Every time there is talk of gun control legislation, gun sales soar because people who have thought about owning a gun rush out to buy a gun before it is too late. This article is intended for those who are relatively new to firearms purchasing, to help you successfully navigate the gun-buying process, be a safe and legal gun owner, and eventually get your concealed carry permit.
Here are the eight most common mistakes new gun buyers make:
Mistake #1: You Don’t Know the Applicable Laws
To hear gun control advocates tell it, you’d think anyone can walk into a store and waltz out a few minutes later loaded for bear. The truth is far different.
To buy a firearm you must present a valid state ID or driver’s license, fill out some federally required paperwork (Form 4473), and undergo a background check. The latter is usually done with a call to a special FBI office while you wait but sometimes there may be a wait of several days. Some states or municipalities may also have waiting periods.
Our advice: Before you go shopping, check out Form 4473 to be sure you can legally buy a gun. (Felons, illegal aliens, drug users, wife beaters, the mentally ill, and those dishonorably discharged from the military, among others, need not apply.) Assuming you legally obtain a gun, take your state’s hunter safety course and/or the concealed carry class. Become familiar with local laws so you know where you can carry it and where you can use it. It may be unlawful to discharge a weapon in many municipalities.
A few big don’ts:
- Don’t buy a gun for someone else. This is not like buying tickets to an R-rated move for your kid brother; it’s a far more serious crime.
- Once you own a gun, don’t brandish your weapon or threaten people with it. At the very least, it’s against the law. At worst, you’ll be shot and killed by a responding officer.
- Don’t leave your weapon where kids can access it.
- Don’t carry your gun into the courthouse, airport, or other prohibited locations.
- Don’t act like an idiot; gun owners get enough bad press as it is.
Mistake # 2: You Buy a Gun you have Never Shot
The decision of which gun to buy goes well beyond what is popular, what looks cool, or what shoots the biggest and best caliber. The gun you buy needs to be suitable for your intended purpose and ergonomically suitable to the shooter. If you buy a gun you have never shot or never held, you could be making a costly mistake.
Our advice: Don’t buy a new weapon until you have shot a similar model. Go shooting with a friend who owns your ideal model, go to a rental range and try it out, or see if your local dealer has a program where you can try before you buy. If you can’t get to the range, at least hold the gun in the store and try the trigger pull.
During your test drive, check to be sure the gun is comfortable to hold, carry, and shoot. If it is a hand gun, can you fit your hand around the grip and comfortably pull the trigger? Can you hit the magazine release without changing your grip? If it’s a long gun, how does it feel when you shoulder it? Can you comfortably reach the trigger? Do you wish the buttstock was shorter or longer? Is it too heavy to hold up there or out there while you take a shot?
Most importantly, can you handle the recoil? (You should know before you finish your first magazine.) Can you shoot it safely and accurately without flinching?
If you are planning to carry it, try it in a holster. Is it as concealable as you want? Can you safely draw and handle it? Is it small enough to conceal?
Mistake # 3: You Do Not Understand the Mechanical Functioning of the Weapon
At the range, not taking off the safety or forgetting to chamber a round can be embarrassing. In a self-defense situation, it could be the death of you. If you don’t know how to properly unload a firearm it can lead to an accidental discharge, and too many people have been killed because the shooter removed the magazine and assumed the gun was safe, not realizing there was still a round in the chamber.
Our advice: If you are unfamiliar with the model of gun you intend to buy, ask the sales person to show you what mechanical safeties the weapon has and how to use them. Have him or her show you the location of the take-down lever or pin. If you don’t have a cleaning kit and some gun lube, let the salesperson sell you some and show you how to lube your weapon. Once you get home, read the manual and then do you own research online. Read reviews and watch some YouTube videos about your particular model until you understand how it functions.
After this research, you should know the following:
- How to safely load and unload the weapon.
- How to check the chamber to recognize that it is loaded or unloaded.
- If your gun has a safety, and if so how to use it properly.
- How to disassemble and clean the gun.
- How and where to lube the gun.
- How to check that it is functioning properly.
Once you understand the operation of the gun and what is required for “administrative handling,” you’ll be safer, more confident and ready for your first trip to the range.
Mistake # 4: You Don’t Buy the Appropriate Accessories
We don’t sell guns, but we do have customers who walk in with a $500 name-brand pistol in a $10 holster that flops around on their belt and collapses when they draw their weapon, making it impossible to re-holster without violating at least one of the three basic firearm safety rules. We’ve also seen guys put a no-name $69 red dot on a $1200 rifle and then complain about the sight’s accuracy or durability. Some of these gun parts and accessories are labeled as “prohibited” on marketplaces like Amazon and eBay, and you can read about how to buy those parts from us in our previous post.
