My first trip to a gun shop was a bit like my first visit to Wild Birds Unlimited. In both cases, I had no idea what I was talking about, little concept of what I wanted (much less needed) and was convinced that everyone in the store would spot me as a poser.

That’s the hard part about starting a new endeavor. I was convinced the ornithologists at Wild Birds would lose all respect for me as a productive member of humanity once they started asking what I needed:

“I’d like some bird seed for a feeder please.”

“Sure! What kind of birds come around your yard?”

“Ummm, the kind that fly?”

The same kind of performance anxiety rears its ugly head for a first visit to the gun store. Convinced that they’ll be ridiculed if they don’t display sufficient knowledge, many people try to “fake it” so other customers and staff don’t view them as know-nothing rookies.

Here’s the thing: If I had walked into Wild Birds Unlimited and pronounced something like, “I don’t know a thing about birds, but I think it would be cool to have a feeder on my back porch,” my visit would have been a lot easier on my pride and more helpful for the staff. The same rule applies to a gun store. In each case, the store’s staff will be happy to help you get started. In fact, most employees appreciate knowing your level of knowledge, or lack thereof, so they can better communicate on your terms.

Your typical gun store sales counter featuring handguns in a glass cabinet and an array of long guns on a peg board rack along the back wall. An adjacent wall holds a display of rifle cases in various tactical colors.

Like fine jewelry stores, gun stores will keep firearms either in a case or behind the counter. They’ll be happy to get one out for you to look at; employees just have to be extra careful about security and shoplifters.

With that said, gun stores are slightly more intimidating than the local Cardinal Emporium, likely because the products carry life-or-death consequences. So it’s a good idea to learn a few things before your first shooting shop visit.

Safety First!

When you visit a gun store, it’s important to plant “safety” in your brain. Yes, it’s a store. No, the guns are not supposed to be loaded. But yes, now and then one is. Regardless of whether there should be no loaded guns in a store, it can and does happen, although rarely. But that’s beside the point.

Any time you handle guns, treat them as if they are loaded. Gun folks refer to this as Rule 1, and it covers a lot of ground. If you treat a gun like it’s loaded, you won’t point it at someone. You won’t point it at a part of your own body. You won’t look down the muzzle. We could go on about all the rules of gun safety, but for now, since it’s your first gun store visit, let’s start with the basics. Treat any guns you examine and handle as if they are loaded and act accordingly. That’s pretty easy, right?

People Carry Guns … And That’s OK

One thing you’ll notice in many gun stores is that the staff may be carrying … guns!

That’s OK. They’re just using the products they sell. The other day, I took my nice watch in for repair. This local jeweler carries the high-end stuff like Rolex, Omega and Breitling. Guess what the lady who helped me had on her wrist? A Rolex! No surprise, right? That’s what she sells.

Gun stores, like jewelry stores, also carry products that are desirable to steal, so there’s also the element of security. That’s the second reason that you may see sales staff carrying firearms. As a matter of fact, you also might be surprised at how many fine jewelers carry firearms or have a couple stashed behind the counter. But that’s another story.

The bottom line is that the practice is common and normal. If you’re new to the concept of armed self-defense, this may surprise you at first. No worries though; those people carrying guns are just like you and won’t be doing anything crazy just because they have one.

A finely engraved silver Ruger snub-nosed pistol lying upon a gray digicam background.

Don’t be surprised if some of the store staff carry guns. That’s what they sell! One employee is so proud of her custom-engraved revolver that she got it out to show me.

Gun-Handling Etiquette

When you’re new to a situation, one of the learning challenges is to figure out the etiquette or expected behavior. The first time you play golf, you may not realize you’re not supposed to walk on the grass between your opponent’s ball and the hole. While doing so won’t get you arrested, it’s polite to be sensitive to golf etiquette, and it lets your opponent know you respect him or her (and the game).

Gun stores have some etiquette rules as well. Following these simple behavior suggestions will help make you a favorite customer:

  • When a clerk hands you a gun to inspect, open it again and look to make sure it’s unloaded. A good salesperson will have done that immediately before handing it to you, but doing it again shows you care about safety. He or she won’t be offended but rather appreciate your commitment to safe handling practices.
  • Before pressing the trigger of an empty gun you’re inspecting, ask the clerk if you can “dry fire” it. That simply means pressing the trigger and operating the action when it’s unloaded. It doesn’t hurt most modern firearms to dry fire, but it’s nice to ask since the store still owns the gun you’re examining.
  • If you want to look through the sights, be sure to point the gun at the floor or ceiling as you maneuver it to a “safe” target. Pointing it at the salesperson, even for a split second, is a sure way to make someone nervous. Instead, point the muzzle toward the floor, move accordingly, then raise it to an empty wall or part of the ceiling to look through the sights.
  • When you return a firearm to the salesperson, give it to him or her butt-first or with the muzzle pointed up or down so it’s not pointed at his or her body.

As you may have noticed, these “etiquette” behaviors are consistent with the first rule of safety we mentioned previously — always treat a gun as if it’s loaded.


Some stores have ranges at the same facility, and many of these offer firearms rentals. No, you can’t rent one to take with you, but you can rent one to use at that range for a while. If you’re looking to buy a firearm at such a store and range facility, ask the associate about the store’s rental policies. Many stores allow you to try out a specific gun by renting. If you like it and end up buying one, stores will often credit the range rental fee toward your purchase price.

Purchase Process

Firearms retailers are federally regulated out the wazoo, so buying a gun is not as easy as buying Advil (despite what many gun-control proponents like to claim). When you purchase a gun, you must fill out a government form ATF 4473 Firearms Transaction Record. This form prompts you for detailed contact and eligibility information. A series of questions verify your legal status. If you answer “no” to any of those, you won’t be able to purchase a firearm. And don’t ever, ever lie on the form 4473 — it’s a federal felony that carries big fines and jail time.

Once you complete the form, the dealer will call the FBI National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) to make sure your name does not come up as a prohibited person. This only takes a few minutes unless there is a problem. While rare, sometimes the NICS system returns a “deny” or “delay” result. If your record is clean, then it’s simply a foul-up in the system, and your dealer can point you in the right direction to get it straightened out.

Your typical gun store room featuring display racks of optics, literature, magazines, cleaning kits and other accessories amid advertisements and displays for firearm accessory and ammunition manufacturers.

A gun store is like any other retailer. It just has a few extra rules to follow when selling.

Once your background check is complete, you’re the proud owner of a new firearm. Some stores will escort you to the front door, carrying your firearm for you until you’re ready to leave, but policies vary. Don’t be surprised if there is some process like this used by your retailer.

When you get right down to it, a gun store is just like any other retailer. It just has a few more federal procedures to follow. The most important thing to remember is that it’s OK to ask for help. If you don’t know the first thing about guns, be sure to tell an associate that. In most cases, he or she will be more than happy to teach you the ropes.