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Q&A: Gun terms, laws

Posted December 21, 2012
Updated September 30, 2013

— The school shooting in Newtown, Conn. has sparked an intense debate and prompted a lot of questions on WRAL.com. This Q&A attempts to define some terms and answer some of the most basic questions we've received, using references from the N.C. Department of Justice, U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and other expert sources. 

In general, federal firearms law set a baseline for backround checks and other gun ownership requirements. State laws sets additional rules. Local city and county ordinances can also shape where and when someone may carry and use a gun.

Editor's Note (9/30/2013): Lawmakers passed a bill making updates to state firearms laws in 2013 after this post was first published. It has been updated to reflect that new law with changes appearing in bold.

Here are the questions this story tries to answer:  

Select a question to jump to the answer

What are the different types of guns? 

As the lengthy correction on this Slate magazine piece indicates, even defining terms when talking about firearms can be a fraught topic. However, there are some basic terms that are helpful to know in any conversation about guns.

Automatic: This refers to any weapon that is designed to "feed cartridges, fire them, eject their empty cases and repeat this cycle as long as the trigger is depressed and cartridges remain in the feed system." In other words, the weapon will fire until it is out of ammunition as long as the trigger is pulled.  As the L.A. Times noted this summer, "Fully automatic weapons – guns that fire continuously when the trigger is held down – are legal to possess in the United States but are tightly regulated." Purchasing such a fully automatic weapon requires going through a criminal background check, paying a $200 tax and taking other steps.

Gun q&a Gun laws, rights explained

A quick reading of federal firearms laws would seem to allow for the terms "automatic" and "machine gun" to be used interchangeably. The federal definition of "machine gun" is "any weapon which shoots, is designed to shoot, or can be readily restored to shoot, automatically more than one shot, without manual reloading, by a single function of the trigger." But gun experts differ. The National Rifle Association's Institute for Legislative Action offers a glossary of firearm terms that defines a machine gun as a "firearm of military significance, often crew-served, that on trigger depression automatically feeds and fires cartridges of rifle size or greater." According to that definition, machine guns are larger military weapons while automatic weapons are a category of weapons that includes "machine guns, submachine guns, selective-fire rifles, including true assault rifles."

Semiautomatic: Semiautomatic weapons fire one bullet each time their trigger is pulled. Most modern handguns and many long rifles are semiautomatic. How quickly a semiautomatic weapon can fire depends on the design of the weapon and how fast the user can pull the trigger. But it would not be unreasonable to expect an experience shooter to be able to empty a 17 round magazine from a modern semiautomatic handgun in fewer than 10 seconds.

Bolt action, lever action, etc...: Weapons that are not either automatic or semiautomatic require the shooter to take some action other than pressing the trigger each time a shot is fired. For example, a bolt action rifle requires a shoot to lift, pull back, and then close a mechanism before another round of ammunition can be loaded and the trigger pulled a second time. 

Other terms describe how a gun is designed to operate and the type of ammunition it typically fires. For example, federal law defines a rifle as "a weapon designed or redesigned, made or remade, and intended to be fired from the shoulder and designed or redesigned and made or remade to use the energy of the explosive in a fixed cartridge to fire only a single projectile through a rifled bore for each single pull of the trigger."

In more general use, a rifle is a long gun – one you would typically need two hands to fire and is generally rested on the shoulder – with "rifling" or spiral groves carved the length of the barrel. Those groves spin the bullet as it travels through the gun and help improve accuracy. But contrast, shotguns have smooth barrels. They are designed to fire shells, which contain a number of small projectiles – typically small metal balls – although there is ammunition made for shotguns that fire a single large slug or ball.   

Handguns: A handgun is synonymous with pistol according to the NRA. Generally, these are firearms designed to be fired in one hand. As the NRA notes, a handgun "may be of the single-shot, multi-barrel, repeating or semiautomatic variety and includes revolvers."

For a broader overview of gun terms, the Poynter Institute wrote this outline after the shootings at a Colorado movie theater earlier this year. 

What is an "assault rifle" and what was the assault weapons ban? Does it still apply? 

The terms "assault weapon" or "assault rifle" are some of the most contentious in the debates over gun control laws. 

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence defines an "assault weapon" by saying, "While semiautomatic hunting rifles are designed to be fired from the shoulder and depend upon the accuracy of a precisely aimed projectile to kill an animal, semiautomatic assault weapons are designed to kill as many people quickly, as would be needed in combat." Under the Brady Campaign's definition, assault weapons are defined by certain features such as, "high-capacity ammunition magazines, pistol grips, folding stocks, and bayonets, which are not found on sporting guns, are designed specifically to facilitate the killing of human beings in battle."

