Felony Charge for Mistake on PA Gun Application?

By: Dave Mueller, Criminal Defense Attorney

In Pennsylvania, we are seeing an increasing number of people charged with serious crimes after providing incorrect answers to questions on gun purchase applications. Intentionally providing false information on a firearms application is a felony in Pennsylvania, but unfortunately it is difficult for police to tell the difference between an innocent mistake and deliberate fraud. Even those who make an honest mistake are finding themselves facing serious charges, and even jail time, for nothing more than checking the wrong box on a form. Here are some of the most likely traps for the unaware:

Prior Criminal Convictions

Certain criminal convictions may limit your ability to purchase or possess a firearm. The firearms application forms will ask whether you have ever been convicted of a crime that could have resulted in imprisonment for more than one year (read the instructions: this may not include state misdemeanors that carry less than two years). Note the use of the term could have resulted. Many people incorrectly answer “no” to this question because they have never actually been sentenced to jail time. This can be a big mistake. Pennsylvania courts often sentence people to probation or fines for offenses that could have resulted in long prison sentences. For example, a person who receives probation for a misdemeanor of the first degree could have been sentenced to up to five years for that offense. This person must answer “yes” to this question, even if they have never spent a single day in jail. If you don’t know exactly what is on your record, or are unsure of what sentence your conviction could have resulted in, stop completing the form immediately. Do not check any box on the form until you have consulted with an attorney about the specifics of your prior record and how it relates to that question.

Prior “Commitment to a Mental Health Institution”

The firearms application forms will also ask whether you have ever been “committed to a mental health institution.” Most people assume that this question applies only to long term commitment in a mental hospital. This can also be a big mistake. In Pennsylvania, a “302 commitment” allows a person to be involuntarily taken to a hospital for evaluation for evaluation for up to 72 hours. Many people in this situation are released within hours, are never admitted to a hospital, and never even leave the emergency department. However, the Pennsylvania State Police have long interpreted even such a brief visit to the ER as a “commitment to a mental health institution.” People in Pennsylvania have been charged with felony offenses for answering “no” to this question after a brief visit to the hospital, unaware that the hospital considered it a “302 commitment.”

Prior Juvenile Offenses

If you wish to purchase a handgun in Pennsylvania, the State Police will ask you to fill out a separate application form that asks a lot of questions about criminal convictions and juvenile offenses. Some people with juvenile records mistakenly answer “no” to these questions because they have never been convicted of an adult criminal offense. Not all juvenile offenses will disqualify you from purchasing a firearm, but it is critical to read this form carefully.

Do Not Guess!

If you are attempting to purchase a firearm in Pennsylvania and you do not know the answer to any question with absolute certainty, stop completing the form immediately. Taking your best guess and submitting the form may result in serious felony charges if you get it wrong. Police are often reluctant to accept “I made a mistake” as an answer. If you are at all unsure about how to answer, do not check any box on the form until you have consulted with an attorney about the specifics of your situation and how it relates to the answers that you should provide on that form.

More importantly, if you believe that you are under investigation or facing charges related to a firearms purchase, we can help. It is important that you contact an experienced criminal defense attorney immediately. Making an innocent mistake may be a defense, but you will need a skilled attorney on your side.

Contact us today for a no-charge consultation with an experienced criminal defense attorney.

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