Buying Guns Online: What You Need To Know

To hear the media and certain politicians tell it, buying a gun online is as easy as hitting the “Place Your Order” button on Amazon. Those same people continually complain about online gun sales and imply that they directly circumvent the background check system. Of course, that’s nothing but deliberate misinformation and propaganda meant to frighten an ill-informed public.

Online gun sales
There is much deliberate confusion regarding online gun sales. (

Such allegations confuse people, as they are meant to do. They also encourage many people of questionable history and morals to try buying guns online, thinking they will get away with it.

But, with millions of new gun owners joining our ranks over the last few years, we think it would be helpful to clear the air by describing the process of online gun purchases, both from licensed retailers and individuals.

Online Gun Purchases: What They Are Not

First, let’s dispel the stuff meant to scare people. You cannot go to a gun dealer’s website and have a firearm delivered to your door. You just can’t. It’s illegal, not just for you, but for the merchant as well. Despite the rhetoric about “renegade” gun dealers, do you really think people would risk their business, not to mention a felony firearms charge and prison sentence, to sell you a $500 gun? Would you do that?

The answer, of course, is “no.” As appealing as it sounds to many of us, there is no online Amazon-style retailer selling guns to all comers, nor will there ever be. It is true that guns used to be available through the mail with no background or even an identity check. But that hasn’t happened since the 1960s. So put that notion to bed.

Thompson submachine gun advertisement
The good old days of having guns shipped to your door are long gone. (

Buying a Firearm from an Online Retailer

There are several steps to buying a gun online, so let’s walk through them:

  • Identify the gun you want and from whom you wish to purchase it. We recommend shopping around since dealers often have sales that can save you a significant amount of cash. But don’t buy it yet. You need to have certain information available.
  • Find a local licensed firearms dealer (FFL) because, contrary to the misinformation, you must have your newly purchased gun shipped directly to such a dealer. Ask if they do transfers for online gun purchases. Most will, but some do not. Ask how much they charge. That is very important. Fees can range from as little as $10 to as much as $100. Shop around. $25 to $40 is standard. If they are higher than that, find someone else. The $100 dealers are telling you they don’t want to do it without actually saying so. Dealers charge you for the transfer because federal law requires that they enter your firearm into their inventory and then remove it once you pick it up. Plus, they must process your paperwork and perform the background check. So, it requires time and effort on their part.
  • Yes, there is a background check. The dealer to whom you ship your new gun will perform it. If you don’t pass, then you don’t get your gun, just like if you tried to buy it from that dealer. They will ship it back to the retailer and then it’s up to you to get your money back. There is no getting around that background check.
  • When you find a local dealer to whom you wish the firearm to be shipped, ask them to provide the retailer with their FFL credentials. A very few dealers will give you that information to pass along, but most will email it themselves. So have a contact email for the retailer. Make certain the dealer includes your name for the retailer’s reference. Some large retailers have numerous FFLs already on file, but don’t assume that yours is there.
  • Purchase your firearm. You will enter all the information about shipping at that time. You will also pay for your gun here. The only payment due to the dealer you pick up from is the transfer fee.
  • Pick up your firearm when it arrives at the dealer. As noted, you will first have to fill out the paperwork, pass a background check, and pay the dealer’s transfer fee. Only then can you leave with your purchase.

That may sound like a lot, but it really isn’t. Honestly, the hardest part is making sure the dealer through whom you wish to transfer your firearm actually sends the email to the correct address. We’ve had to remind them two or three times before.

online gun sales gun store transfer
Buying from an online retailer still ends up with this transaction. (Christian Alexandersen/

Buying a Firearm Online from an Individual

This one is different, and the process depends on state as well as federal laws. In the good old days of Facebook, we belonged to a local gun trader group. Individuals posted firearms for sale almost every day. We ourselves bought some and sold some. It was a good time. But Facebook and other platforms shut that down years ago.

There are some online platforms for individual sales, like Armslist, Gun Broker, and others. Most will only ship to an FFL, but occasionally, very occasionally, you can find someone local who will deal with you face-to-face. There are also local firearms trader groups, which we prefer. They just aren’t on social media.

If you choose to buy from an individual this way, here’s what to expect:

  • First and foremost, know the law. That includes federal law, the laws of your state, and even some localities. There is no excuse for not doing so. If your state has so-called “universal” background checks, the seller will meet you at a local gun dealer who will perform the check. You will be responsible for the fee. Once you pass, the gun is yours after paying the seller. The seller may require a background check even if your state does not mandate it. Don’t be offended. He is only protecting himself. You can always walk away if you don’t want to do that.
  • If your state does not require a background check and the seller doesn’t require one, he will likely want to meet in a public place, often a box store parking lot.
  • Federal law requires that gun sales can only take place between residents of the same state. Don’t be surprised or offended if the seller asks for your ID. Again, he is protecting himself. A responsible seller will ask for your ID. You, in turn, should ask for theirs. If they don’t live in your state or refuse to produce an ID, end the transaction and walk away. Purchasing the gun may make you a felon. It isn’t worth it, no matter how nice the firearm or how good the deal is.
  • Many sellers will insist on a bill of sale. They will already have this printed up for you and them to fill out. There will be copies for each of you. It will have basic information about the firearm you are buying, as well as the seller and yourself. Once again, the seller is protecting himself. Such a document also shows that you bought the gun legally, should the question ever arise. No need to share it with anyone unless you are legally required to do so, but it’s nice to have. You, as the purchaser, can also insist on a bill of sale if the seller does not. Up to you. We’ve done it both ways.
  • Feel free to walk away if anything seems sketchy. Set the parameters for the sale ahead of time and stick to them. As noted, meeting in a public place is a very good idea. You aren’t doing anything illegal, and we’ve never had a problem, but always protect yourself.
ATF online gun sales
Yes, it’s legal. Just make sure you know and follow the law. (

Advantages and Disadvantages

Buying online has the advantage of choosing from a massive inventory. You can usually find exactly what you want, as opposed to a local gun store whose choices may be limited. The prices are usually better too, as many online retailers don’t have the overhead of regular gun stores, or their online capabilities mitigate those extra expenses.

Sometimes, you can only find that perfect gun online because special editions and such sell out quickly. Being able to buy it directly from the manufacturer gives you an advantage. Also, buying from individuals often means that the government doesn’t have a record of the sale. That may not be important to you, but it is to some folks.

The downsides to online purchasing include jumping through the extra hoops of having a gun transferred and paying the shipping and transfer fees on top of the purchase price. Local gun stores don’t charge a transfer fee if you buy direct from them. At least, we don’t know of any that do. Sometimes, those fees negate any savings you may have realized on the sale price.

gun background check
Buying online rarely, if ever, allows you to bypass this. (Shutterstock)

In the end, it comes down to what you want and whether it’s available. We buy from local gun stores. We also buy online when we want something the local guys don’t have and can’t get, or if we run across a sizeable savings.

Online sales are a good thing for gun owners and the gun industry. It aids consumers in getting what they want and helps gunmakers get their products, lawfully, to those consumers. So, the next time you hear anti-gun politicians, media, or gun control groups raving about online gun sales, don’t buy the propaganda. It’s nothing but accessing firearms using modern technology while following the same laws we always have.

William "Bucky" Lawson is a self-described "typical Appalachian-American gun enthusiast". He is a military historian specializing in World War II and has written a few things, as he says, "here and there". A featured contributor for Strategy & Tactics, he likes dogs, range time, and a good cigar - preferably with an Old Fashioned that has an extra orange slice.

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