The NRA takes a different view, defining an "assault rifle" as it is by the U.S. Army, describing "a selective-fire rifle chambered for a cartridge of intermediate power. If applied to any semiautomatic firearm regardless of its cosmetic similarity to a true assault rifle, the term is incorrect." The NRA dismisses the term "assault weapon" as "any weapon used in an assault (see WEAPON)."

North Carolina law doesn't define "assault rifle" or "assault weapon," even though it is still used in some federal literature. 

Practically speaking, the federal government tried to outlaw "assault weapons," those that serve no purpose other than killing people, in 1994. According to the ATF, the semiautomatic assault weapon ban "made it unlawful to manufacture, transfer, or possess SAWs. The law defined SAWs as 19 named firearms, as well as semiautomatic rifles, pistols, and shotguns that have certain named features." The ban also made it illegal to sell ammunition magazines that allowed a gun to accept more than 10 rounds of ammunition at a time. 

The federal assault weapon ban expired on Sept. 13, 2004. Even when it was in effect, the ban "imperfect" and there were many exceptions, but President Barack Obama has proposed reviving something similar in response to the shootings in Newtown, Conn. 

In general, it is more precise to talk about a semiautomatic or automatic weapon than an "assault rife." 

Do all guns need to be registered? What guns are illegal to own?

According to the ATF, "There is no federal registration requirement for most conventional sporting firearms. Only those firearms subject to the National Firearms Act (NFA) (e.g., machineguns, short-barrel firearms, silencers, destructive devices, any other weapons) must be registered with ATF."

In North Carolina, there is no statewide registration requirement for most weapons other than someone who purchases a pistol must obtain a pistol permit from the sheriff of the county in which he or she resides. There has been a local act that requires gun owners in Durham to register their weapons at the courthouse, but it is unclear how strictly that law is enforced or if law enforcement ever use the information gathered through the procedure. State Sen. Mike Woodard, D-Durham, offered a bill in 2013 to eliminate this requirement. It has passed the Senate but not the House.

There are also statewide registration requirements for certain "machine guns" that are owned for the protection of businesses or as trophies of war.  

North Carolina law also bans rifles with a barrel length of less than 16 inches or an overall length of less than 26 inches, shotguns with a barrel length of less than 18 inches or an overall length of 26 inches, mufflers and silencers for any firearm, as well as the parts necessary to convert a semiautomatic weapon to a fully automatic weapon. (There are federal permits -- technically tax stamps -- that allow gun owners to posses such weapons and accouterments, but they are cumbersome to apply for and expensive -- $200 -- to obtain.) 

Who can own a gun? Who can't? 

Gun sales and ownership are governed by a mix of state and federal laws. Groups including the NRA and Brady Campaign have compiled compendia of state laws. 

In North Carolina, the N.C. Department of Justice publishes a manual of North Carolina Firearms Laws, which was last updated in 2011. It is currently being updated to reflect the effects of recent court decisions and changes to state laws.

According to the North Carolina Firearms Law manual, the following are ineligible to receive or possess a firearm under federal law:

  • Persons under indictment of information in any court for a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year.
  • Persons convicted in any court of a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year. (A person is not ineligible if they have been pardoned for the crime or have had their civil rights restored.)
  • The person is a fugitive from justice.
  • The person is an unlawful user of, or addicted to, marijuana, any depressant, stimulant or narcotic drug, or any other controlled substance.
  • The person has been adjudicated mentally defective or has been committed to a mental institution.
  • The person has been discharged from the U.S. armed forces under dishonorable conditions.
  • The person is illegally in the United States.
  • The person has renounced his or her citizenship. 

The ATF provides additional descriptions of who is restricted from buying firearms under federal law here, although the list is quite similar to the North Carolina list. 

In addition, North Carolina sheriffs are not allowed to issue pistol purchase permits to any applicant subject to certain kinds of domestic violence restraining order. Specifically, judges would have to have found the person subject to the order posses a danger to another individual. Those subject to such orders are required to surrender any permits and weapons they have to the local sheriff's department until the order is lifted.  

There are special rules for gun ownership and possession for those under 21-years-old.

Federally licensed firearm dealers are allowed to sell handguns, rifles and shotguns to people 21-years-old or older. Federally licensed dealers may sell rifles and shotguns – but not handguns –to those aged 18, 19 or 20 and are not allowed to sell to those under age 18.  

