Tens of millions of Americans have become first-time gun owners since the start of the 2020s. In 2020 alone, firearm retailers sold over 8 million guns to first-time buyers, and the FBI conducted over 21 million firearm background checks. These numbers show a lasting trend: more Americans are interested in gun ownership, whether for sport shooting, hunting, or self-defense.
Have you decided to purchase your first gun but don’t know where to start? Walking into a gun shop unprepared can be overwhelming. Follow our first-time gun buyers’ guide to make the best purchase for your needs.
Determine Your Needs Before Making a Purchase
When a newcomer asks, “What should be my first gun,” the response they typically receive is: “What do you need your gun for?”
Knowing what role or purpose you want your firearm to fulfill is essential. Gun enthusiasts view each firearm as a tool for specific tasks, making choosing the right one for your needs vital.
Americans purchase firearms for various purposes. Some of the most common include personal protection, hunting, sport shooting, and recreational activities.
The firearm is the most effective tool for protecting yourself and your loved ones. The right to self-defense is an individual, inalienable right enshrined in the Second Amendment.
Personal protection gun buyers fall into two subcategories: those who need a gun for home defense and those who intend to carry concealed. Each application has different conditions, requiring gun owners to use different firearms. For instance, home defense means choosing long guns such as shotguns and rifles, whereas concealed carrying requires handguns.
Hunting is another common reason for Americans to choose a firearm. According to the latest statistics, there were over 15 million paid hunting license holders nationwide.
If hunting is your primary need for a firearm, consider which species you are most interested in hunting.
- Rifles chambered in full-powered cartridges are the most common hunting guns for hunting deer or other big-game species like elk, moose, or bison.
- You will likely need a light rifle chambered in a less powerful cartridge for hunting varmints, such as coyotes, squirrels, or raccoons.
- Bird and waterfowl hunting typically requires a shotgun. Lead-free ammunition is mandatory nationwide when hunting migratory game birds such as ducks, geese, swans, and coots.
Sport and Competition Shooting
Numerous shooting sports and competition disciplines exist for virtually any type of firearm available. Common shooting sports and associated firearm types include:
- Skeet, trap, and clay pigeon shooting are traditionally performed with shotguns.
- Multigun disciplines (2-gun, 3-gun, etc.) require multiple types of firearms, typically a handgun and one or two long guns (rifle, shotgun).
- Practical shooting sports, such as IDPA, USPSA, or IPSC, can be practiced with various handguns, rifles, and shotguns.
- Cowboy Action Shooting (CAS) is an Old West-themed sport requiring period-correct firearms such as single-action revolvers or lever-action rifles.
- Long-range shooting sports like Precision Rifle Competition (PRC) require dedicated rifles capable of hitting targets at extended distances, typically exceeding 300 yards.
Fun and Recreational Activities
There’s no denying it: shooting is a fun and relaxing activity. The act of shooting targets for recreation is commonly referred to as plinking. It often involves hitting everyday objects instead of standardized targets, such as tin cans, bottles, logs, or plywood planks.
While you can plink with any firearm, the activity is informal and commonly associated with firearms shooting inexpensive ammunition such as .22 Long Rifle.
Educate Yourself on Gun Laws
Firearm laws and regulations exist at all three levels of law in the United States: federal, state, and local. Understanding the gun laws that apply is crucial to understand what types of guns you can own, where you can carry them, and which regulations apply.
Federal gun laws apply to all gun owners, regardless of their town, city, or state of residence. Here’s a brief overview of the most important ones.
Minimum Age to Possess Firearms and Ammunition
Very few federal laws regulate the possession of firearms and ammunition nationwide.
The primary federal law regulating the overall possession of firearms and ammunition is 18 U.S.C. 922(x)(2), which prohibits minors under 18 from possessing handguns and handgun ammunition.
Minimum Age to Purchase Firearms
According to 18 U.S.C. 922(b)(1) and (c)(1), it is unlawful for a licensed firearm dealer to knowingly sell, deliver, or transfer handguns or handgun ammunition to individuals under the age of 21. Rifles, shotguns, other long guns, and their ammunition are legal for anyone over 18 to purchase from a licensed dealer.
Federal law prohibits specific categories of individuals from possessing firearms and ammunition. The ATF website maintains an up-to-date list of definitions explaining what constitutes a prohibited person.
Federal law prohibits individuals from carrying firearms in specifically designated areas, even if they possess a valid carry license in their state.
Per 18 U.S.C. 930, you may not carry a firearm in any federal building, facility, or infrastructure owned, leased, or rented by the federal government. This category includes federal prisons, military bases, national cemeteries, and USPS post offices.
Prohibited or Regulated Types of Firearms and Accessories
Federal law imposes strict restrictions on specific firearms and accessories commonly called NFA items. These items are defined under the National Firearms Act (NFA) of 1934 and generally include the following types of firearms:
- Machine guns
- Short-barreled shotguns (SBSs): Shotguns with a barrel length under 18” and an overall length under 26
- Short-barreled rifles (SBRs): Rifles with a barrel length under 16” and an overall length under 26”
- Silencers, also known as sound suppressors or sound moderators
- Destructive Devices (DDs), a category that includes firearms other than sporting shotguns with a bore diameter exceeding 0.500” and explosive devices with a high-explosive or incendiary charge exceeding 0.25 oz.
