Federal law, under the Gun Control Act of 1968, makes it illegal to sell or otherwise furnish a firearm to anyone who:
1 ) has ever been convicted of a felony
2 ) is a fugitive from justice
3 ) is an unlawful user of or addicted to drugs
4 ) has been adjudicated by a court as a mental defective or committed to any mental institution
5 ) is an illegal alien
6 ) has been dishonorably discharged from the armed forces
7 ) has renounced their United States citizenship
8 ) currently has a court-issued restraining order from an intimate partner
9 ) has been convicted of misdemeanor domestic violenceBuying from an FFL:
Purchasing a firearm (new or used) from a “Federal Firearms License” holder (this can be a gun store or an individual) in most states is a straightforward process. The buyer must fill out a “Federal Form 4473 (Firearms Transaction Record)”, which requires a photo ID to complete. This form includes a checkbox affidavit where the buyer swears that he is not a “prohibited possessor” as described above.
The FFL adds the make/model and serial number of the gun being sold, and submits the buyer’s identity to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) to verify that the buyer is not a “prohibited possessor”. This typically takes only minutes, and can be done over the phone or internet.
It’s important to know what the gun is worth, so you know if you’re getting a fair price. Many retail tags will “helpfully” list the Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) so you can see what a great deal you’re getting. This is actually a dirty marketing psychology trick known as “price anchoring”, and knowing about it is the only defense. Our minds are actually not good at interpreting the values of numbers, because prices are a deceptively abstract concept. If a price tag says $800, your first reaction might be that this is not a reasonable price to pay. Now let’s say instead that the price tag tells you that the MSRP is $1,100 but the store is asking “only” $800. Nothing has actually changed in this scenario -- the gun did not cost any more or less to manufacture and does not cost any more or less to buy -- except that your mind was “anchored” to the higher MSRP as the item’s actual value. It’s difficult to even think of the item in terms of not being worth the price your mind was “anchored” to, hence the name. Then by comparison the same $800 price now makes you feel like you’d be getting a good deal that you wouldn’t want to miss out on. “Sale” prices are similarly not often much of a discount off the actual selling price, because the profit margin for retail firearms is actually fairly small as it is.Private sales:
Many states have little to no restriction on an individual privately selling a gun to another individual (and Ohio is one of these states), though some states require that an FFL holder transfer any gun between individuals. In those states that do not regulate transfers, there is no paperwork involved in a sale as long as both parties are residents of that state. This is a right of free commerce that is disparagingly referred to as the “gun show loophole” to federal firearms law.
Under federal law, though, a gun sold to a resident of another state must be transferred by a dealer with an FFL. The FFL will charge a fee for the “labor” of processing the transfer for you, typically between $20 and $30 (it’s not reasonable to pay more than this unless it’s not feasible to travel to the next-nearest FFL). Most big gun store chains do not want to do transfers for guns they aren’t selling themselves, so they try to discourage such by charging an exorbitant transfer fee of $35 or more. Apparently they think you will buy the gun from them for full retail price instead, but in actuality this practice only pushes savvy consumers to take their business elsewhere. Most small shops, on the other hand, will be glad to make the easy buck.Buying Online:
If you’re looking for a firearm that is relatively obscure (or has a relatively obscure configuration), you’ll probably have the most luck finding the gun for sale online. Local shops usually can’t afford to stock exotic or collectible guns that don’t have a high chance of selling.
Gunbroker.com and Armslist.com are auction sites similar to eBay that are very popular, and have the advantage of being searchable by make, model, or keyword. Be aware that asking prices on Gunbroker tend to be a little high. It’s a good idea to search for auctions of the gun you want to buy that have already closed, to see an average of what they have actually sold for and not what the current seller is asking. It’s fairly common for sellers to list an item with a hidden reserve of much more than the gun is worth, just to feel out what the gun might sell for if they decide to get rid of it in the future.
The sellers on such websites are often but not always FFL dealers. Everyone there earns feedback ratings just like on eBay, which you should scrutinize. There is a calculated risk involved in buying from sellers who have little to no feedback accumulated, because on the one hand they don’t have a long track record of positive customer experiences yet, but on the other hand the best deals often come from inexperienced sellers who don’t know what their gun is worth. Use caution if the pictures are unclear: this could just mean the seller has a low-quality camera or poor photography skills, but it could mean the seller is trying to obscure something. If you have any questions, there’s a link on the auction page to send the seller a message. If the seller doesn’t reply, dodges your question, or gives an evasive answer, trust your instincts and pass on the transaction.
