gun store etiquette
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Buying online has some advantages to it. Your local gun store can’t stock everything, so if you’re looking for something unusual or that’s made in smaller quantities, that can be the best way to get exactly what you want. But if you’re going to buy a gun online, there are some things you can do to make the process go as smoothly as possible.

Let’s start off with the basics, because I get this phone call at least three or four times a week.

No matter what you may hear from politicians and the media, you can’t buy guns online and have them shipped to your door. There are a lot of federal, state and local laws that you’ll have to comply with. You still have to go through a local FFL so they can do the proper paperwork and, depending on where you live, process a NICS background check.

I have fielded calls from people who have bought entire gun collections from widows located out of state, folks buying their first custom shop 1911, people receiving inherited firearms and folks who got a little too crazy with their credit card on Black Friday. Here are a few things to consider that everyone should know up front when buying online

Not every vendor has actual stock and has virtual inventory.

There are online vendors that I won’t name that are notorious for indicating that items are in stock and ready to ship when they’re not. There are some sellers that virtualize their inventory in a manner that tells you they have X number to sell, and that’s actually backdriven by inventory management software at their supplier which populates their webstore and updates available to sell inventory.

In other words, they’re selling the gun you’re buying, but it’s held at their fulfillment center where it will be shipped to you.

Back in 2013, during the Great Gun Rush, a lot of virtual retailers had problems with this because demand outstripped inventory and they went from having thousands of SKU’s to sell to none almost overnight. A lot of people who were expecting their orders to be filled got nothing but cancellations.

As for vendors that have actual stock on hand, you can generally trust that they’ll ship the product on time and correctly. That happens most of the time, but since we live in such a globalized environment now, it can be hard to determine how an online vender does business. Make sure that you do business with reputable firms that ship product quickly and on time.

Timing is everything.

I was recently notified by FedEx that there would be major disruptions to service due to thunderstorms around Memphis. The aircraft carrying my orders was delayed, so they didn’t get sorted, routed and put on a plane to my local hub on time. We can’t control mother nature,  and neither can the vendor who sold you that new shotgun you’ve been waiting for.

As I write this, the folks in the Midwest are experiencing some of the worst flooding some have seen in their lifetime. Most of the state of Nebraska is underwater and if you’re expecting components from someone based there — say Hornady, for example — you can’t really expect their employees and warehouse staff to be running 100% if they’re trying to head to higher ground or pump out their flooded basements.

I can’t tell you how many times someone’s ordered a new gun for a class, hunting trip, birthday, or USPSA match that was destined to arrive Friday afternoon for an event on Saturday or Sunday. Those gun owners, a group that is traditionally familiar with things not going according to plan, left no margin for error.

Do you want to miss the first day of your hunting trip because of a thunderstorm in Memphis or a plane with mechanical problems carrying your new gun didn’t make it on time? Some of my customers take pride in not missing the first day of deer season for 20 years. If you plan your purchases to ship with some wiggle room built in, you’ll be in your tree stand with your new rifle or on your way to Thunder Ranch right on schedule and without any grief.

Keep your forms of ID current and with you. 

Since it’s easy to say keep your ID up to date, I’ll say it: keep your ID up to date.

I ran into a unique problem the other day with one of my customers, an EMS chief who had his home address redacted from every form of ID due to privacy concerns. He was driving his department-issued vehicle – so no registration was in the glove box bearing his personal information.

The problem that I had as a firearm dealer was that without valid ID I couldn’t transfer anything he had purchased from Gunbroker. None of his photo IDs would work. I could have used his passport, but he didn’t have that with him either. Eventually I had to call ATF and ask for a list of potentially viable things that I could get the paperwork closed out with.

Eventually, we figured it out. He found an old fishing license that listed his address. Combined with his photo ID, that was enough. That time we got lucky, but these are special problems for special people.

Most folks won’t have that problem, but keep your ID with you and up to date. If you live in a state where there’s a waiting period and exempts you from another background check with a concealed carry license, make sure you have your permit with you.

One customer left his wallet at home. He had his wife Facetime the ID for me to see and asked me to accept that in lieu of an ID being physically present. Unfortunately, the ATF doesn’t let us do that. We don’t make the rules, but we do follow them. Just be prepared when you go to pick up your online purchase and you won’t have any problems.

The instant background check system is frequently not exactly instant.

The NICS system goes down sometimes with no hint when it will come back online. This is like problems with weather delays and force majeure; if you have a deadline like a hunting trip or a class, it’s entirely possible the system can go down and we can’t release firearms until it’s back up.