North Carolina law goes further in some respects. Starting Oct. 1, 2013, GS 14-316 reads, "It shall be unlawful for any person to knowingly permit a child under the age of 12 years to have access to or possession, custody or use in any manner whatever, any gun, pistol or other dangerous firearm, whether such weapon be loaded or unloaded,unless the person has the permission of the child's parent or guardian, and the child is under the supervision of an adult." Previously, only parents or guardians were permitted to oversee children under age 12 who were using firearms. 

State law further says that anyone under 18-years-old should only be allowed posses a handgun under certain situations, generally under adult supervision. However, children aged 12 through 17 are allowed to own and possess a rifle or a shotgun if it is given to them as a gift or sold to them by someone who is not a federally licensed firearms dealer. 

What kind of permit do I need to buy or own a gun? 

Federal law requires federally licensed firearm dealers to check the National Instant Criminal Background Check System when selling a firearm. According to the FBI, "NICS is used by Federal Firearms Licensees (FFLs) to instantly determine whether a prospective buyer is eligible to buy firearms or explosives. Before ringing up the sale, cashiers call in a check to the FBI or to other designated agencies to ensure that each customer does not have a criminal record or isn’t otherwise ineligible to make a purchase."

North Carolina state law ads on some additional rules.

According to the North Carolina Firearm Laws manual, "it is unlawful for any person, firm, or corporation to sell, give away, transfer, purchase, or receive, at any place in the state, any pistol, unless the purchaser or receiver has first obtained a license or permit to receive such a pistol by the sheriff of the county where the purchaser or receiver resides....This requirement to obtain a permit prior to the transfer of a pistol applies not only to a commercial transaction typically at a sporting goods store but also between private individuals or companies throughout North Carolina."

People who want a pistol purchase permit must apply to their sheriff's department, which will do a background check that includes a search of the NICS registry. A concealed handgun permit (see below) may stand in for a pistol purchase permit. Law enforcement officers may also buy a handgun without a pistol purchase permit.

Someone who has been issued either a pistol purchase permit or a concealed handgun permit does not have to be checked against NICS in order to buy a handgun, shotgun, or rifle.

As part of 2013 firearms bill, lawmakers created more rules for how and when sheriffs issue pistol purchase permits. Those rules are designed to standardize the process statewide and make it less likely that sheriffs in different counties will have different standards for when they'll be willing to issue a pistol purchase permit. 

What is the gun show exemption or loophole? 

This is another place where advocates for more gun control laws and gun rights groups spar over the language involved as well as the laws in question. In general, this phrase is used to describe the difference between sales by license firearm dealers and sales by private individuals. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported in December, "Anyone buying a gun from a licensed dealer at a gun show – such as those often held in Fort Worth – must go through a background check. But more than two dozen states, including Texas, allow private weapon sales at gun shows with no background checks."

The ATF devotes a lengthy Q+A to the topic of gun sales by unlicensed individuals. From that ATF summary: 


"A person may sell a firearm to an unlicensed resident of his State, if he does not know or have reasonable cause to believe the person is prohibited from receiving or possessing firearms under Federal law. A person may loan or rent a firearm to a resident of any State for temporary use for lawful sporting purposes, if he does not know or have reasonable cause to believe the person is prohibited from receiving or possessing firearms under Federal law. A person may sell or transfer a firearm to a licensee in any State. However, a firearm other than a curio or relic may not be transferred interstate to a licensed collector."


In North Carolina, the combination of the state pistol permit law and federal rules governing private sales mean that residents may legally buy a rifle or a shotgun at a gun show or in another private venue from non-licensed dealer without a background check.

But regardless of the venue or license status of the seller, North Carolina residents must obtain a pistol purchase permit or concealed handgun permit before acquiring a handgun. 

Is there any limit on how many guns you can own? 

According to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence "Federal law does not limit the number of guns a person can buy in any given time period."

North Carolina law doesn't restrict the number of guns a resident can purchase during a certain time period. According to the 2012 North Carolina Firearms Laws manual, "most sheriff departments will limit the number of permits that one applicant may receive. Typically, it is not uncommon for a sheriff's department to limit an applicant to a maximum of five such permits in one year." 

That five-permit-per-year limit has been eleminated by the 2013 firearms bill. That measure reads in part that "There shall be no limit as to the number or frequency of permit applications and no other costs or fees other than provided in this subsection shall be charged for the permit, including, but not limited to, any costs for investigation, processing, or medical background checks by the sheriff or others providing records to the sheriff."