If you find the gun you’re looking for, you can try your luck bidding or just “buy it now” for the asking price. You will receive instructions for sending payment. The main difference between eBay and gun auction sites is that eBay does not allow gun sales, and PayPal will not allow transactions for firearm sales so the gun auction sites cannot use this service. Occasionally people will use PayPal without making any mention of firearms in the transaction. This does violate their terms of service and they will terminate your account if they find out about it, but the risk of that happening is relatively small. The main concern with using PayPal is if the sale goes sour or is a scam, you can forget about receiving any assistance from PayPal when you tell them a firearm was involved, you won’t be able to get your money back, and they will terminate your account. For these reasons, it is best to use other methods of payment.
If the seller has a brick-and-mortar gun shop, they will usually be capable of accepting payment by credit card. However, by far the best method of payment for online sales is a US Postal money order. If on the small chance the sale goes badly or turns out to be a scam, the US Postal service will bring considerable muscle to the table in investigating any case of mail fraud. A credit card company, by contrast, will probably just write it off and make you pay the $50 maximum amount allowed by federal law for a fraudulent credit card transaction.
After completing the auction but before you pay, unless it’s a private sale from a seller in your own state you will need to have a local FFL dealer standing by to receive your new firearm: call them with the contact information of the seller so they can fax or email their FFL to them. After everything is set up, the seller will mail your purchase to your FFL. After it arrives, the FFL will notify you to come pick it up. When you arrive, you will go through the same procedure for the Form 4473 as described above in the “Buying from an FFL” section, and the FFL will charge you a modest fee. Be sure to inspect the firearm carefully before filling out the form, because returning the gun for a refund after you take legal possession of it will be much more difficult.
Many gun-related forums (such as right here on OFCC!) have “classifieds” sections for listing firearms for private sales, as well. Gun shows:
A gun show, if you’ve never been to one, is like a flea market but with many tables of guns and gear. Many of the sellers will be FFL holders who brought inventory from their store, but many others will be private collectors who do not hold an FFL (in states that do not regulate private sales, these sellers can be bought from without any paperwork involved). There will also be many tables of trinkets and other junk that doesn’t belong there, because some exhibitors apparently got lost on their way to a flea market or the landfill. The old-timers will tell you that gun shows have gone downhill (but, to be fair, they do say that about everything…)Buying a Used Gun:
Caveat emptor is very much in force at gun shows.
You should research the gun you’re looking to buy before you go to the show. Look up what it generally sells for (Gunbroker.com is an easy place to look, but asking prices there are slightly above normal so you’ll know not to pay quite that much). Grab an electronic copy of the manual online (these can usually be found with a search, and if not the manufacturer will email you a copy for free) and be familiar with the controls, particularly the safety, slide lock, and magazine release if the gun has these features, and know the field stripping procedure. If you’re not good at remembering these types of things, you can always print out the relevant pages from the manual. Bring your own bore light, which is an inexpensive angled light that fits into the action to allow the bore to be inspected.
When you find a gun you’re interested in, ask the dealer first if you can pick it up and look it over. This shows him you're not a drooling yokel and scores you major points. This will sometimes even earn you an astonished look, which is amusing.
The very first thing you do is keep your finger off the trigger, and check to make sure it's unloaded. See the chapter on “Loading and Unloading” for the proper general procedure, or review it in the manual ahead of time if you had a specific model in mind. Loaded guns at gun shows are prohibited, but once in a great while somebody fails to check the chamber and brings a loaded gun to sell, so NEVER assume that somebody else checked. Most gun shows will require a zip tie through the action to ensure that the gun is not loaded, but still look. The dealer will cut the zip tie off a few guns for you if you want to inspect the internals more closely, but don’t ask him to cut the zip ties off all of his guns because that would be extremely annoying.
By adhering to the Four Rules of gun safety and simple courtesy, you have shown the dealer that you are not an idiot and that you know about guns (which communicates to him that you know what they are worth and that you both know you can just as well leave and find the gun you’re looking at from another dealer). This will make the dealer much more receptive to haggling. If instead you violate any safety rules, failed to check the chamber, put your finger on the trigger, and/or fumble around with the gun sweeping another patron or the dealer with the muzzle, you’ve instantly destroyed all of your credibility and you will find that the original asking price has become set in stone. The dealer may even refuse to sell it to you, and he would be right to do so.
