Federal Firearms Licensing: An Overview

This overview is meant to provide a quick explanation of the federal system and highlight elements of the legal document at hand: the Federal Firearms License.

Federal Firearms License

The Federal Firearms License (FFL) allows individuals to engage in business related to the manufacture of ammuni­tion or firearms or the interstate or intra­state sale of firearms. Holding an FFL to pursue these activities has been a legal requirement in the United States since 1968, with the passage of the Gun Con­trol Act. Prior to the 1968 Gun Control Act, the Federal Firearms Act of 1938 required manufacturers and sellers of firearms or ammunition engaged in sell­ing or buying ammunition or firearms as part of interstate or foreign commerce to have a license. So, the federal sys­tem originated in 1938, but our current system has been in place since 1968. It is administered by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explo­sives (ATF), which is housed within the U.S. Department of Justice.

There are eight different types of Federal Firearms Licenses, though their actual numbers extend from 1–11. All types allow individuals to pursue a range of ammunition and firearms-relat­ed manufacturing and selling activities, and deal with a range of specific prod­ucts. For example, a Type 1 FFL is for gun dealers or gunsmiths “not dealing in destructive devices.” The federal gov­ernment has grouped certain products, such as firearms that require explosives, including cannons and artillery equip­ment, as well as armor-piercing bullets into a class requiring particular types of FFLs—Types 9–11 to be exact. The types in between are for pawnbrokers, curio and relic dealers, and manufactur­ers, dealers, and importers.

The Application

The application for the FFL is exten­sive. There are three documents that must be completed—the Application for Federal Firearms License, a Certifi­cation of Compliance, and a Fingerprint Card.

The Application for Federal Fire­arms License is 18 pages long, but is split into four separate copies, includ­ing two for the ATF, one for the Chief Law Enforcement Officer (CLEO) in your community, and one to be retained by the applicant. (The ATF does notify state and local law authorities of FFL applicants within their jurisdiction through the application document.) All four copies must be completed by the applicant. The forms ask for contact information, business details, answers to a variety of questions, and signatures to verify certain information. Each form also requires applicants to attach a headshot photograph (2" x 2"). If an applicant is seeking licensing for a business, the application must list all owners, co-owners, partners, and other “responsible persons” involved with the business.

The last two documents are short­er, but still complex. The Certification of Compliance is one page, and asks applicants to verify U.S. citizenship sta­tus, and certify that their application is accurate to the best of their knowledge. The Fingerprint Card is two pages, and was developed by the FBI. It asks for fingerprints of all ten fingers, along with height, weight, eye and hair color, sex, race, and place of birth.

Once the application is submitted and received by the ATF, the ATF is mandated under the Gun Control Act of 1968 to act upon it within 60 days. Officials at the ATF’s Federal Firearms Licensing Center (FFLC), in Martins­burg, West Virginia, will review all three documents included in the application, and conduct electronic background checks on all of the individuals listed on the main application. The written application may be followed by a phone call from an ATF agent to the applicant. In all cases, the written application is forwarded to the applicant’s closest ATF office, and an in-person interview is scheduled by an Industry Operations Investigator (IOI). The IOI will discuss all federal and state licensing require­ments with the applicant. Following the interview, the IOI will prepare a report recommending the ATF issue a license or deny the application. If the application is approved, the FFLC will complete processing of the application and issue the applicant a license. All of this happens within 60 days of the ATF’s receipt of the initial application.

Applicants for FFLs must be at least 21 years of age and otherwise not prohibited from owning or handling ammunition or firearms. Application fees range from $30 to $3,000, depend­ing on the type of license sought, and all licenses are valid for three years. The Brady Handgun Violence Preven­tion Act of 1993 effectively changed the licensing system in that it raised appli­cation fees and extended the license period. For example, the Brady legisla­tion raised the cost of a dealer license from $10 per year to $200 for every three years.

Everyone who holds an FFL is also required to follow all firearms licensing laws in their resident states. In addi­tion, all FFL holders are required to keep meticulous inventory and sales records, including using ATF-approved inventory software. Holders are required to maintain records for at least 20 years from the date of generation. If a licensed manufacturer or dealer goes out of business or closes shop, their records are to be shipped to the ATF’s Out-of-Business Records Center for filing. Finally, licensed holders may be asked to supply transaction records to law enforcement officers as requested for investigations.

The License

The FFL is one page, often watermarked with the ATF official seal. The most prominent pieces of information on the page include the license number, expi­ration date, and type of license. Less prominent are other elements on the document, including licensee contact information and ATF contact informa­tion. There are also details about what the license, based on the type, allows the licensee to do. Finally, the license is signed by the licensee.

Applications, Licenses, and the Freedom of Information Act

Because these licenses are federal doc­uments, their applications may be pub­licly requested under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). To do this, the requester makes an FOIA Request. That is simply a written request in which the requestor describes the information wanted, and the format he or she wants it in, in as much detail as possible. Additionally, the ATF maintains a state-by-state listing on its Web site of all FFL holders. As of August 2013, there were 138,186 FFL holders across all states. Within the state-by-state list­ings, one can see license holders, con­tact information, and what type of fed­eral license they hold.

International Commerce

The federal system outlined here gener­ally applies to domestic commerce and manufacturers and sellers of ammunition and firearms. International matters of the same kind are governed by the International Traffic in Arms Regula­tion (ITAR). These rules are adminis­tered by the U.S. Department of State’s Directorate of Defense Trade Controls. Anyone wishing to pursue international commerce must first obtain an FFL, then submit a separate application to the Directorate, and pay an additional application fee ($2,250 in 2013).

Gun Control Act of 1968

The Gun Control Act of 1968 (GCA) was passed by Congress following the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Senator Robert Kennedy, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It was known by this time that the rifle used to assassinate President Kennedy had been a surplus Italian military rifle imported into the United States. As a result, one of the goals of the GCA was to regulate the importation of ammunition and firearms into the United States, in addition to regulating domestic sale and distribution.

The GCA, as amended over the years, continues to be the primary vehicle for the federal regulation of firearms. The GCA’s stated goals are to “keep firearms out of the hands of those not legally entitled to possess them because of age, criminal background or incompetency, and to assist law enforcement authorities in the states and their subdivisions in combating the increasing prevalence of crime in the United States.”



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Insights on Law and Society is edited by Tiffany Middleton. She can be reached at tiffany.middleton@americanbar.org