Top 10 Tips for Buying Your First Gun, Part 2

Top 10 Tips for Buying Your First Gun, Part 2

In Part 1 of the Top 10 Tips for Buying Your First Gun (published on Saturday) we discussed, in detail the first five steps  I recommended to my brother-in-law and a few buddies the steps to buy their first firearm for home or self defense. I’ll outline those steps (italicized) here and proceed to explain steps six through ten. Please return to Part 1 to read about the first five steps in detail if you missed that article. Also remember that firearms regulations vary tremendously across the U.S. Make sure that you keep it legal.

1.  Determine whether you are mentally capable of using lethal force to protect yourself and your loved ones.

2.  Decide what type of firearm is right for your situation.

3.  Learn the rules of gun safety.

4.  Take a class or hire an individual instructor.

5.  Decide how to safely store your firearm.

6.  Purchase Your Gun:  Your options include private purchase, gun shop/dealer, gun show or buying your gun from the government through the Civilian Marksmanship Program (CMP).

Private Purchase: You enter into a private contract with another party to purchase a firearm that they already own. Never offer to purchase a firearm that someone doesn’t yet owned because this could be construed as a ‘straw purchase.’ A straw purchase is when one party purchases the firearm ‘legally’ then sells the gun (illegally) to a third party. This was the mechanism that the Justice Department facilitated during the recent Fast & Furious Scandal to put U.S. firearms in the hands of Mexican drug gangs.

Features & Tips:

  • Expect to dicker on price so make sure you know before negotiating how much that particular firearm is worth. Research your firearm’s value on sites like Gunbroker or Gun Digest.
  • If you’re not purchasing from someone you know well… make sure to meet in a public place but somewhere where you will have the freedom to inspect the firearm for function and make sure it’s mechanically sound.  Bring along a firearms enthusiast friend if possible to help you evaluate the gun and stay safe.
  • Research the firearm you buy and make sure there weren’t any known issues or recalls. You may need to ask the gun’s seller for the serial number if your research discovers that there are issues with some serial number ranges.
  • Make out duplicate bills of sale listing the gun’s make, model, caliber and serial number. Both the buyer and seller should sign both bills of sale and each party retains one. Keep the bill of sale as well as a record of who you purchased the firearm from and their contact information in an envelope in the top of your gun safe.  It’s unlikely that your gun was stolen but keep good records of your purchases just in case.
  • In some jurisdictions you are required to register firearms or certain types of firearms and in Illinois you must have a Firearm Owner’s Identification (FOID)…remember to keep it legal. Call your local police or sheriff department’s non-emergency line and ask to talk to an officer if you are unsure of the requirements in your area.


  • You may be able to negotiate a sweet deal or have even get accessories for your new firearm thrown in.
  • In most jurisdictions there is no record of your purchase for crooks to use to target your weapons for theft (while it’s unlikely that your gun store or the government agencies with access to firearm background checks employ criminals…is is a possibility)
  • Makes it much more difficult for ‘constitutionally challenged’ local authorities to confiscate your weapons during a crisis…I didn’t believe it at first either but those rumors of the gun confiscations from private homes and evacuees during Hurricane Katrina were true.  How despicable…taking away someone’s ability to defend themselves during the time they need it to the most.


  • You’re purchasing a used gun, there is no warranty
  • You may be meeting a stranger with cash in your pocket…that presents its own security issues

Gun Shop or Dealer: Your second option is to buy your firearm from a Federal Firearms Licensed (FFL) dealer. Some dealers have a shop and some operate from their home.  You can also mail order firearms (to be delivered to your FFL for processing and pickup).

Features & Tips:

  • You can find a FFL near you by going online to Gunbroker’s FFL List.
  • Whether you buy from your FFL’s inventory or have a weapon delivered to and processed though your FFL he/she will handle your “ATF Firearms Transaction Record, Over the Counter” (Form 4473) background check before turning over or selling the firearm to you.
  • Your gun dealer is a great resource for all things firearms related…he/she should be willing to mentor you and help you navigate the logistics and legalities of making your purchase…in he/she’s not willing to be helpful or acts arrogant…find another.
  • Don’t shop for a firearm outside your home state unless you know the laws (some states allow you to buy long guns in neighboring states) or have a FFL identified in your home state to handle the cross-border transfer for you…it’s a hassle and generally adds to the cost of the firearm.
  • Don’t pay sticker price
  • In several states there are now some legal non-FFL options as well thanks to the Montana Firearms Freedom Act and its clones in other states.


  • You can usually handle a large number of firearms and often try them out at an onsite range if your FFL has a shop (or operates from his/her rural home or farm).
  • Your FFL should be happy to guide you through the purchase process
  • Shops are much more comfortable for those who like to make purchases in traditional retail environments…but don’t forget to negotiate.


  • You are expected to negotiate, but are unlikely to negotiate that sweet deal you might get from buying through private purchase.
  • Unless you’re buying a used firearm there probably won’t be many accessories thrown in
  • There are records of your purchase both locally at the gun store and with the government due to the background check.

Gun Show: You can also buy firearms from gun shows in most states. I don’t recommend this option for the novice. Gun shows can be very overwhelming and it is unlikely that the novice will strike a good deal.  Additionally, the dealers may not have much time to guide you through the process as he/she has to man their booth.  You are more likely to overpay for an impulse purchase than to get a good deal.  Go see the gun show by all means but purchase your first firearm from a local dealer or through private purchase.

Purchase From The Government:  The Civilian Marksmanship Program (CMP) is another purchasing option for rifles and carbines but it’s unlikely to be a good choice for the purchase of that first firearm for home or self defense.  In the future we’ll do a full article on this method of purchase as it’s a great way for military rifle enthusiasts to pick up their own piece of history.