Ideally, you’ll live in a state where your concealed carry permit gives you an exemption to the background check, but many states don’t have this exemption. Also worthy of note; folks with common names frequently get delayed results. I’ve had customers with common names get so ticked off by repeated delays that they get a Unique Personal Identification Number (UPIN) and that solves the problem. If you’ve ever been the victim of mistaken identity, consider getting a UPIN.

The waiting is the hardest part. 

California is notorious for their 10-day waiting period for transfers. The computer literally counts down the wait to the minute and will not allow the dealer to release a gun until the statutory wait time has elapsed. They call it a 10-day wait, but it’s actually a 14,400 minute wait.

Other states vary in how they calculate their waiting periods. Some count from when the sheriff’s office gets application for licensing/registration. Others do it when the dealer gets the gun on the books. And still others start counting when the dealer does a 4473.

There are 50 states, each with its own unique laws and very different understandings and interpretations of those law. If there is a waiting period in your state, check with the dealer about that and how to comply with your state’s laws so you don’t have any surprises.

Couple not knowing how your state’s waiting period works with a FedEx delay and you might have to put a picture of a gun under the Christmas tree if you’re cutting it too close.

For fraud protection, use a credit card, not a debit card.

I used to have a debit card and the number got snagged by a skimmer and it was a nightmare getting to the bottom of the mess. A skimmed debit card can wreak havoc on your personal finances because once fraudulent use occurs, the money is instantly gone from your account and you have to fight to get it back.

With a credit card, you get infinitely more protection and you aren’t out of pocket. Some of the larger financial institutions have actually detected fraudulent activity and denied the charges on one of my cards before I even noticed it. It was obvious to them that I was not at a Target in Chicago after buying groceries at my local market an hour earlier.

Very much like a firearm, your financial institution’s fraud department is a tool – why not let it do the work?

Make sure your shipper and local dealer have your info and it’s accurate.

We frequently get guns in with documentation that has that has bad information; the name of the gun buyer is mis-spelled or wrong, or there are transposed digits in the phone number. In the cases the seller got absent-minded and shipped the gun with no info at all. I then have no idea who to contact to let them know their purchase has arrived.

The gun literally has to sit until someone calls in wondering where their gun has gone. If we can’t get in touch with you, you can’t come down and get your gun. We want you to get your property since it does nobody any good sitting on a shelf in my stockroom. I’d much rather you be sighting in your new rifle, breaking in your new pistol or busting clays with your new shotgun than have it gathering dust in my storeroom.

Listen to your dealer, not to FedEx or UPS.

Sometimes you can have too much data. Some of the better online sellers out there issue tracking data to the customer which generates an automatic email letting them know their package has been delivered to their local dealer. That’s great, except…. Just because a package was delivered doesn’t mean your FFL has unpacked it and gotten it onto their books yet. Some FFL’s get a lot of incoming shipments and that takes time to process.

Murphy’s law dictates that both my FedEx drivers, the UPS guy and the USPS will all show up in the same 35 minute window. I’ve had days when I’ve gotten in 19 different boxes with my orders and incoming transfers all commingled. With a store full of people, we’re not going to tell everyone who’s shopping for guns to wait so we can go crack open cartons.

We have to unpack everything, figure out who gets what and get everything logged into our books. On a good day we can get do that in an hour. On a busy day we might have to do it after closing just because of foot traffic.

I’ve had occasions where a customer got their delivery notification and drove over to pick up their gun 16 minutes later. The problem was their gun wasn’t available.

Because we hadn’t unpacked it yet and gotten it on our books, it wasn’t legally in my possession. Which means I couldn’t legally transfer the gun to him.

I had another customer who swore up and down that we’d gotten their package. He had the delivery notification and even showed me the tracking data. What wasn’t immediately clear was where this customer’s shipment containing a 1903A3 Springfield actually was, no matter what the email said. We couldn’t figure it out until I got a call from a Dick’s Sporting Goods across town telling me that UPS accidentally delivered the rifle there.

Thankfully, in that case, it was an easy fix – drive over to Dicks, grab a rifle and bring it back to our place and get it to its proper owner. Other times, it’s not that simple.

Everyone can have a better experience buying online if you help your FFL help you. Stay vigilant in the fight against credit card fraud, buy from dealers that don’t lie about what they have in stock and make sure you have current ID and I have your best contact info.


