it is permitted in other states.

This is a very confusing area of law, so if you are preparing to travel out-of-state with your firearms, even your antique ones, it is absolutely necessary to contact a Pennsylvania attorney who can advise you as to the steps you need to take in order to protect yourself from potential firearm charges. Even if you legally possess your firearms and try to do everything correctly, because firearm charges are typically always felony convictions, even one misstep can cause you to lose the right to both possess and carry your firearms in Pennsylvania. It is important in these cases to contact a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania firearms defense attorney early in the proceedings if you’ve been arrested and/or charged with a firearms offense. Attorney Brian Zeiger may be able to get the charges dismissed or reduced to a crime punishable by less than one year in prison so as to prevent those felony charges from taking away something that you are passionate about and depriving you of your rights under the United States and Pennsylvania Constitutions.

Contact a Philadelphia Criminal and Gun Defense Attorney Immediately

Because gun crimes are very serious, it is important to hire an attorney as soon as possible. The Philadelphia, Pennsylvania criminal defense lawyers at The Zeiger Firm understand the State and Federal laws, rules, and procedures that apply when clients are charged with gun and other crimes. We advocate zealously, never forgetting that our most important goal is obtaining the best results for our clients, whether that means fighting procedural battles or representing our clients before a judge or jury. We work hard for our clients, explaining their options and keeping them updated on the status of their cases.

When you need a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney to defend you against a gun-related charge, contact The Zeiger Firm, who represent every client zealously in order to obtain the best results possible in each case.  They have experience litigating firearms cases in federal court and state court, as well as specialized experience working with the Philadelphia gun dockets as related to Philadelphia specific charges. To arrange a consultation, please give us a call at 215-546-0340 or send us an email via the form to the left.

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