7.  Now that you have your firearm you need some ammunition to feed it.  You’re going to want to buy two types of ammunition, Practice and Self Defense.  Ammunition must be in the proper caliber (for rifle, carbine, pistol & revolver) or gauge (for shotguns & hybrid revolvers).  Calibers and gauges can be confusing and are beyond the scope of this article…suffice it to say that ‘close’ doesn’t work in firearms…only use the exact caliber or gauge your weapon is designed for.  More information on matching your gun’s data stamp to the proper ammunition can be found here.  Additionally, make sure you read your owners manual (easy to find online at the manufacturer’s website or posted by an enthusiast like those at Steve’s Pages) not just for firearm operation information, but also to determine if there are any limitations or additional types of ammunition your firearm can fire.  For example, those ‘hybrid’ revolvers we talked about in Step 2 may shoot .45 caliber and .410 shotshell (technically a shotgun ‘bore’ but think of a gauge for simplicity) or your pistol may be able to handle .38 Special ammunition but not .38 Special +P (a more powerful round of the same caliber).  If in doubt consult a professional like that firearms instructor you made friends with in Step 4 or FFL you made friends with in Step 6.

Practice ammunition is much less expensive than Self Defense ammunition.  This is what you will fire when you practice so your wallet doesn’t hurt so much.  It will exhibit slightly different (trajectory) ballistics and feeding (if you aren’t using a revolver) than your Self Defense ammunition but will be close enough for new (and most veteran) shooters.  Most of what I buy for practice is ‘ball’ ammunition but if the price is right and it’s quality ammunition I may use another type.  Note:  there’s a lot of cheap Russian ammunition out there that will be tempting to buy… but start with quality American made brass (not steel) cased ammunition.    You’ll have fewer issues with quality, loading and even cleaning your firearm.
Self Defense ammunition (generally hollow points except for shotgun rounds) is very expensive but has improved (wound) ballistics and stopping power and can have greatly reduced penetration…it will do the job on the bad guy but be less likely to go through 6 layers of drywall and kill your neighbor.  Notice I said less likely…remember Gun Safety Rule #3.  Because of the expense this isn’t going to be ammunition that you use regularly in practice, but you MUST put some through your weapon in practice to make sure that your weapon functions properly with the ammunition you will use when it counts.  Some firearms (mostly the cheaper varieties) are finicky about what ammunition they take.  For more information including self defense ammunition recommendations by caliber read this article from but it appears to be written before the development of the .410 shotshell ‘hybrid’ revolvers.  If you picked a ‘hybrid’ check out this article from The American Rifleman.

8.  Even though you have put a lot of thought into how to safely store your firearm you must still train all family members about firearms safety in an age and maturity level appropriate manner.  This is both a moral and legal imperative on your part.  Even if you set aside the moral issues, parents have been successfully prosecuted for the firearms related misdeeds of their children.  I firmly believe that children who are taught how to safely handle and use a firearm are much less likely to misuse or ‘toy’ with a gun…take the mystique out of firearms and most people treat them as what they are… dangerous but useful tools.

9.  Now that you are an armed household there are a few more procedures you need to work out.  Depending on the choices you made in Step 5 about how to store your gun you will need to develop ‘visitor procedures.’  Visitor procedures are how you will react to unpleasant, unannounced visitors and the pleasant type (announced and unannounced).  It’s risky to keep your gun locked up when you might need it…it’s also risky to leave your gun out where someone who shouldn’t might have access to it.  For those that are trained and competent with firearms, the safest place to keep your weapon (during waking hours) may be on your body.

In our town and the neighboring towns there have been several home intrusions in recent years.  We live in a nice area but there was a shooting involving our neighbor several years ago.  Shortly after he moved in two men kicked in his door and made entry…he promptly chased them out and put two rounds into their vehicle as they drove off (not really legally justified but we have a common sense law enforcement community here).  Turns out that my neighbor’s home had previously been owned by someone with criminal ties and the bad guys didn’t know that the crook had moved out.  In a home intrusion like my neighbor’s, criminals kick in your door or break a window or sliding door and make forcible entry into your home.  You don’t know if the wolves are in your house to kill, rape, or steal.  You must have a plan for your response that will keep your family safe and keep you out of prison…make (and practice) your plan with your state’s laws in mind.

You must also have a plan for what to do when you have friends or acquaintances over.  If you chose to take the risk and have a weapon out you must have a procedure to secure that weapon when you have visitors.  Your visitors may include children, mentally unstable adults or even someone who can’t help but walk off with your family’s means of protecting itself.  Have a plan to secure your gun, practice your plan and execute EVERY time you have friendly visitors.

10.  Practice!  Without ongoing practice and training you will not build the muscle memory necessary to properly and accurately employ your firearm when the blood, sweat and adrenaline are flowing.  For most of my military career we took our troops to the firing range just once a year…the only thing we seemed to accomplish by this (except checking the box for annual qualification) was making our soldiers fear their own weapons.  These soldiers had weeks of basic rifle marksmanship in basic training and often couldn’t remember how to operate their weapons after just a few years.  I recommend range time at least quarterly and taking additional shooting classes or coaching from an instructor periodically to maintain and improve your skills.

Well that’s the Top 10 Tips for Buying Your First Gun that I wrote for my brother-in-law and a few friends.  Take this list and use it as an example to build your plan.

Final two pieces of advice are keep it safe and keep it legal!

Note:  If you plan on linking to this article…link to Part 1 as Part 2 will be combined with Part 1 in 30 days.

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