Are there certain types of ammunition that are illegal to own or that you need a permit for? Is there a limit to how much ammunition you can have? 

In general, federal law restricts the sale of "armor piercing ammunition," although there are exceptions to this prohibition. North Carolina state law prohibits the sale, manufacture and purchase of "teflon-coated bullets," which are designed to defeat bullet proof vests. There is no state or federal limitation on the amount of ammunition that an individual can buy. 

Where can I have a gun and where can't I? 

The 2012 North Carolina Firearms Laws manual goes into detail about where guns are prohibited. A general list that applies to those who do not hold a concealed handgun permit (see below) includes:

  • Schools.
  • Any place alcoholic beverages are sold and consumed. (You are allowed to carry into a convenience store, but not a bar.) 
  • Certain state buildings, such as the legislative building or court houses.
  • Events occurring in public places such as a parade or funeral procession.
  • Events where "a fee has been charged for admission" such as a movie theater. 

In March, a federal judge struck down North Carolina's prohibition on carrying firearms during a state of emergency.

Local governments also have some power to regulate where and when gun owners can carry their weapons. There was a controversy over this power because of a 2011 law that expanded the areas where concealed handgun permit holders could bring their guns. As UNC School of Government Professor Jeff Welty explains on his law blog

So generally, the statute says that municipalities can’t regulate concealed carry – only the state can do that. But the statute provides a limited exception, formerly encompassing municipal “buildings, their appurtenant premises, and parks,” but now limited to municipal “buildings, their appurtenant premises” and certain “recreational facilities.”

The 2013 firearms bills expanded the places where those with concealed handgun may bring their weapons (see below).  

What is a concealed handgun permit? What does it allow me to do? 

North Carolina allows for "open carry" of firearms. That means as long as a weapon is "readily accessible" to an owner without a concealed handgun permit, it must not be covered. It is legal, however, for someone without a special permit to wear a handgun in a holster as long as the gun is not covered by a jacket or something else. Definitions of what constitutes "concealed" are not always spelled out, which presents some legal questions for responsible gun owners. For example, "North Carolina law does not specifically address how to transport a weapon in an automobile," according to the N.C. Firearms Laws manual. Generally speaking, if an owner is transporting a weapon, it either needs to be displayed in the open or locked away. 

The exception to North Carolina's open carry requirements – and similar requirements in other states – comes from state concealed handgun permit law. Under this law, citizens who receive special training, pass a background check and meet other requirements can carry concealed handguns. Roughly 290,000 North Carolina residents hold concealed handgun permits.

Generally, conceal handgun permit holders must abide by prohibitions on carrying firearms in areas where they are prohibited for others. The N.C. Department of Justice provides a chart of where permit holders are and are not allowed to carry. There are some differences. 

For example, the 2013 firearms bill expanded allows concealed handgun permit holders to bring their firearms into most park areas, including playgrounds. Permit holders are still prohibited from carrying guns into athletic venues such as swimming pools and athletic fields. 

The 2013 law also allow concealed handgun permit holders to bring their weapons into bars and restaurants that serve alcohol. But, private property owners – such as bar owners – may post a "notice that carrying a concealed handgun is prohibited." 

The 2013 law also allows concealed handgun permit holders to bring their guns onto college campuses and K-through-12 school campuses, as long as those handguns are in a locked container. Other places the 2013 law allows concealed handgun permit holders to bring their guns include parades and funeral processions, as 

There is no federal conceal handgun law or permit. North Carolina recognized concealed handgun permits issued by any other states. In order to obtain a concealed handgun permit in North Carolina, a resident must:

  • Complete an application, under oath, on a form provided by the sheriff's office.
  • Pay a non-refundable fee of $80
  • Allow the sheriff's office to take two full sets of fingerprints, which may cost up to $10
  • Provide and original certificate of completion of an approved handgun safety course
  • Provide a release authorizing disclosure to the sheriff of any record concerning the applicants mental health or capacity. 

Applicants must be citizens of the United States, at least 21-years-old, have lived in North Carolina for at least 30 days, and meet other requirements. 

Until Oct. 1, 2013, the list of those who had obtained a concealed handgun permit was a matter of public record. The 2013 firearms law removed that information from public view. 

15 Comments

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  • Mike H Oct 1, 1:39 p.m.

    wu: what do you propose the military arm themselves with then? Revolvers?

