Editor's note: This post was one of the most popular articles on our old site. although it has been mildly updated, please note that the material was originally posted in 2009.
All too often, we shooters find ourselves having to rebut inane stereotypes about our fellow shooters and the industry in general. One of the more common misconceptions involves the process of buying guns via the Internet (usually called an FFL transfer). Typically, John Q public thinks that the Internet gun buyer is either purchasing guns illegally or somehow attempting to skirt the law (as if it’s so easy to do). This stigma is often reinforced every time some crazy-ass whack job uses a gun he/she bought using the FFL transfer method to shoot up a public place. Even on the less anti-gun news networks, you will often hear commentators opine about how a gun buyer shouldn’t be able to just order a gun the same way one buys an iDevice from the Apple store. Poor, uninformed schleps…
Beyond that, I’m even more surprised when I overhear shooters at some of the public ranges I visit making completely uninformed statements about the FFL transfer process. John and I can assure you that your schools and malls are safe. This Internet purchase process is merely the combination of ever-stiffening regulation of the industry and the advent of the Internet itself. This article aims to cover the basics of the process, debunk a few perceptions, and hopefully sell a few guns.
WHAT IS IT & WHY DO IT?
In a very quick nutshell, the FFL transfer process involves two Federally Licensed Firearm dealers (otherwise known as type 01 FFLs) shipping a firearm from one to the other. In order to complete the process, the shipping dealer has the legal responsibility of verifying that the receiving dealer is a legitimately licensed entity. This process involves exchanging paper or electronic copies of their licenses prior to the shipment of goods. There are exceptions to this process involving guns personally owned by dealers, but I won’t go into the details here.
As consumers, we are always looking for the right product at a fair price. I like to compare the gun industry to the automobile industry. There are relatively few car dealers in any specific locale (we’ll use Phoenix as an example), and each dealer must carry a certain level of inventory on the lot in order to satisfy the needs of roughly 80% of the folks who walk through their door. On a fairly regular basis, car dealers get customers wanting a specific color, level of trim, or engine choice on a particular model of car. Rather than turning the customer away, the dealer will order the specific car from the factory OR find the customer’s desired vehicle sitting on a lot somewhere in Tulsa (or anywhere else you probably aren’t driving to). This vehicle can be transferred to your dealer in Phoenix so you don’t have to make the trip. Well, the firearm industry is very much the same, with one minor exception. Typically, gun shops are tiny and can’t afford to purchase their product directly from the manufacturer due to minimum order quantities. Instead, they will buy their new stock from a distributor who will sell products in single-unit quantities.
If I walked into Average Gun Shop as a customer asking for a Two-Tone Sig Sauer P229 Elite, they would probably not have it on the shelf. So, that shop would have to call their distributor of choice and buy a single P229. The prices of P229s in single-unit quantities are clearly higher than if purchased in, say, packs of 10 directly from Sig Sauer. Unfortunately, Average Gun Shop probably couldn’t sell $10,000 worth of Sigs in enough time to make the deal profitable. So, consumers have typically paid excessive markups in order to find the gun they wanted. The quest to lower transaction costs has spawned an entirely new class of gun store. We’ll call them Internet FFLs.
Internet FFLs are essentially federally licensed gun dealers who sell all or part of their inventory using the FFL transfer method. They utilize (obviously) the Internet to reach a far wider audience than they would normally encounter from walk-in traffic. This allows them to specialize in a few types, models, or manufacturers of guns in order to bring great prices to customers.
Country Boy Artillery qualifies as an Internet FFL, so we’ll use ourselves as an example although our business model is slightly different from most others out there. If Country Boy Artillery decides to place a large order at Sig Sauer or Springfield (or any other manufacturer for that matter), the company qualifies for discounts and incentives not available to the single-unit quantity Average Gun Shop. The incentives allow us to reduce our selling price on many guns we sell. You’re happy, we’re happy.
ADDRESSING COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS
Before we go into the details of the transfer process, I’d like to introduce a few key points into this discussion that will help correct some of the more common inaccuracies found in the media and on the net. This is not by any means a comprehensive list, but it should help your understanding of the details discussed in the next section.