Inspect the gun’s fit and finish. Look it over for cosmetic damage. If this will be a carry gun or field gun, cosmetic damage might not matter to you. In fact, holster wear might even be considered desirable in a carry gun because it is an inevitable occurrence but will serve to bring down the price of a flawlessly-functioning gun. Look for rust spots, scratches or pits, and other damage to the finish. Twist it a little to see if it moves where it meets the stock or if it's sturdy as it should be. Ensure that the stock is not cracked. See if the gun rattles when it shouldn't. Take care that you DO NOT point the muzzle at the dealer or at other patrons while doing all this!
Make sure the sights are lined up straight instead of canted to one side, particularly in military-pattern rifles assembled from parts kits (I’m looking at you, Century Arms…). If it’s drilled and tapped for a scope mount, ensure that the holes are centered and not crooked (I’m looking at you, Remington…). If the gun has a scope on it, if at all possible “bore sight” it by opening the gun so you can look down the bore at some distant object, then look into the scope to see if it lines up with what you were looking at through the barrel. If they aren’t even close to matching up, this tells you the seller threw an unwanted scope on the gun at the last minute just to inflate the selling price.
Gently work the action. Is it relatively smooth, or does it hang up on something? Does it sound gritty? Grit means it hasn’t been cleaned. Don't let a slide or bolt slam forward on someone else's gun. It actually won't hurt anything from a mechanical standpoint because it's far less violent than the gun cycling itself when fired, but it shows a basic lack of respect and irritates some dealers to no end.
Use your bore light to take a look down the barrel, after checking the chamber again. Make sure the rifling is sharp and clean, and that the surface of the barrel is not pitted. Pitting tells you that a previous owner used corrosive ammo without properly cleaning afterwards, or severely neglected it before they decided to sell it. Look at the bolt face and under the extractor for buildup of carbon deposits. Underneath the extractor is difficult to clean if you only do a cursory job, so this is a good metric of how well-cared for the gun is. Look particularly for rust spots in these areas or anywhere else within the action. Very old guns will almost certainly have some surface rust, but modern guns with rust were not well-cared for and you should pass.
Guns which are new will have been test-fired at the factory, so a little powder residue will remain. If it’s a new revolver, there will be a little fouling around the front face of the cylinder. This is normal and even desirable, as it tells you the gun worked when it left the factory. The residue from modern noncorrosive ammo will not have hurt anything.
Now, if you’re still interested then ASK FIRST if you can dry-fire it in order to do a function check. Only total jerkasses dry-fire somebody else's gun without asking. First re-check the chamber to ensure it is empty. Engage the safety and, double-checking first that the gun is pointed in a safe direction, pull the trigger. If the hammer drops it tells you the safety doesn't work. Now disengage the safety and pull the trigger without releasing it. The hammer should drop. While still holding the trigger down, work the action: you should feel the seer reset the trigger (the trigger will “jump” a little bit towards your finger).
It would be very helpful if you had a "snap cap" of the appropriate caliber to make sure the firing pin is hitting the primer, but this isn't strictly necessary. You can also use the “pencil trick” with most firearms: drop an unsharpened pencil eraser-first down the barrel so the eraser rests against the bolt face, point the gun straight up and pull the trigger: if the firing mechanism is working properly, the pencil will be propelled a short distance out of the gun (so be ready to stop it with your off-hand). The other advantage of having a snap cap is that you can next work the action to make sure the magazine feeds properly and that the extractor and ejector are functional.
If this is a used gun and is of a type that it's hard to see inside, and it passed all of these tests AND you're really serious about buying it after all this, ask if you can field strip it (or if he will do so for you if you're not very familiar with it). If there's a lot of carbon fouling (or worse, rust) anywhere inside the action, it was not well-cared for and you should probably pass unless you’re just looking for a project gun to do a restoration. Keep an eye out for chipped extractors or damaged firing pins, too, but if everything else is fine these are pretty easy to replace. But if the dealer doesn't disclose them, you should probably pass.
If the gun is an old military model or otherwise collectible, don’t forget to ensure that the serial numbers on parts match. If they don’t match, the gun was likely cobbled together from spare parts or cannibalized guns and does not have anywhere near the collector value of a matching one. Extreme caution and a high level of knowledge are required if you’re buying a gun for collector value, because any alteration to the gun such as re-bluing, stock refinishing, or even something as simple as a non-original sight will drop the gun’s collector value down to almost nothing. Do your homework to save yourself a lot of wasted money, because fraud is all too common when it comes to military collectibles.
