The tragic Newtown shootings lit a new fire under the controversial issue of gun control, which has since been hotly debated among politicians, coworkers, Facebook friends, and beyond. Some believe that fewer guns and harsher regulations are the answer, while others are relying on more good guys with guns to keep their communities safe. Though all states follow the federal gun laws enforced by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF, state laws can vary greatly, complicating the issues of gun control even more.

If you’re considering a gun for your home or just want to better understand how difficult or easy it is for others to get their hands on weapons, it’s important to understand the gun laws in your state, as well as what’s happening in other states. Take a look at the prohibitions that affect buying, selling, and shooting across the U.S.

Purchasing Laws, Regulations & Reform

The majority of states don’t require a permit to purchase rifles, shotguns, or handguns. Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, and New Jersey require a permit to purchase any type of firearm; another handful of states requires a permit for handguns. Some allow the purchase of only one handgun per permit or license or require a safety exam or training to earn a permit; Hawaii and Massachusetts hold both of these requirements.

Even in states where no permit is required, not just anyone can purchase firearms and ammunition. Federal law makes it illegal for several categories of people to buy a firearm, including those who are under 18 (for handguns), are fugitives from justice, are illegal aliens, or have been convicted of a misdemeanor offense of domestic violence, among several others. Many states have added some of these federally prohibited purchasers and others to their state laws so violators can be prosecuted by the state. Only Vermont has no state law prohibiting certain categories of people from possessing firearms. Some states also have laws for people who can’t buy firearms but can possess them, such as intoxicated people, drug abusers, and juvenile offenders (though they vary by state).

New York has been the first state to take swift gun reform action after the Sandy Hook shooting. Just over a month after the shooting took place, New York had signed into law the New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act of 2013, the NY SAFE Act. It’s the toughest law in the nation on gun control, implementing a stricter definition of assault weapons and banning them immediately. Mental health professionals are required under the law to report patients they have reason to believe are likely to cause harm to themselves or others, and if those patients own a gun, their licenses will be suspended and their guns can be taken away by law enforcement. Kendra’s Law is also being extended until 2017 and strengthened, which means people who meet certain criteria can be ordered to undergo psychiatric treatment for a year or be involuntarily committed for up to 72 hours. Ammunition dealers have to be registered with the state police and must initiate background checks of ammo purchasers and give a record of sales to the police in order to track high-volume ammo purchases.

These strict provisions have received praise from many politicians and citizens who believe gun control is the best solution to our violence problems, but the other side is up in arms about the legislation, which was passed quickly and behind closed doors. New York’s Rifle and Pistol Association has already filled a notice of legal claim against the state to try to get the act repealed. They say it violated the constitutional right to bear arms and that its intention is to “to harass, harm, impede, interfere with, disrupt, interrupt, and/or destroy the present and future business and commercial activities” of gun owners and sellers. The lawsuit will have to be filed within 90 days of Jan. 29, when the notice was filed.

The SAFE Act takes on another aspect of gun-buying that has been addressed in some other states – the so-called “Gun Show Loophole”.Because federal law only requires background checks on firearms sold by licensed dealers, purchases made through private individuals (about 40% of national gun sales) don’t have the same paperwork and safety hoops to jump through. These transactions most often take place at gun shows. New York’s new law will require background checks for all gun transfers between private parties, and five other states require background checks for all sales at gun shows. California and D.C. require all firearms transfers be made through licensed dealers, who are obligated to initiate background checks. These laws are meant to discourage criminals from getting their hands on guns easily, but gun enthusiasts, such as the NRA, find them too aggressive, pointing to studies that say only 0.7% of criminals get guns at gun shows.

The Truth About Background Checks

If you’re planning to sell firearms, whether as a dealer or privately, you of course have to know the gun show laws of your state, but there are many other responsibilities sellers might hold. All federally licensed firearms dealers are required to initiate a background check, while private sellers’ background check requirements vary by state. If a seller has initiated a federal background check and hasn’t heard back within three days, they can proceed with the sale, according to federal law. Some states, though, have longer required waiting periods before a transfer can be completed. Four states and D.C. Have waiting periods for all firearms, regardless of whether a background check is required, ranging from 24 hours to 14 days. Six others have waiting periods for handguns only or handguns and assault weapons. The purpose of these waiting periods is to give more time to complete background checks, if any are required, and to provide a “cooling off” period to prevent impulsive violence. They can be an inconvenience, though, to sellers who have to arrange the transfer and completion of a sale weeks after the original purchase.

With no federal limit on the number of firearms that can be bought at one time, sellers must also be aware of individual state laws on multiple gun purchases. California, Maryland, New Jersey, and D.C. only allow you to sell one firearm to a person in a one-month period.

Licensed dealers may be required to retain gun sales records for a certain length of time and/or report sales to law enforcement. Twenty-two states require sellers to keep records themselves, and 10 retain the records that have been reported to them.

The Self Defense Debate

If you own a gun, you probably know how to shoot it, but there are regulations across the country that define when, where, and why you shoot it. A handful of states want to ensure gun owners know how to safely use their guns, and won’t issue the required permit until firearms safety training or an exam is completed or passed. Massachusetts has this rule for all firearms that require permits; California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Michigan, and Rhode Island enforce this requirement for handguns.

One of the most controversial topics in the last year came after the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida by neighborhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman, in February 2012. Many citizens and especially advocates for gun control were outraged that Zimmerman wasn’t arrested after shooting the unarmed teenager. The Florida law that allowed him to walk away was a Justifiable Use of Force statute, commonly referred to as the Stand Your Ground or Shoot First law. The law says that people can stand their ground and even use deadly force if they reasonably believe it’s necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm, as long as they’re not engaged in unlawful activity and are in a place where they have a right to be. At least 18 states have some form of the Stand Your Ground law, allowing deadly force to be used in self-defense in public places with no duty to retreat. Another similar legal principle, normally just called the Castle Doctrine, allows people to use deadly force in their homes against an intruder if they reasonably fear death or bodily harm. In fact, only six states have no Stand Your Ground law or Castle Doctrine on their books: Arkansas, Iowa, Nebraska, New Mexico, Virginia, and Vermont. These laws create fervent debate among the anti-gun and pro-gun groups. On one hand, people with guns can protect themselves and families against criminals, keeping violent crimes from happening. On the other hand, justifiable homicide could create more gun deaths, even sometimes resulting in the death of an unarmed person where the threat is hard to prove, like in the Trayvon Martin case.

The only thing that can be concluded from the gun control debate is that it’s not going away. There are examples to support both sides of the argument, with statistics showing gun deaths going down in places with stricter laws to support one side, and examples and accounts of shootings that couldn’t have been stopped by gun control to support the other. The most productive changes that are starting to be more seriously considered in the gun control argument are the ones aimed at the root of many of the problems: keeping mentally ill, dangerous citizens from getting guns. New York’s step to extend Kendra’s Law, which forces certain people to seek psychological treatment, and to require the reporting of people mental health professionals suspect of being dangerous, may just be the one direction the nation can agree on.

Chelsea Tompkins

A full version of this research including the statistics and the laws State by State about gun laws is available at: