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The Pros and Cons of Buying a Gun Online

The last couple of decades have seen a major shift in gun buying in America. For years, the only way to buy a gun was to walk into a gun shop and lay your money on the counter. The only other option was a gun show or a private sale from the ‘Guns for Sale’ section of the classified ads in the local newspaper.
Those guns for-sale classified ads are a thing of the past, but something even more convenient has taken their place: buying a gun online. In the year 2019, online gun sales increased by 336% over 2018. And overall, gun sales in 2020 were 65% higher than in 2019.

While buying a gun online has many benefits, it can also come with some drawbacks. It’s important to recognize what those are and to take steps to maximize the positives while avoiding the drawbacks.

How Buying a Gun Online Works

Despite what many uninformed anti-2A people think, you cannot just order a gun and have it delivered to your house like a coffee maker from Amazon. All firearms ordered online must be shipped to an FFL so a background check can be conducted before completing the transfer.

The buyer finds an FFL who agrees to do the transfer and then provides their contact information to the online seller. Once the seller has a copy of the FFL, they ship the gun. When it arrives, the buyer goes in, pays the transfer fee, and submits the paperwork for the background check. If they are approved, they can take their new gun home.

The process is relatively simple, and most of the time, everything goes smoothly. But like most other things, buying a gun online has both pros and cons.

Pros of Buying a Gun Online

I have lost count of how many guns I have purchased online. I don’t think I’ve bought a gun over the counter since 2009. The benefits of shopping online are just too good to pass up.

You’re No Longer Limited to the Local Gun Store

Before the internet, if you were shopping for a new gun, you were limited to what you could find on the shelf of your local gun shop. Sometimes, you could look in a catalog or magazine and find a gun you wanted, then go to a gun shop and have them try to order it. If their distributor had one, you would be in business. If not, you either kept looking or settled for something else.

Shopping online, you can find just about anything you want. New guns, used guns, police trade-ins, and collector guns are all just a few clicks away. If you’re interested in a specific gun, all you have to do is enter it in an internet search, and you will get multiple hits for online dealers who have it in stock. Multiple online blogs, magazines, and newsletters help you stay up to date on every firearm made.


Competitive Pricing Benefits

Buying a gun online is generally much less expensive than buying the same gun over the counter. Online dealers usually have a greater volume than brick-and-mortar stores. They also don’t have the overhead of running the store, which means each gun they sell usually represents more profit for them. Those savings get passed along to you as the buyer.

There is also intense competition among online dealers. This is because you, as the buyer, have access to hundreds of online dealers with no constraints of location or distance, while there may only be a few places where you can physically go to buy a gun. If online dealers want to stay competitive, they have to offer the best price they can.

Being Able to Shot For Guns Anywhere, Anytime

There are hundreds of options for places to buy without ever having to leave your living room. Just turn on your computer or your smartphone and start looking. You don’t have to look up addresses or drive anywhere. As long as you have an FFL nearby to receive the gun and complete the transfer, you can make the actual purchase anywhere.

That includes buying a handgun from a dealer physically located in another state. Since the actual transfer and background check is completed at a local FFL, the purchase is considered in-state. What could be easier?

Cons of Buying a Gun Online

There is no question that buying a gun online has a lot of perks. But there are drawbacks as well.

Buying a Gun Sight Unseen

When you buy a gun online, you are basing your purchase on a written description. Even the photographs accompanying the listing may not be of the actual gun you are buying. You are buying the gun on faith that it has the features you’re looking for. That means you need to review listing descriptions carefully to ensure it is the exact model you want.

This is even more problematic when buying used guns or police trade-ins. Oftentimes, the picture is of one of perhaps scores or even hundreds of guns in the lot. If you are not completely certain the listing is what you are looking for, it is best to pick up the phone and call the dealer so you can ask your questions in real time.

Not Being Able to Try the Gun Out Before Buying

Shooting a Gun Before Buying

Even if you get the exact gun you are looking for, you won’t be able to try it out or even hold it in your hand before buying it. This can be offset to an extent by trying out the same gun with a friend who has one or at a range that rents guns. But it will still not be the same gun you are buying.

Support If You Must Return a Gun

When you buy a gun at a gun shop, you can easily go back if there is a problem. This is much more complicated with an online seller. Most are conscientious and will allow you to return a gun if there is a problem with it, but you will have to ship it back to them. This can get complicated. Currently, virtually all shippers like UPS and FedEx will not accept a gun from a private individual for shipping. They must be shipped from an FFL to an FFL. Some online dealers get around this by providing you with a prepaid shipping label that essentially makes the transaction one of them shipping from themselves to themselves.

Shipping and Transfer Fees for Online Gun Purchases

When you buy a gun online, there will usually be shipping fees. Some online dealers offer free shipping or do so as an incentive during a special sale. Others always charge for shipping, so remember to add that to the cost of the gun when shopping for the best price.

If you buy one from a private citizen on an online gun listing site, you may also have to pay a transfer fee at the seller’s end of the transaction, as well as the transfer fee at your end. This goes back to the requirement for guns to be shipped from an FFL to an FFL. Online dealers are FFLs, so it isn’t a problem, but if you are buying from an individual, they will probably not be able to ship directly to you themselves.

Problems With Online Gun Sellers

I have personally never had a problem when buying a gun online, either from a dealer or a private individual. But I have heard of other people who have. Problems range from slow shipping to never receiving their gun. Sometimes, the issue is easily resolved with a phone call, but other times, it takes weeks of wrangling back and forth to solve the problem.

You can generally rely on most big-name online retailers (PSA, Brownells, etc.) for a good experience. They will occasionally have a hiccup with an order simply because of the sheer volume of their sales business. The same cannot always be said of smaller online retailers. These are often gun shops that have a brick-and-mortar store and decide to branch out into online sales.

Anytime I consider ordering from someplace I have never ordered from before, I search for customer reviews. Trustpilot is a good resource, as are Yelp and Reddit. Go to one of them and enter the name of the online retailer you are checking up on. It has been useful for me in the past.

Buyers must also beware of counterfeit websites. These are very slick and look like the real thing, but they are complete shams. The ‘dealer’ will offer a great price, then often ask for payment in an unusual method like Bitcoin or through a payment app like Venmo. Avoid any site that doesn’t seem right to you.
Private Sellers

Buying a gun from an individual through an online gun listing site like GunBroker or Armslist is another situation altogether. While some listings on these sites are from actual FFL dealers, others are private individuals. This can make sending payment and arranging the receipt of your gun a bit more complicated. It also means you may not have recourse if the gun isn’t what you were expecting. Be sure to iron all that out in advance of any money-changing hands.

What if You Don’t Pass the Background Check?

Another potential issue of buying online is the background check. If you do not pass the background check for some reason (false negatives are not unheard of) when buying from a gun shop, the gun just goes back on the shelf, and the transaction is voided. But if you are at an FFL doing a transfer for a gun purchased online, a negative background check result can be the beginning of another major hassle.
By law, the FFL cannot complete the transfer and let you take your gun. Since they didn’t sell it to you, they have no obligation to help you return the gun or get a refund. You are on your own, and your only option will be to work it out with the seller and pay the FFL to have them return it for you.

The Vanishing Local Gun Shop

The Vanishing Local Gun ShopFinally, there’s the issue of supporting the local businesses in your community. Small gun shops, like most small businesses, face an uphill battle to keep going. Overhead costs, taxes, and local and federal regulations can all combine with low sales to put them out of business. Just be aware that if you choose to shop locally, you will probably have a smaller selection and pay higher prices for your guns.

Best Practices for Buying Online

While there are downsides to buying your guns online, the benefits outweigh them, hands down. But if you are going to do your gun shopping online, there are some things you should do to ensure it’s a positive experience.

Make an effort to try a gun out before you buy one like it. At least see if you can find one to hold in your hand to see how it feels.

Shop around for the best price, and don’t forget shipping costs.

Ensure you have an FFL willing to do the transfer before you order a gun. Find out what their transfer fee is in advance. Your FFL may or may not already be on the online dealer’s approved list. Sort that out before ordering as well.

If you are ordering from an online dealer you have never dealt with before, look up their reviews and see what other customers are saying about them before buying.

Find out in advance how the online dealer resolves issues or problems with the gun. Many have a time limit on returns.

Be organized. Keep track of your order, use the tracking number to follow shipping progress, and pick it up promptly so it isn’t sitting around the local FFL store for days.

As long as you follow these simple steps, buying guns online can be a great way to increase your collection or just to get the perfect carry gun. Just be aware that it isn’t as simple as walking into your local gun shop and laying your money on the counter.

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