Buying your first handgun can be pretty intimidating if you’ve never done it before, so this article is designed to give you a 9 step process to get you started.
This article covers buying a handgun in the USA from a federally licensed dealer (FFL). All states allow handgun sales though an FFL holder, although there may be many restrictions and hoops to jump through. Some states allow private handguns sales (sales of handguns between individuals, not through an FFL), some states place restrictions on private sales and some don’t allow them at all. It’s way beyond this article to list each and every state’s requirements, so here’s a link to an NRA resource where you can look up the laws relative to your own state. Also, some localities have additional regulations, you should definitely look those up too before you decide to buy.
Rifles and shotguns will be addressed in later articles.
Before we gets started, there’s one more weird government law to know. You cannot legally buy handguns out-of-state. If you for some reason want to buy a gun in a state you don’t live in, then the gun must be shipped by the dealer you are buying it from to a dealer in the state you live in. This is RARELY worth the effort unless you are buying the gun online (in which case any federally recognized modern firearm must be shipped to an FFL holder anyway).
Step One: The first step is to insure you are legally allowed to buy and own a handgun in your state. Federal law states that you must be 21-years-old to buy a handgun, so if you are under 21, well… looks like you will have to wait. Other qualifications apply (i.e. you are not a felon, you are a resident of the state, etc.). Again, some states require all gun owners to jump through extra hoops (like the FOID card in Illinois, as an example), so make sure you have that you have jumped through all of the hoops your state requires before you start.
Step Two: Get some training or help from an experienced friend before you even start shopping. It’s important you understand firearms safety BEFORE you pick up your first gun. If you need a brush up on the rules of gun safety, click here for an article I wrote about that.
Step Three: Determine the role of the gun you are buying. What are you planning on using it for? Are you buying it to become a concealed carry gun? Are you going to use it primarily for home defense? Is it for your get-home or bug-out bag? Sadly, no one gun is perfect for everything, so knowing what you primarily want to use the gun for an important thing. It will largely help determine the type of handgun you buy.
Step Four: Go to a gun range where you can rent a gun/borrow a gun/guns from a friend that match what you decided in step three. If you want a home defense handgun, try out a full-size semi auto and a full-sized revolver. See how they fit in your hand. Try several calibers and several sizes of guns, if possible, to get a good feel for what is available and also so that you can understand what the various recoils feel like. Also, I recommend buying home defense and concealed carry guns in calibers of at least .380. What does this mean? Click here for more information about gun calibers.
Step Five: Go to a local gun shop (LGS) with a good reputation, if possible around 2:00 PM in the afternoon (the biggest lull time in most stores). What about a gun show, you might ask? Well… personally, I think gun shows are OK for the experienced purchaser who knows exactly what they are doing, but newer shooters should stick with their LGS and develop a relationship with them. Unlike that dealer at a gun show, your LGS will be there to help you diagnose any problems that you are having with a gun, and they can give you sound firearms advice after the sale.
Step Six: Try various different guns from reputable manufacturers, checking specifically for feel. You want a gun to feel like an extension for your arm, so spend less time worrying about specifications and more time considering whether the gun fits you.
Step Seven: Buy only from top-quality manufacturers, and don’t shortchange yourself and save a few dollars to buy a lesser brand. Your life is on the line on this decision. Literally. My personal favorite brands include (but are not limited to) Smith & Wesson, Sig Sauer, Glock, Kahr Arms and Sturm Ruger. There are other great brands out there, and a few that I don’t recommend (anything by Chiappa as an example). Beginners should stay away from “low end” guns like Hi-Point as well, stick to the “big” manufacturers. I’m not saying such guns “never have a place” in your preps, I just don’t recommend them to be your first (and therefore only) gun.
Step Eight: Discuss if training in both shooting and cleaning is included in the deal, and if it isn’t, find out how much extra it will cost. Many times LGS’s will have classes that they will throw in to close the sale if you just ask them. The worst they can do is say no.
Step Nine: Make your selection and pull out your wallet with CASH in it. Always ask for a cash discount. Asking for a discount sometimes doesn work, but saying you have cash in hand usually does. Expect 5-10 percent. Fill out the paperwork understanding the following: If your state has a waiting period, then you will wait. You will have a background check done either through your state or the Federal government. At busy times of the year this may take a long wait in the store, so be prepared for that. Also be prepared for a “hold” to come back from the feds, holds are very, very common and no reason for concern… but they are annoying.
Pro Tip: If it’s a small gun shop, buy your gun at 2:00 PM on Thursday afternoons. Not only does it mean you get a weekend to start working with your new gun (assuming you live in a civilized state that lets you take your new gun with you out of the shop with no waiting period) but also stores need to make payroll, and your best time to get a deal is Thursday afternoon. Additionally, the “background checkers” are less busy at that time than most others, so your paperwork may go through faster.
There you have it. Buy your gun, clean your gun, shoot your gun, clean your gun.