  • ossiferbob Jan 16, 3:18 p.m.

    http://www.assaultweapon.info/

  • ossiferbob Jan 16, 1:22 p.m.

    Personal safety is your own responsibility. Law enforcement happens after the murder occurs. If you can't "hold the fort" until the police arrive, you will probably be out of luck.

    I want unrestricted access for the law-abiding to the same weapons and ammunition the police would use to save me and my family.

    Let felons and the violently insane jump through the hoops. Add them to the National Instant Check(NICS)database, HIPPA secrecy laws be damned!

    http://www.assaultweapon.info/

    Here is a good link describing the differences and the hype about

    the firearms which "assault" the sensibilities of the anti-gunners.

    you know, those people who feel protected when they carry a

    CELL PHONE!

  • junkmail5 Jan 8, 12:16 p.m.

    I also want to post this poem by Darrell Scott from last week's House Judiciary Committee's subcommittee. - dougroberts

    Scotts statement was from May of 1999... if that was last week to you I'd like to borrow your time machine.

  • saturn5 Jan 8, 9:12 a.m.

    all assault weapons should banned just like cocaine and a 20 year wu: "prison sentence....no need for military equipment I'm surprised the stupid nra aren't trying to make hand gernades legal to go "hunting"!!! ENOUGH IS ENOUGH"

    The weapons they, and you, are talking about are NOT military weapons. They are civilian weapons that look like military weapons - clones. It's like a Ferrari kit car built on a VW. It may look like a Ferrari, but it drives like a VW.

  • LKG-Lover Jan 7, 2:43 p.m.

    WooHoo2You - "Typically the "anti-gun crowd" likes facts and does not pretend that your random Dirty Harry want-to-be is going to save the day in every mass shooting."

    As more anti-gun supporters drive weapons out of our society, they just create more large groups of victims for the crazy insane and mentally challanged to exploit. I realize it is overstated and simplified, but guns don't kill people, people do. I especially want to express my agreement with Doug Roberts comments in support of Darrell Scott and the idea of gun safes. I have numerous firearms and two teenage boys. I would never let them have access to these weapons unlike the mother of the Newtown killer. They are in a safe. I agree it should be a requirement of all gun owners as described by Doug.

  • dougroberts Dec 26, 2:55 p.m.

    I also want to post this poem by Darrell Scott from last week's House Judiciary Committee's subcommittee.

    Your laws ignore our deepest needs,

    Your words are empty air.

    You've stripped away our heritage,

    You've outlawed simple prayer.

    Now gunshots fill our classrooms,

    And precious children die.

    You seek for answers everywhere,

    And ask the question "Why?"

    You regulate restrictive laws,

    Through legislative creed.

    And yet you fail to understand,

    That God is what we need!

    Darrell Scott is the father of Rachel Scott , a victim of the Columbine tragedy.

  • dougroberts Dec 26, 2:50 p.m.

    Assault guns are already strictly controled. They are full auto weapons and you would have to have a Class 3 license to own one. Any gun ban would make no difference .These massacres are happening in gun free zones. Gun free zones must not be without armed law enforcement.I do agree with Mr.Lapierre of the NRA. Our police precincts are geographically located , so are our schools . Lets place our police precincts in our schools , it's just that easy. Also , if gun buyers have minor children in their home , mandatory gun safes are required , or if mentally challenged minors or adults also live in the home ... mandatory gun safes , mandatory secure weapons. Attack the problem at it's source people, don't change the rules that quarantine law abiding citizens. Evil will present itself any way possible. Evil will fabricate feterlizer bombs , fly airplanes into buildings , whatever and whenever.

  • wu Dec 24, 11:35 a.m.

    all assault weapons should banned just like cocaine and a 20 year prison sentence....no need for military equipment I'm surprised the stupid nra aren't trying to make hand gernades legal to go "hunting"!!! ENOUGH IS ENOUGH

  • mep Dec 24, 10:14 a.m.

    The definition of an "assault rifle" is very vague indeed. The writers of the Brady law did so to cover as many weapons as possible. The sad reality is, other than appearing more menacing... most standard hunting and target rifles can AND do perform the exact same thing. Hence in the wrong hands, can kill just as effectively. Bans and more laws are not the solution. Neither would have prevented any of the mass shootings our nation has endured. How about enforcing the 20,000 laws regarding firearms we already have, and begin mandating mental health providers block gun sales by contacting the National Instant Background (NICS) system when a patient shows signs of mental illness.

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