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    • Just found out yesterday we have a gun-free Dick’s moving into our slowly dying local mall shortly. Yippee…

      • Malls are rapidly turning into one-stop surplus and dollar stores.

        Who would have ever thought the internet would so thoroughly destroy retail to the degree that it has, as soon as it has?

        • Many more “benefits” from the internet to come I’m sure. Thinking in 30 years jobs are going to be hard to find .

        • possum,

          I foresee a job shift rather than job losses: jobs will shift from whatever they are now to facilitating purchases via the Internet. That means website developers, order fulfillment personnel, electronic monetary transaction developers and managers, shipping/receiving, and yes, even manufacturing to make all that stuff that people purchase via the Internet.

          Oh, and don’t forget all the people necessary to build and maintain the office space and warehouses that will be involved in all of this commerce.

      • $15 cash money at my preferred FFL, ABQ Guns. Very much worth a couple hours drive each way, as far as I’m concerned – they’re very nice people and the shop is on the small side but very well stocked. And they’re patient and kind with newbies, which I respect and wish to support.

        • I’ve used ABQ guns often, I also really enjoy dealing with Valley Pawn on 6th st.
          $15 for transfer and very friendly and knowledgeable folks at the gun counter.

    • Brownells has an FFL Locator and if they are a featured dealer, it will show the cost of transfer fees on the online map. A useful tool if buying online.

    • Entirely up to the store. My usual one increased to $40 plus background fee, so I shopped around and found one closer who charges only $25 including NICS. Search their website or call and ask.

    • In Southern California, past few years, I have seen around $100 to transfer. In general, us folks pay more than the average American does for a gun.

      • Anything over $25 for a transfer fee is a total ripoff. I wouldn’t support that store at all. You get more customers being on the cheaper side, I’d rather have more repeat customers than one really pissed off one – who can do a lot of damage. That argument about stealing the shop’s business profit by buying online is BS. If that store sold online also for a good price in the first place, they wouldn’t be losing money now. Save your profit for the unique high priced trap shotguns and engraved collectibles for the highbrow clients.

      • SoCalJack,

        “In general, us [California] folks pay more than the average American does for a gun everything.”

        There, fixed that for you!

  1. is barbi benton one of the few you should do online when buying a gun? i know the illinois stores have to install video now, but i didn’t read about that part.

  2. I buy online from cabelas, I only wish they gave 5 percent off on online orders. When bass pro bought them they ended that for some bizarre reason. In store is still discounted.

    I like brownells but don’t have a FFL I’m comfortable with. I need to find one that doesn’t charge too much. I’ve been in LGS and watched them berate someone for buying on line. No one wants to hear that shit when they are paying 40 dollars for you to make a phone call and fill out papers.
    I need to ask the cabelas.if they do third party transfers. I’m thinking they wont.

  3. Good information. I received two handguns from an out of state cousin. Local dealer was referred by a friend. Made my first on line purchase last January. Out of state dealer was referred by a friend. Always good to know someone who has done business with someone before you. While I mostly do private transactions sans paperwork, sometimes you have no choice.

  4. also has an FFL Finder page. I’ve used it to pick an FFL before I send payment on a purchase. Luckily there are many FFL’s in this region and good competition keeps at least some transfer fees down. Even so I try to always buy something, like a box of ammo, from the local gun shop who is doing a $15 transfer (because I have my concealed carry permit, it’s cheaper at some FFL’s).

    There are much pricier transfer fees too around here. It’s quite a range.

  5. I’ve purchased a few guns via Gallery of Guns (Davidson’s) because local dealers didn’t have them in stock. Delivery was very fast and I got to choose the FFL from a fairly extensive list.

  6. I have a local store who, if I don’t buy direct from them, I at least give them the money for the transfer. They generally have the best prices in town, but occasionally I can get something barely touched from pawn, and the pawn GM happens to be a friend of mine.

    If you’re buying modern plastic guns, I would suggest to everyone that going used is the best option, especially if you can save $100-$200 off of new pricing.

    • I’ve heard horror stories about it, but i’ve gotten a couple sweet deals on used revolvers too. Mainly because the LGS did business with the shops before and recommend them, like Gadsden posted “always good to know someone”.

  7. One part of the process that was omitted. The FFL Dealer is required to keep the 4473 for 20 years in storage or if they do not renew the license then they send in all the copies to the ATF for storage. If needed
    you can return to the FFL that processed your 4473 for a copy of the 4473 to use as proof of ownership in states that so not require any type of registration. We have helped people prove ownership if the person has had the firearm stolen, sometime in a divorce case or a serial number to help local law enforcement.