Ask the dealer about the gun’s record of being serviced. Some military rifles will have specific markings on the stock from the armorer as to what servicing was performed. If the gun was used by the dealer, ask him why he’s selling it. He will probably just claim he doesn’t want it anymore, but you might get an enlightening answer as to whether the gun has any problems.
If the dealer objects to any of your inspection, say OK and politely thank him for his time. There are still plenty of good guns around. Be sure to check the chamber again before you hand the gun back to the dealer, locking the action or slide open if such is possible with that model.
Do not under any circumstances exclaim that you are very interested in a particular gun: you’re not there just to chat about your interests, and all you accomplish by this is to let the dealer know he can get more money out of you. Look over a few guns with the same level of scrutiny to camouflage your specific interest. Negotiation is an important skill to have. Carry enough cash in more than one pocket, so you don’t whip out a huge wad of money after claiming you can’t afford the asking price. Be sure you have at least $100 or so of that in $20s, because if you haggle the price down and then ask the dealer to break a $100 bill, he might just claim he can’t break it fully so he can bring the price back up a little. Most importantly, if you know the price is a good deal, don’t insult him by trying to negotiate it way down, because somebody else might just snatch the deal out from under you. Snatching a sale from someone is poor etiquette, but it definitely happens.
The most important thing: NEVER ask the salesman what you should buy!Selling your gun:
You will almost never get a worthwhile price selling a firearm to a gun store or pawn shop. Your best bet is to list the item for sale online, or take it with you to a gun show. Obviously, you want to know what price the gun is likely to sell for. You can get a good general idea by searching for that model on Gunbroker and finding closed auctions to see what the guns actually sold for. If you came into possession of an old gun you aren’t familiar with (such as while going through the belongings of a deceased relative), you should have the gun appraised by somebody who isn’t offering to buy it from you.
You do not need to have a table to sell a gun at a show. Make a sign telling people what model and caliber the gun is so they don’t have to ask (sticking a wooden dowel in the barrel and attaching your sign like a flag works very well for this, as does making a sign to hang around your shoulders) and just walk around the show browsing. Some of the other patrons will stop you and ask to look over your gun, and if you’re lucky you’ll find a buyer.
If your state does not regulate private gun sales, no paperwork or background check is necessary: you just agree on a price and make the transaction like you would for any other inanimate object. That being said, there are a few perils for the unwary! Agents from the BATFE (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (who’s bringing the chips? Har har) do not generally go after real criminals, and real criminals don’t typically hang out at gun shows because (like any other venue) the exhibitors and patrons want nothing to do with bad guys. Agents instead try to entrap law-abiding citizens who make innocent mistakes because they don't know the gun laws as well as they should. I tell you this not to scare you out of selling off a gun, but so you can be informed. Stay within the law and you’ll be fine!
If you do a lot of un-papered transactions even as a private collector, and the BATFE takes notice and decides you’re deriving "significant income", they may pinch you for dealing without a license. For this reason, you should never tell anybody at a gun show if you're making money on a sale. If anybody asks, you're just a collector and you’re luckily breaking even!
A handwritten receipt is not a bad idea (keep a copy for yourself), but it is optional. I very strongly recommend that you ask to see a driver's license to verify state residency, though. The law does not specifically require this, but you should do so because Federal law makes it illegal for a non-FFL to sell a gun to a resident of another state (with exceptions in the laws of a few states for long guns between residents of adjacent states). Legally speaking, if you know (or as a reasonable person you “should have known”) that the buyer lives outside the state and you transact anyway, you've just committed a felony. BATFE agents frequently troll gun shows and online listings trying to catch the unwary in procedural infractions that can be charged as felonies. If the prospective buyer “lets it slip” that they came from another state, this is a huge red flag: they are probably agents attempting a sting, and you should walk away. A paltry few hundred dollars isn’t worth the risk of a savings-draining legal battle and several years in prison, especially when you consider that you’re likely to find a real buyer eventually.
All is not lost if the potential buyer is from another state, though. If your gun is rare or hard to sell and it’s worth the trouble, with a little asking around you should be able to find an FFL who would be willing to assist in a transfer. Some receiving FFLs will probably not be comfortable with doing this at a gun show unless they reside in the same state as the buyer, and this may require shipping the firearm later unless it’s a at very large gun show with dealers from many states. Money can change hands then and there, but the gun cannot change hands until the transfer is complete! If the prospective buyer balks and tries to convince you to sell without a transfer, it’s probably a sting and you should refuse to transact.