- Any Other Weapons (AOWs), a catch-all category for regulated weapons not covered by any definition above
State and Local Laws
State and local laws in your area may impose additional restrictions on owning and carrying firearms, ammunition, and accessories. Typical laws and regulations at the local and state levels to look for include:
- Regulations regarding the open or concealed carrying of firearms (e.g., concealed carry licenses)
- State permits to purchase firearms
- Assault weapon bans
- Magazine capacity restrictions
- Restrictions on the possession of NFA items
- Waiting periods between purchases and transfers
- Restrictions regarding private sales
- Extreme risk protection orders (ERPOs), also known as “red flag” laws
Check your local and state laws to ensure the firearms you intend to purchase are legal to own and carry for your intended applications, even if legal at the federal level.
Visit a Gun Store In Person
Once you know what purposes you want your firearm to fulfill and know all applicable local laws, you are ready to purchase your first gun.
There are many avenues for buying guns, including pawn shops and online stores. However, visiting a brick-and-mortar gun store is the best solution for first-time buyers. Buying your first gun in person offers numerous advantages, ensuring you find the product that best matches your needs.
Gun Store Staff Can Guide You
The biggest benefit of shopping at a gun store over other methods, such as online retailers, is the ability to speak to staff members for help and guidance. Most gun shop employees are friendly, knowledgeable, and willing to help customers with questions.
If it’s your first time buying a gun in a store, don’t hesitate to tell gun shop employees. They can provide better advice if they have an idea of your experience with shooting and firearms.
You Can Hold Guns in Your Hands
Another benefit of visiting a physical location is the possibility of seeing and handling firearms before purchasing. Specifications and statistics don’t tell the full story, and seeing pictures of a gun online cannot tell you how well they fit in your hands.
If you’re hesitating between models with similar features, ask a gun store employee to let you handle them. Checking the fit and ergonomics of a firearm can help you find the gun that best fits your needs.
Remember to respect the four primary rules of gun safety when manipulating firearms in a gun store. Even if you know the guns are unloaded, gun store employees will appreciate your commitment to safety.
Purchasing Process is the Safest in a Gun Store
Gun shops are Federal Firearms License (FFL) holders, which means they must follow the rules and regulations outlined by the federal government. One of the most well-known duties of a licensed firearm dealer is the requirement to subject all potential buyers to a background check.
To conduct a background check, gun buyers must complete two steps: filling out an ATF Form 4473 and passing a check through the FBI National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).
Completing an ATF Form 4473 is required for all gun purchases. It consists of a list of questions to verify you aren’t a prohibited person. It is a federal crime to lie on Form 4473 knowingly, so always ensure the information you provide is correct and up-to-date.
After completing your 4473, the gun store will relay the information on the form to the FBI NICS system to conduct a criminal background check. The system is designed to deny anyone with a criminal record or ineligibility criteria. According to the FBI, over 300 million checks have been completed since the system’s launch in 1998, with only 1.5 million denials (approx. 0.5% denial rate).
What to Do After Your First Gun Purchase
Assuming your area doesn’t impose waiting periods, once you have completed the background check and paid the gun store, you can walk out of the store with your new gun.
Before you return home, check that you have purchased these essential consumables and accessories.
Purchase the Right Ammunition
Buy ammo of the right caliber for your firearm, and ensure the brand and projectiles are suitable for your intended purpose. For instance, if you’ve purchased a new 9x19mm pistol, look for 9x19mm Full Metal Jacketed (FMJ) for plinking or training at the range and Jacketed Hollow Point (JHP) for self-defense and personal protection.
Buy Extra Magazines
Unless your firearm doesn’t use detachable magazines (e.g., revolvers, classic bolt-action rifles), your firearm most likely comes with just one. New firearms are seldom sold with multiple magazines in the box, meaning you may need to purchase spares separately.
Extra magazines keep you from constantly needing to refill the same magazine at the range. Switching to a different magazine is also a good way to resolve the problem if your gun malfunctions.
Treat magazines as consumable items. Although you can maintain them to extend their lifespan, they may wear out over time, eventually requiring you to repair or replace them.
Get Suitable Holsters and Slings
If you’ve bought a handgun, you’ll need a gun belt and a holster designed to fit your specific model to carry it safely. If your new firearm is a rifle or a shotgun, install the long gun equivalent to a holster: a rifle sling.
Even if you don’t intend to use or carry your firearms in public, holsters and slings are essential safety equipment you should always have in your possession. Without a holster or sling, you cannot safely carry your gun on your body when you don’t need it in your hands.
Get Cleaning Kits and Become Familiar With Your New Firearm
Experienced gun owners typically disassemble, clean, and lubricate firearms as soon as possible before firing a single shot, even if they’re brand new. As a new owner, you should consider developing this habit as well.
New guns often ship from the factory or the importer coated in oils, grease, or substances designed to preserve them during transportation. However, failing to clean these substances from your gun before your first shots can prematurely wear them out or damage specific components.
After purchasing your first gun, buy a suitable cleaning kit and gun lubricant. Once you’ve returned home, familiarize yourself with your model’s field-stripping process. Field-stripping is the act of partially disassembling your gun just enough for maintenance. It is an excellent way to learn how your firearm works, but it is also necessary to clean and lubricate it properly.
Shop for New Guns at IFA Tactical
At IFA Tactical, our mission is to provide education, training, and high-quality firearms to American citizens, regardless of their experience with guns.
If you are considering buying your first firearm in the Detroit area, visit our store in Sterling Heights today. We carry an extensive selection of new and used pistols, revolvers, rifles, shotguns, ammo, and accessories. Contact us with any questions about our inventory and services.