    • Good point. I knew that, but forgot to bring it up. Had a Colt Series 70 stolen in the ’80s. Didn’t have the serial number. Called the dealer in Hinesville, GA. Couple of days later had the information I needed. Unfortunately, it’s still out there. Fast forward. Used the same process to get serial numbers for victims. Recovery of a few firearms. Always gave me pleasure to return them to the owner. Lessons to be learned? Write down your serial numbers.

  8. Honestly, I have never purchased a gun online that worked out to my satisfaction. Some discrepancies they claim are inadvertent, some things aren’t what you would have chosen.
    A person simply must inspect a gun before buying it.

    • Totally agree, problem being where I live it’s so isolated that most firearms you see advertised or read about aren’t going to be instock. Maybe can get your hands on something similar but not exact, research is key expecially if it’s something you’ve never handled before.

  9. Voter registration combined with a driver’s license works in Colorado and you update your voter registration online in about a minute and do it from your phone if need be.

    Did that for my last purchase because I had just moved.

  10. How long does it usually take between completing the purchase and the gun shipping? I just bought my first firearm online. It was via Gun Broker. The dealer emailed me on Monday morning to say that my payment had gone through and that he had emailed my FFL to get a copy of their license. It is now Tuesday. How long do I wait before I bug my FFL or the dealer?

    • If the money’s been deducted from your acount already, just talk to your FFL. Should be able to give you a time frame, don’t know what state your in but it should be quicker than mine. I live way out and things usually take a week to a week and a half depending on holidays and what not, If it’s a handgun I still have to wait two weeks after it gets here for the permit to go through.

  11. Good article for those who have not done mail order. I have purchased on line from two brick and mortar sporting goods stores (local stores, not big box) and from a small brick and mortar LGS on the other side of the state who also sold on Gunbroker. All transactions went reasonably well. Delayed background check on one (fortunately only a few hours), sent to the wrong receiving FFL in another, and perfectly on the third where I picked up from the sporting goods store, no transfer fee, and I was on my way. The FFL’s involved in the first two were helpful and I got free shipping from the guy who screwed up the first send. I paid $20 as the transfer fees. There is a place not too far away that charges $10 and another that advertises on Armslist $15 fees (these are all in North Carolina.) Worst experience was a face to face purchase from Dunham’s at a great sale price, but the NCIS took the full 3 days to come back. What ticked me off was that I have a CHP that was honored as the background check per NC law at both a small FFL and one of the above local sporting goods stores, but Dunham’s said corporate policy dictated they run the NCIS on everyone, even as they took down the CHP information on the 4473 and sales document. But Dunham’s sells AR’s and lets its customers dry fire the sample guns. So I can’t complain too much.

  12. Excellent article. I do most of my shopping at my LGS, and they treat me well, but occasionally there’s a deal online so good I can’t justify supporting a local business commanding a small premium for their mortgage payment and paying state sales tax. Great info here!

  13. Sometimes you can save hundreds of dollars by buying Firearms directly from cdnn, Buds Gun Shop or Firearms Liquidators.. you can put the gun on your credit card at wholesale cost and have it shipped to your local FFL.. sometimes the FFL will charge $25 or $35 for a transaction fees.. but you can save hundreds of dollars.. it beats paying retail price at box stores.. it’s a win-win situation..

  14. It would have been a very good idea to also mention how to go about having your local FFL contact the online FFL to convey license information. What is each parties preferred method of contact (email, photo/text, fax)? And also getting a single point of contact and reliable email and phone number of each party for you to follow up when necessary. And most importantly, being patient. I recently had a transfer really go south on both ends (both parties never sent/received FFL and shipping information). Then the firearms were shown as delivered yet it took me three trips/ five days AFTER I called and was told I could pick them up. Sometimes things don’t go well. But a little patience and understanding by me and they waived the transfer fees. But more important than the fee, how they handled their errors and tried to make it right kept my business for the future.

  15. For those who haven’t done an online transaction, find a good local gun store that has a reasonable fee. Get all the information you need and questions answered before your purchase if possible. Having someone local that you can trust and will help you will make things a lot smoother and give you more confidence when you first send that big purchase money off to cyberspace the first time. Maybe follow up once with both parties just to make sure the FFL and shipping information got relayed. Then it’s just like a kid waiting for their birthday to come.


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