The only people that can sell you a new gun are federal licensees
Despite what you hear on TV, you cannot purchase NIB (new in box) firearms from unlicensed individuals. If you are unlicensed and/or selling from a personal collection, then the gun is technically used. We will address the sale of used guns via the Internet in a separate article.
Before the Internet existed, new guns were shipped from FFL to FFL. This process is nothing new. It has only been made more efficient by new technologies. It is of this author’s opinion that in the big scheme of things, we’ve still taken a few steps backward - but that’s for another article.
ALL gun sales are face to face
Even though you bought the gun from someone in another state via the Internet, you will have to take possession of the gun from a local dealer. You will, of course, have to comply with all federal, state, and local requirements for owning a gun.
There are only two ways to have a gun shipped directly to your house. The first is if you are a federal licensee and your premises are also your home. The other way to have a gun shipped directly to your house is if you own the gun in the first place. For example - if you need to ship a gun back to the manufacturer or a gunsmith, then they will send it directly back to you.
Accessories don’t apply
Magazines, scopes, ammunition, and everything without a federally regulated serial number can be purchased directly without any sort of federal license - just the way it should be.
THE PURCHASE PROCESS
While not instantly gratifying, the FFL transfer process is relatively easy, and can save you quite a bit of cash on your next purchase. Here are the basics:
Find A Dealer
Before you start, find a local dealer willing to receive an FFL transfer for you. It is imperative that you have an FFL dealer already lined up to get your shiny new (or used) gun into your hands. The primary reason is that, depending on your area, it may be difficult to find someone with an FFL willing to do the transfer for a reasonable price. Some dealers with storefronts will either flat out refuse to do transfers - or they’ll charge a ridiculous price to do it for you. Hey, it’s their prerogative; so if you get a tepid response, just keep moving. They don’t need your future business anyway. I’ve found that there’s always someone willing to do transfers for about $20-$30.
There is no comprehensive list of dealers in a given area willing to do FFL transfers, but piecemeal lists are easily found. For example, fflgundealers.net can provide a good starting point. Other excellent sources are gun forums and the online firearms retailers themselves.
I would highly suggest giving your selected transferring dealer a call or email, confirming prices and pickup times. This will also help increase your comfort level with the choice you’ve made.
Find a Gun to Buy
Duh, right? Sometimes, finding what you’re looking for is easier said than done. Most of the purchases I’ve made have been in some way connected to an Internet gun forum. Most of the big gun boards nowadays have a large contingent of reputable dealers and individuals selling just about anything you desire to (legally, of course) own. Please verify that your local and state laws don’t prohibit you from owning the gun you want to purchase. It’s nobody’s responsibility but yours to figure that out.
Pay the seller and initiate the transfer
Once you and the seller have agreed on payment terms, you have to initiate the transfer by making sure your local transfer dealer’s license gets sent to the seller. Usually, FFLs prefer to keep copies of their license fairly close to the vest; thus, the easiest way to handle this is to ask your local FFL to fax, email, or snail mail (whichever is acceptable to the seller) a copy of his/her license to the seller. This exchange used to add a week or more to the process, but has been streamlined due to the ATF’s acceptance of email as a method of document transfer. Once the seller receives your dealer’s license, he/she is then permitted to ship the gun to your dealer. After a short wait, your gun should arrive at your dealer’s place of business.
Pick up your gun
It’s now time to pick up your gun at your local FFL dealer’s place of business. This part of the process is exactly like going into your local gun store and buying a gun from their shelf, with one notable exception. You will only have to pay the dealer a transfer fee for labor incurred during the transfer.
Here’s where all local laws will apply. The federal government mandates a NICS background check (with a few exceptions) and a form 4473. If you live in a state that requires a waiting period or additional licensing, then you are still subject to those laws. Your local transferring dealer can inform you about the laws and requirements in your area.
And last (but not least), enjoy your new gun.
While the FFL transfer process may seem tedious, it presents few barriers and will undoubtedly save you thousands of dollars when building your collection. Local dealers can make a few extra bucks a month while increasing the variety of firearms available to their customer base. In addition, you will have expanded your search for that perfect “next gun” to include regions you would never be able to travel to. That’s what I call a “win-win” situation.
So, what are you waiting for?