Updated Guidance about Firearms without Serial Numbers in New Jersey
In June of last year, New Jersey’s lawmakers passed various gun laws that the governor approved in response to the Supreme Court’s expansion of gun ownership rights under the Second Amendment. In anticipation of increased gun ownership, the legislature and governor worked to introduce new restrictions on the purchase and possession of firearms, including a ban on guns without serial numbers, commonly known as “ghost guns.”
The law bans guns without serial numbers issued by an approved manufacturer, a manufacturer licensed by the federal government. The ban covers any firearm without a serial number registered with a “federally licensed manufacturer” imprinted on its frame. In essence, the sweeping ban covers all firearms, whether a rifle, handgun, air gun, antique gun, older gun, imported gun, recreational gun, or bb gun, among others. The law punishes possession of a banned gun as a third degree crime and the purchase, manufacture, distribution, or disposal of an untraceable firearm as a second degree crime.
Important Clarifications in the New AG Directive
On June 29, 2023, the Attorney General’s office clarified concerns about the law in a directive with guidelines for enforcement by prosecutors and law enforcement.
- The first clarification pertained to the requirement of the “knowing” possession of a firearm without a serial number or a serial number issued by a federally licensed manufacturer.
- The second clarification distinguished guns made or able to be made to project an explosive, including mufflers and silencers and any destructive device. The directive specifically ruled out antique firearms, air guns, carbon dioxide, or spring guns as subject to the “ghost gun” ban. In a footnote, the directive clarifies that federally licensed importers qualify as federally licensed manufacturers.
The Overly Broad Law’s Implications
Before the enforcement guidelines in the Attorney General’s office directive, the law effectively banned firearms that many people own for recreation, such as target shooting, or inherited firearms, such as older guns and antiques, among many other firearms. Since the ban applies to all guns without federally sanctioned serial numbers, many gun-bearing New Jersey residents would violate the law just for having a banned gun, which is a third degree crime penalized by three to five years in prison and a potential fine of $15,000.00 for a conviction. And those who transfer, sell, or dispose of one of these guns could go to prison for up to ten years for violating the law, with up to $150,000.00 in fines for a conviction.
Primary Reason Behind the Clarification
The primary reason for the clarification is to narrow the law’s reach and avoid prosecuting innocent owners and those who cannot comply. For example, rifles, shotguns, and handguns purchased before 1968 more likely do not have serial numbers because the federal government did not require them. In addition, imported guns with serial numbers are unlikely to come from manufacturers licensed by the federal government. Thus, all firearms imported from other countries could potentially be illegal just to have.
Given the broad definition of firearms under N.J.S.A. 2C:39-1(f) as any firearm or weapon that fires or ejects a solid projectile or “gas, vapor or other noxious thing” via a cartridge or shell or explosive or flammable ignition, nearly all firearms, no matter how lethal, are subject to the law, without exception. So, BB and Air guns, muzzleloading and black powder firearms, and antique firearms would all be covered under the ban since many of these guns do not have serial numbers; federal firearms manufacturers do not make them or, in the case of antique firearms, licensed firearm dealers did not even exist.
Preventing Prosecution of Lawful Firearm Owners
Critics of the law, such as the Association of Rifle and Pistol Clubs, voiced that finding a federally licensed firearm manufacturer may be difficult at best and impossible at most. Unless the manufacturer is a known U.S. manufacturer, like Smith & Wesson, Remington, or Ruger, the research required to identify an imported or old gun manufacturer may be nearly impossible. Thus, the law placed law-abiding gun owners in jeopardy of a serious criminal conviction. In response to the public’s concerns, the Attorney General’s office’s guidelines, in consideration of the Association’s input, relieved some potential defendants under the law, such as those who did not intend to hold an illegal weapon and those with old, antique, imported, or other firearms excluded by the clarification directive.
While the Attorney General’s directive removed the law’s unintended consequences, gun purchasers in New Jersey must still ensure their firearms have serial numbers from a federally licensed manufacturer to avoid an illegal gun possession charge.
Consequences for Unserialized Firearms in NJ
While an individual may not face criminal charges for unwittingly possessing an illegal weapon under the no serial number gun ban, that does not apply to people who know they have an unlawful weapon due to a missing or defaced serial number on the gun frame. For those with facing charges involving unregistered, untraceable, homemade, “ghost guns,” they may face third degree criminal charges when they have a firearm that they know is illegal.
In the case of possessing a firearm that would be considered a “ghost gun,” the charge is most likely a third degree crime under N.J.S.A. 2C:39-3(n). Otherwise, they may be subject to a second degree criminal charge, depending on whether they purchased, transferred, manufactured, transported, sold instructions for assembling a ghost gun, or disposed of an illegal, untraceable weapon.
If the gun had a serial number at some point, then that may lead to other charges for possessing a defaced firearm. Specifically, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-3d makes it a fourth degree crime to possess a gun with a defaced serial number or other identifying information. A fourth degree criminal conviction results in up to 18 months in prison and a $10,000.00 fine.
Concerns about Your Guns Lacking Serial Numbers in NJ? Contact Us
When you doubt your weapon’s legality under the new “ghost gun” ban or any New Jersey law, contact a gun lawyer at The Tormey Law Firm to ensure that you are protected under the ever-changing state laws. Should you face charges for possession, purchase, transfer, or otherwise disposing of a firearm without a valid serial number in NJ, you certainly benefit from hiring an experienced NJ gun crime defense attorney at our office who can help you successfully defend against any guns or weapons charges that may be filed against you. Contact us today at (201)-614-2474 for a free consultation with a member of our team who knows the recent law changes and developments regarding “ghost guns.”