It is legal for a non-FFL to ship a long gun for any lawful purpose through the Post Office or by common carrier to a resident of their own state, but if shipping to another state it must be shipped directly to an FFL. Handguns mailed by non-FFLs must go by common carrier, as Federal law makes it illegal to send a handgun through the Post Office, and they must be shipped directly to an FFL. UPS will ship unloaded firearms but they must be declared and be shipped “Next Day Air”, which is fairly pricey. It may be a little cheaper if you can find an FFL willing to ship it to the receiving FFL for you, but they might charge you a fee for shipping as well and negate any savings. Old guns which are classified as “Curios & Relics” (see below) can be shipped directly to an individual with a "C&R collector" license at their registered address, but if the buyer has no such license then the gun must be shipped to an FFL and the same Form 4473 procedure applies as for other firearms. If the receiver was manufactured prior to 1899, it is legally classified as an "antique" and not as a "firearm", and antiques can be shipped (and even sold across state lines) without any paperwork or NICS check. (this paragraph edited for clarification)Fraud Prevention:
If you’re selling online, there are a couple things you need to be cautious about in addition to the above warnings about BATFE stings. If you’re abiding by the law, you have nothing to fear from a sting. Just trust your gut: if anything at all seems fishy, if you have even a hint of misgiving at all, decline the sale and keep trying. Don’t fall into the trap of ignoring or denying your intuition because you want to make a sale.
Only accept payment by postal money order, never by personal, certified, or cashier’s check. You might make an exception if both you and the buyer agree to wait until the check clears and you have the cash in hand before you’ll ship the item. Clearing a check takes a couple weeks. What typically happens otherwise is you receive a check in the mail, take it to your bank and deposit it, and the money appears in your account: the transaction seems to have gone smoothly, so you ship the item. Afterwards (maybe more than a week later) your bank processes the check and finds it was fraudulent, and removes the money from your account… but your gun is long gone. To avoid this, do not deposit the check but instead cash it at a local branch of the bank from which the check was issued: this way, you’ll find out immediately if the check is good or not. It’s much better to avoid all of this risk by not accepting checks at all.
Sometimes a prospective buyer will ask you to end an auction early to sell to them (citing some urgent circumstance like a business trip, or deploying for a military tour, or whatever), which is a classic setup for the common check scam above, which you should decline to volunteer for. There are no circumstances where a legitimate buyer can’t wait a couple extra days for your auction to end, because if they know their time is so short they wouldn’t be shopping online for a gun that would take days to receive. By ending the auction early, you’d have removed yourself from whatever protective mechanisms exist through the auction site, including the user feedback system.Curios & Relics: (this section heavily edited for clarification and to correct inaccuracies)
Federal law considers firearms made more than 50 years old as “obsolete” firearm designs, so these guns are automatically classified as “Curios & Relics”. Consequently, the laws governing their sale and transport are more relaxed (provided the firearm is in its original configuration).
To qualify as a C&R, the firearm must fall into one of these categories:
1 ) Manufactured at least 50 years prior to the current date (but not including replicas of such firearms); This classification happens automatically. Or, the BATFE can be petitioned to give such classification to a firearm if it is:
2 ) Certified by the curator of a municipal, State, or Federal museum which exhibits firearms to be curios or relics of museum interest; and
3 ) Derives a substantial part of its monetary value from the fact that it is novel, rare, bizarre, or because of its association with some historical figure, period, or event.
The C&R category includes many muzzle-loaders, but not modern designs which use a receiver or can readily be adapted to fire fixed ammunition. Any modifications to a C&R firearm may (and often do) invalidate its C&R status.
You can obtain a "C&R collector" license for a modest fee, and with this license C&R firearms do not require a Form 4473 to be filled out as with modern firearm transfers. The seller will keep a copy of your C&R collector license on file, and you will not have to go through a NICS check with each purchase. Additionally, you will be able to have C&R firearms shipped directly to the address you registered with your C&R license. As a licensed collector you are required to keep a “bound book” detailing such transactions, but because a “collector” is not considered to be a business these records are not routinely submitted to the BATFE. A C&R license is advantageous if you plan on buying very many C&R firearms, but isn't worthwhile if you only plan to own a few. Beware: in order to actually deal
in such firearms you need to obtain an FFL license!
The BATFE keeps a FAQ and their latest rulings: http://www.atf.gov/publications/firearms/curios-relics/