All states limit the right to purchase, own, or possess weapons to some extent, though restrictions differ widely. States commonly make it a crime to possess specific types of weapons, to possess weapons in specified locations, or to use weapons in a prohibited manner. When juveniles illegally possesses weapons, they can be charged just like an adult would.
Juvenile Justice vs. Criminal Courts
Criminal statutes apply to both adults and juveniles. But when juveniles break one of those laws, their cases may be handled differently than those of an adult. Most of the time, juveniles are sent through the juvenile court system, where the aim is to counsel and support, rather than punish, the offender.
Thus, a state's weapons possessions laws apply to both adults and juveniles, but when a juvenile commits an offense it is usually dealt with through the juvenile justice system and not the adult criminal courts. Adults who commit a weapons possession crime face penalties such as incarceration, probation, or fines, while juvenile courts have the ability to impose a much broader range of penalties in an attempt to rehabilitate a juvenile offender.
State laws make a wide variety of weapons illegal for anyone to possess, though individual state prohibitions differ significantly. Though the possession of firearms is a constitutionally protected right, states typically make it a crime to possess explosives, exploding ammunition, automatic or “switchblade” knives, gas guns, or similar devices. Also, federal law imposes restrictions on possessing certain types of weapons without an appropriate license, such as suppressed or “silenced” firearms, automatic weapons, or short-barreled shotguns.
Many states also prohibit juveniles from possessing weapons that an adult is otherwise allowed to possess. A state's law may, for example, prohibit anyone from under the age of 18 from owning or possessing a firearm. A state may also prohibit younger juveniles from owning or possessing other types of weapons as well. For example, a state may make it illegal for any juvenile under the age of 16 to own a BB gun, air rifle, electronic stun device, or other weapon, while it may allow those between the ages of 16 and 18 to legally do so.
Juvenile weapons laws allow a juvenile to possess weapons in some situations. These laws provide that a juvenile who is under the supervision of a parent or legal guardian can possess a firearm for hunting or marksmanship training purposes. These exceptions also apply to situations where an adult who is supervising the child has permission from the child's parent or guardian to hunt with or train the child in marksmanship.
Possession means both physically carrying a weapon on you and having a weapon in an area that is under your control. For example, a student who has brought a gun to school and who carries it in his pocket is in possession of a weapon. However, if that same student brings the gun to school and then stores it in his locker, that is also considered possession even if the student is away from the locker or otherwise never has it on his person.
Juvenile courts have wide discretion in determining the appropriate sentence for a juvenile offender. If a court determines that there is enough evidence to show the juvenile committed an offense, it will impose a sentence aimed primarily at rehabilitating the juvenile, instead of simply punishing the juvenile for the offense. The consequence that a court deems an appropriate penalty can differ widely from case to case.
- Warning. In some cases, a court may determine that a strict warning from the court is enough, and might let the juvenile go without a penalty. The court might choose such a course when, for example, a teen has no prior history, shows remorse, and a expresses sincere desire to not violate any other laws.
- Community service. Courts may order a juvenile to perform community service as punishment for a weapons possession offense. Community service sentences require the juvenile to perform a number of hours as a volunteer at a local charity or other approved organization.
- Diversion.First-time juvenile offenders are often given the chance to avoid prosecution by entering a pre-prosecution diversion program. These programs require the juvenile to spend a specific amount of time, typically 6 months or so, participating in community service programs, after-school programs, or other programs designed to rehabilitate the child. Upon the successful completion of the program, the prosecutor agrees to drop any charges against the child, thus allowing the juvenile to be penalized for the action without having to formally go through the juvenile justice process.
- Probation.A court can order probation for a juvenile who has committed a weapons offense. Probation is similar to diversion, but it is imposed by the court after the juvenile has been convicted of the offense. Probation usually lasts at least 6 months and it requires the child to obey specific court orders, such as staying out of trouble, staying in school, maintaining a specific grade point average, or maintaining employment.
- Detention. A juvenile convicted of a weapons possession offense can also be ordered into a group home, juvenile detention center, weekend detention program, a summer “boot camp” program, or other form of detention. Detention sentences are not common, and are usually used only in serious situations, such as when violence was involved or where the court determines the juvenile poses a threat to others.
- Adult charges. In some situations, a juvenile can be charged as an adult for a weapons violation charge. The juvenile court can refer a juvenile case to an adult criminal court, but this typically happens only when there are circumstances that make the crime quite significant. For example, a teen who is caught with a knife while on the street will likely not be charged as an adult. However, if that teen has a prior record, if the weapon was present when the teen committed violent crimes, or if the teen brings a firearm to school or uses it in a threatening manner, these are factors which may lead to adult criminal charges.