On March 5, 2012, Colorado joined Oregon, Utah, Wisconsin, and Mississippi as one of several states that allows guns on college campuses. In the Arizona State Senate there was an attempt this session to pass a bill that would have required public universities and community colleges to allow anyone 21 or older, with a concealed-weapon permit, to carry a gun on campus, but the proposal died during the legislative process. The student orientation materials in states which allow guns on campus may well read something like this: “Students, welcome to a new semester. Please note that drugs, alcohol and smoking will not be tolerated on campus. Concealed guns? Not a problem.”

Whether guns on campus is a good idea or not is a topic for another day. But for the benefit of all of the international students enrolled in our U.S.colleges and universities, this is an opportune moment to review what is allowed and what is not with respect to guns. Some students may be thinking, “Can I really take a gun to class?” Well, no, not really. That will get you deported. You see, despite state gun laws, U.S. Federal immigration law still says that international students (in F-1 or any other non-immigrant status) are prohibited from possessing or receiving firearms and ammunition. So, while U.S.citizen students might be packing heat in biology class, international students can only pack their Bunsen burners. Unless, of course, they happen to be hunting (we’ll get to this exception later).

What exactly is a “firearm”? The U.S. Code defines a firearm as “any weapon (including a starter gun) that expels a projectile by the action of an explosive.”[1] The definition also includes the “frame or receiver” of any such weapon, mufflers, silencers, and destructive devices. Ok, simple enough. But what is a “destructive device”? This includes the usual suspects: bombs, grenades, rockets, missiles, big-barreled firearms, and parts from which a destructive device can be assembled.[2] For anyone who loves 4th of July celebrations, the definition of “destructive device” is meant to exclude fireworks. However, grossly large fireworks (more than 1/4 ounce explosive or more than four ounces of propellant) may qualify as destructive devices, so please don’t try to be the neighborhood pyrotechnics show-off.

Shotguns and rifles? Yes, both are firearms. In fact, they each have specific definitions.  A shotgun is “a weapon, fired from the shoulder, using an explosive to fire a single projectile or number of ball shot for each single pull of the trigger, through a smooth bore.”[3] A rifle is “a weapon, fired from the shoulder, using an explosive, to expel a single projectile for each pull of the trigger, through a rifled bore.”[4] (Smooth bore, rifled bore – sounds boring, heh heh.) What about a handgun, like a Glock, or a nice little Beretta? You guessed it: firearm.  Beside the fact that the term “handgun” sort of gives it away, a weapon will always be deemed a firearm if it has a short stock and is designed to be held and fired by the use of a single hand.[5]  It follows that, a machine gun is also a firearm, because “any weapon which shoots automatically more than one shot without manually reloading by a single function of the trigger”[6] is included.

So, no handguns, no rifles, no shotguns, no explosives, and no machine guns. Can an international student ever fire a gun? What about the student whose dream it is to grip cold steel and take down an elk? Fortunately, there is an exception. You can buy a gun if you meet the following criteria:

  • Handguns: you have resided in the state where you are buying the gun for 90 continuous days immediately before purchasing the gun and intend to make a home in that state; 
  • Long guns: you have resided in a state for 90 continuous days immediately before purchasing the gun and intend to make a home in that state;


  • You were admitted to the U.S.for lawful hunting or sporting purposes or are in possession of a valid hunting license or permit lawfully issued in the U.S.

International students, be careful. Don’t play with guns, and not just because it might not be safe. Your status in the U.S. depends on it. When in doubt about any gun-related activity, consult with the authorities or legal counsel to be sure that the activity is permitted and that it will not jeopardize your immigration status. As the great Johnny Cash used to sing: “Don’t take your guns to town . . . leave your guns at home.”