In 1996, Congress passed the Domestic Violence Offender Gun Ban, a bill sponsored by New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg.
Since then, this law has been often referred to as the Lautenberg Amendment in recognition of the senator and his work to pass the bill.
Senator Lautenberg’s amendment to the gun control act can have life-altering consequences pertaining to the firearm rights of individuals convicted of certain domestic violence offenses.
If you have a conviction related to domestic violence on your record or if you’re a gun owner, you must understand how this law works, what its limits are, and the potential consequences of a qualifying conviction.
What is the Lautenberg Amendment?
In 1968, the Gun Control Act prohibited convicted felons from possessing and purchasing firearms.
Built into the law was a loophole called the Public Interest Exception.
In effect, this provision allowed government employees an exemption if their official duties required them to carry a gun.
For military, government, or law enforcement personnel convicted of a felony, their right to carry a gun was preserved, and they could still fulfill their official duties.
In 1994, Congress amended the Gun Control Act, intending to make it illegal for those subject to a protective order for certain types of domestic violence (like stalking or making threats to an intimate partner) to carry or own a gun.
The Public Interest Exception remained in effect, so police officers and similar agents of the state were not affected and could still carry a gun despite a domestic violence charge and conviction.
Finally, the Domestic Violence Offender Gun Ban of 1996 prohibited the possession of a firearm by anyone convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.
There was no exemption for public service officials or those required to carry a firearm.
The bill’s sponsor, Frank Lautenberg, became its namesake.
Who Does the Lautenberg Amendment Affect?
The Lautenberg affects anyone convicted of a misdemeanor domestic violence crime.
It also affects anyone who has a restraining order issued against them for an act of domestic violence, which includes government employees, like military personnel and law enforcement agents.
Is the Lautenberg Amendment Retroactive?
The Lautenberg Amendment does not have a ‘grandfather’ clause that excludes domestic violence offenders convicted before the law’s passage.
It’s retroactive, so anyone convicted of a misdemeanor domestic violence offense is barred from possessing a firearm – even if the domestic violence misdemeanor offense occurred prior to 1996.
How You Can Avoid Lautenberg If You Have Been Convicted
The Lautenberg Amendment is wide-reaching, and since it’s an amendment to existing federal law, you cannot escape its ramifications by relocating from one state to another.
However, there are some options for those who have a misdemeanor domestic violence offense on their record.
With the help of legal counsel, you can petition the court to have your conviction expunged.
But even that doesn’t guarantee the restoration of your rights.
Even with an expungement order, sometimes the judge will not only remove the conviction from your record but explicitly limit your right to possess a gun.
Then you’d need to receive a pardon from your governor or the President of the United States.
So, it’s not always possible to restore your rights when they’ve been restricted under Lautenberg.
In fact, it’s a rarity, and Lautenberg applies, even if you’re a police officer or federal agent required to carry a gun as part of your official duties.
Common Misconceptions About the Lautenberg Amendment
There are misconceptions about the basic application of the Lautenberg Amendment.
Under Lautenberg’s portion of code 18 USC (the gun control act), three specific conditions must all be met for it to apply.
First, the misdemeanor must have applied at the time of conviction.
Felonies knocked down to misdemeanors do not qualify, though individual states do have restrictions in place for those sorts of domestic violence convictions.
Second, you must be convicted of the misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.
So, if you were arrested but not convicted, Lautenberg does not apply.
Or, if you entered into and completed a pre-trial diversion program and avoided conviction, your rights to possess a firearm are unaffected.
Other dispositions vary from state to state and do not fall under the auspices of Lautenberg’s prohibitions.
The third and final condition for Lautenberg to apply is that your misdemeanor conviction fits into the legal language of the amendment itself.
Without satisfying all three criteria, Lautenberg becomes moot and does not apply.
Lautenberg also makes it a crime to sell or transfer a weapon to a person convicted of domestic violence.
Some people don’t understand that prohibition and wrongly believe there is a loophole in the law.
But an FBI background check relies on accurate local and state criminal records, and if those aren’t up to date, a purchase may slip through.
Another common misconception is related to the very name of the amendment.
There is also a law on the books called the Foreign Operations Appropriations Act, and it too has a Lautenberg Amendment.
But, it applies to certain persecuted religious minorities from the former Soviet Union, Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania.
It allowed individuals who were denied refugee status and subsequently permitted entry into the United States on a humanitarian basis to apply for a green card, granting them lawful permanent resident status in the US.
This Lautenberg Amendment is separate from the domestic violence law by the same name and pertains to international religious freedom and the persecution of refugees, not gun rights.
Armed Forces and the Lautenberg Amendment
Military personnel are subject to the Lautenberg Amendment’s restrictions on owning and possessing a firearm.
The individual branches of the military have policies that mirror the language of the Lautenberg Amendment and go a step further to include the laws of the state where a domestic violence crime occurred.
A conviction for a domestic violence crime that meets the requirements for Lautenberg will bar you from serving in the military.
However, if you’re already in the military, a Lautenberg offense will not automatically see you removed from service.
It will, however, eliminate your right to possess a gun.
So, if you’re a Corporal in the Marines, and your job duties require you to carry a firearm, you will be dismissed from the service if convicted of misdemeanor domestic abuse.
But, if you’re a radio officer on board a tank or an aircraft, and your job does not require you to possess a firearm, you may be able to keep your job.
The Lautenberg Amendment and Domestic Violence
The Lautenberg Amendment bars individuals convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence from the transport, shipment, possession, ownership, and use of guns or ammunition.
It goes steps further than previous gun control laws that restricted an individual’s right to a firearm on the basis of a criminal conviction.
Anyone with a qualifying conviction on their record is prohibited from owning a gun under federal law.
Unlike under some previous laws, the Lautenberg act applies equally to all citizens of the US.
So, resettlement to a new state doesn’t restore your firearm rights.
All professions fall under Lautenberg, including border protection agents, transportation security administration workers, secret service officers, and homeland security or military personnel.
Domestic abusers are the target of this gun control law.
And conviction for a domestic violence offense has the potential to restrict your civil rights under the second amendment.
You could be barred from owning, using, or possessing firearms for life.
Understanding the Differences Between Federal State and Local Firearm Possession Laws
State laws regarding firearm possession vary considerably.
For instance, New York has a set of laws called the SAFE Act.
This law is viewed by many as draconian and capricious, while other states are more deferential to the constitution and its second amendment, which enshrines each American’s right to possess a firearm.
Federal law supersedes all state laws.
How To Restore Your Firearm Rights
Once you’ve been convicted of a qualifying domestic violence offense, you have likely surrendered your firearm rights.
With a qualifying conviction of your record, no amount of domestic violence awareness training will see your rights restored.
Even successfully petitioning to have your record expunged may not be enough to do so.
The Lautenberg Amendment: Bottomline
The Lautenberg Amendment’s enforcement has been challenged unsuccessfully in the Supreme Court.
If you’re convicted of a qualifying offense, your firearm rights will be revoked under the federal gun control act.
Accordingly, if you’re accused of any crime or served with any order relating to domestic violence, treat it very seriously.
Anytime you deal with the criminal justice system, you should retain the services of a lawyer who is an expert in that field.
If you’re facing an accusation of a misdemeanor domestic violence offense, you need legal representation from a criminal defense attorney to protect your rights.