Using gun trusts to responsibly own, transfer firearms

Johnson, Erin

When my dad passed a few years ago, the family had to address the task of deciding what to do with his gun collection. Dad was quite a sportsman, and it was pretty exciting as a kid growing up in Southwest Colorado to see him and my brother bring home an elk almost every year. Some of his collection consisted of collectibles, although nothing of great value. My siblings and I are not hunters now, but I do enjoy target shooting with rifles and handguns.

The process of transferring a gun collection from one generation to the next can create or be embroiled in family disputes, whether or not a probate is involved. Guns can be addressed in a will or revocable living trust, but these estate planning tools may not be the best planning vehicle for a firearms collection and can actually cause unforeseen problems if not carefully drafted. For my family, it worked out, but none of us knew what our dad’s wishes might have been, and I have a little regret about that. In the end, my brothers got the hunting rifles and split up a set of nice antique pistols as heirlooms, and I got a couple of small rifles and a handgun.

This is probably a common family story in rural America. Many families have collections of firearms used for various purposes, possibly consisting of firearms for hunting and other shooting sports, target shooting, self-defense and investments. For many families, the firearms may be the most valued heirlooms, which can lead to family battles based on sentiments and emotions when the time comes to pass them on.

Regardless of all the varying opinions and debates about guns and gun control, firearms are an important part of our American heritage. Most families who own firearms want to see them used responsibly and passed on to someone who appreciates them. The transfer of firearms is complicated by state and federal laws, and it is not easy to determine what requirements or restrictions may apply to the transfer of a gun. There can be serious consequences for seemingly innocent actions. For example, if a person other than the owner simply possesses some types of guns that are controlled under federal law, they can be charged with a felony. This situation could easily occur when a gun owner dies if a spouse or heir takes a controlled firearm into their possession.

A trust is private, informal and flexible and is a good broad-based planning tool that does not have a significant level of formalities or reporting requirements. A gun trust is a special purpose trust that holds a gun collection and addresses the owner’s desire to manage and pass on the firearms. It can be used as a component of a comprehensive estate plan and can be implemented both during and after the life of the gun owner. Like a revocable living trust, the grantor would initially be the trustee and beneficiary of the trust and would appoint successor trustees and beneficiaries. Also like a revocable trust, the grantor can amend the trust and add and remove beneficiaries at any time.

There are different types of gun trusts depending on the nature and scope of your family’s estate planning objectives. A gun trust should be professionally prepared in order to make a plan for your specific objectives, as well as to protect you from legal pitfalls and “accidental” criminal actions. An attorney with knowledge and training in this area can help the gun owner draft a gun trust to address specific estate planning issues, such as the intent of the grantor regarding the gun collection, potential beneficiary conflicts, trustee liability and liquidity concerns.

The trustees of your gun trust have an important role to play in carrying out your wishes when you are incapacitated or after you die. It is important to name and provide appropriate guidance to the trustees who will be responsible for handling special concerns that may arise with regard to the management of the firearms collection.

A gun trust can include personal guidance as to who can use or share firearms, or how or when they can be used by certain beneficiaries. As such, a gun trust can be used to define as well as manage a family legacy regarding responsible gun ownership.

If you have a firearm collection or own a valuable firearm, you should consider a gun trust as part of your estate plan to make sure your firearms are used and passed on in accordance with your wishes. It is important to get qualified professional assistance to create a gun trust that will effectively carry out your objectives.

Erin Johnson is an attorney living in Rico. She practices law focused on land-use, zoning, business and estate planning throughout Southwest Colorado. Reach her at

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