With as much attention as “how to pick your first gun” blog posts get, it can be easy for gun-media types to forget that if you’ve never gone into a store and bought a gun, you’ve … well … you’ve never gone into a store and bought a gun. And if you’re like me, you prefer to prepare for the unknown as well as you can, especially when failure to do so can result in a lot of extra frustration. It never hurts to take a quick read through “policies and procedures” just to make sure that you aren’t in for any surprises.

Who Can Buy a Gun?

In short, if you are an American citizen or lawful permanent resident, you are allowed to purchase firearms from federally licensed dealers, provided you are of the necessary age. For long guns, that is generally 18 years. For handguns, that is generally 21 years.

(Some areas have stricter laws, and private sales are an entirely different situation with varying levels of legality across multiple states.)

When you enter a gun shop (often called an “FFL” online, meaning “federal firearms licensee”) to buy a gun, you will need to bring a photo ID – the whole system is pretty much designed around driver’s licenses. If you are a legal permanent resident, bring those pertinent documents too.

About Form 4473

Once you’ve picked out your firearm, you will be asked to fill out a Form 4473, which is the federal paperwork that will allow your identity to be run through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (called “NICS” and pronounced like the New York basketball team.) This form requires information on your birthplace, physical characteristics, your past and a few very specific questions about the transaction you’re trying to make.

It is imperative that you not lie on this form because lying on this form is a federal crime. There are certain convictions that disallow you from buying a gun, just as there are certain adjudications and declarations that disallow you from owning a gun. And if you think they won’t care about “that one thing” 20 years ago, think again.

If you have any convictions of any kind on your record or if you were dishonorably discharged from the U.S. military or if you have ever had any other run-in with this nation’s legal or mental health systems that resulted in incarceration, institutionalization or any other flavor of disenfranchisement, you need to consult an attorney who lives in your state of residence. Various felonies and misdemeanors are treated in various ways. But pretty much anything involving domestic violence will get you declared a prohibited person. It’s a lot better to find out that you’re denied in private from an attorney — who can then maybe get the ball rolling on trying to get your rights reinstated — than to find out in public from a gun-shop clerk.

The Law’s The Law

Speaking of denials, it is illegal for you to purchase a firearm for someone else who cannot pass a 4473. This is known as a “straw purchase” and is a crime. If someone you love is barred from buying or possessing firearms, the next step is never to break the law. The next step is to retain the services of an attorney and work to get his or her rights reinstated.

There may be other forms you must fill out depending on what you’re buying and where you live. For example, in my home state of Wisconsin, there is a specific handgun form that I must complete. As in – if I’m buying a shotgun or a rifle, I just have to fill out the federal 4473, but if I’m buying a pistol, I have to fill out that 4473 as well as a Wisconsin-specific handgun background-check form. Other states have their own permutations of this process. You should run a search on the name of your state and “gun buying form” to see what you might be in for.

Steps to Buy a Gun

Buying a gun can be a pretty straightforward process, depending on where you live, of course. After you’ve done some research into which firearm you want to purchase, here are the simple steps to bring that gun home.

  • Be sure you qualify federally to own a gun.
  • Check your state’s laws. States vary on what is needed to buy a gun. You can find all of that useful information over at USCCA.com/Laws.
  • You will need to complete a Form 4473 if purchasing from a Federal Firearm Licensed dealer.
    • Bring a photo ID with you.
  • The store will run a National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) check.
    • Response times will vary based on how backlogged the system is.
    • This is not the same as a waiting period, which some states also have

Other than that, be ready to maybe have to wait a few days to get your firearm. Some states have legally mandated waiting periods, and sometimes your name is similar enough to a prohibited person’s name that your transaction can get delayed. This is especially common if you have had multiple last names over the years, but it can happen to anyone. There was another guy named Ed Combs who made several of my transfers drag out for a while there, which leads us to “holds.”

If your approval is “held,” meaning the FFL is getting neither a “yes” nor a “no” on transferring a firearm to you, the government can delay the transfer for three full business days to figure out whatever is causing the holdup. But once that time passes, the FFL and any applicable state laws get to decide whether the transfer will be completed. In my case, a few transfers were resolved within minutes. But one transfer was held for two days before the feds could figure out that gun-magazine-editor Ed Combs from Wisconsin WAS NOT career-criminal Ed Combs from somewhere in the Southeast.

Marijuana Is Still Very Much Federally Illegal

This might be a good time to mention that I am not, nor have I ever been, an attorney, and that nothing I write anywhere should be considered actual legal advice.

That said, if your state has decriminalized cannabis use and you have a “cannabis card” issued by your state government or if you are a user of cannabis regardless of location, you are — as far as the Bureau Of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is concerned — a prohibited person.

Yes, I know your state “legalized it.” But they didn’t really “legalize” anything. They decided that they were not going to pursue state-level charges against persons in possession of something that is illegal at the federal level. As far as the feds are concerned, cannabis is still a Schedule I controlled substance, and that federal form 4473 you have to fill out is very plain in its language. If you are a user of cannabis, you are a prohibited person.

Here is the ATF’s take on the matter from back in 2011. It’s a letter they sent to all FFLs. It basically says that if an FFL sees a marijuana card or a potential customer tells an FFL that he or she is a user of marijuana or if that FFL has reason to believe that a customer is a user of marijuana, that the FFL in question can not allow the sale.

Here is a more updated take from June of 2021. It addresses CBD products, but nothing much changed in those 10 years. Cannabis is still a Schedule I controlled substance. According to that ATF newsletter, though, CBD products with a THC percentage below a certain threshold (“not more than 0.3 percent on a dry-weight basis”) is apparently not alone grounds for reasonable cause for an FFL to deny you a sale.

Don’t know what else to tell you on this one. Remember, on the gun-shop level, firearms are first and foremost a federal matter. Your state may have said they don’t care if you go to a dispensary, but “Dot Gov” still does.

Take Your Time

Selecting your first gun can be stressful, but the final paperwork stage should be a breeze. Just remember to be sure you have your state-issued ID with you, to answer all of the questions on that 4473 honestly and to understand that if your purchase gets delayed, it’s not the shop owner’s fault. He or she is on the phone with a representative from an enormous federal bureaucracy. And sometimes enormous federal bureaucracies work neither quickly nor efficiently. Just hang in there, tell the truth and get ready to enjoy your new gun.