Our advice: Don’t buy cheap sh*t. Be prepared to spend an additional $100 to $200 on accessories for most weapons. If you are buying an optic for a rifle, be prepared to spend more, possibly as much on the scope as you did on the rifle.
Optics aside, what accessories should a new shooter buy with their new firearm or shortly thereafter? Here are some suggestions:
- Ear protection. This can be small disposable foam ear plugs, large plastic ear muffs, customized ear plugs designed to fit your ears, or electronic muffs that reduce the sound of gun shots but allow you to hear normal conversation. The more decibels of protection they offer the better.
- Eye protection. Be sure to get protective eyewear that offers ballistic protection. This can range from $10 for inexpensive shooting glasses to $100 or more for high-end brands like Wiley-X. If you wear prescription eyewear, check with your optician to be sure they are safety rated.
- A case to transport the gun in. This can be anywhere from a padded case secured with a zipper to a hard-shell locking case. Low-end gun rugs or socks offer limited protection while more robust cases offer thicker padding. If you go with a hard-shell case, get one that meets airline standards.
- A way to safely store your gun. All new guns come with locks, which are intended to keep a child or other unauthorized user from shooting someone by mistake. That’s important, but do not expect a trigger lock to secure the weapon and prevent theft. Locking gun cabinets and safes can prevent both theft and unauthorized access.
- A cleaning kit. Get into the habit of not letting the sun set on a dirty gun. To clean your weapon, you need a basic cleaning kit. Buy a decent multi-caliber kit up front and restock patches, cleaning solutions and lubrication on an as needed basis.
- A range bag: When you go to the range, you’ll need a way to carry your gun, your ammo, and all your accessories. Range bags are designed with compartments and dividers just for this task and will do it far better than a gym bag.
- Ammo. Your gun without ammo is like a car without gas: an expensive, useless hunk of metal. Buy several hundred rounds to start – some basic solid full metal jacketed (FMJ) rounds for practice and some premium jacketed hollow points (JHPs) or other self-defense rounds for what some call “serious social purposes.”
Mistake # 5: You Don’t Buy a Decent Holster and Belt
If you intend to carry your gun on a regular basis, you need a good holster and a decent gun belt. The holster should match you, your weapon, and the type of duty you need it for. In other words, a cop who wears his gun on a duty belt and deals with criminals every day needs a different holster than a consumer who plans to carry it concealed. Concealing a gun in the winter when you are wearing a heavy coat may also require a different holster than you wear in the summer with a light shirt.
Our Advice: Get a holster that:
- Securely holds the weapon so it will not fall out when you move about, get in and out of the car, etc. You’ll find yourself persona-non-grata just about everywhere if you bend over and your pistol thunks to the floor.
- Stays open after you draw, allowing you to re-holster your weapon with one hand.
- Is adjustable, allowing it to fit different width belts and canting to different angles.
- Is made of leather or kydex.
Once you’ve found the ideal holster for your situation, get a belt that thick and sturdy enough to hold your holster, gun, and loaded mag pouches without bending or drooping. They are usually nylon webbing or leather and maybe referred to as gun belts, duty belts, or even riggers belts. While the average dress belt cannot do double duty as a gun belt, there are high-end gun belts that look like dress belts.
And finally, carry at least one reload. This can be in a magazine pouch or in your pocket. If you go the magazine route, you can buy one that matches your holster and belt.
Mistake #6: You Assume the Presence of a Gun Makes you Safe
A gun is not a magic talisman that will keep you safe. Simply owning one will do nothing to prevent you from being the victim of a crime. Keeping it hidden in your closet does not ward off bad guys. If you are planning to buy a weapon but do not practice with it and secure it, then save your money or buy a dog instead.
To effectively use your firearm to protect yourself and your loved ones, to deter a criminal, prevent a carjacking, or cut short a home invasion, you must be ready and able to confidently use your weapon to take another person’s life without endangering others around you.
Our advice: Don’t buy a gun for self-defense if you don’t have or intend to develop both the will and the skill to shoot to kill.
Will, meaning you have to have the mindset required to pull the trigger and kill your attacker, which is a large enough topic to consume a future post.
Skill, the other portion of that equation, means that you must be able to quickly draw, accurately shoot, move and shoot, use cover and concealment, and put solid hits on the bad guy(s). Despite what some think, this ability is not ingrained in us at birth and does not come naturally as a side effect of testosterone. Neither does it come from watching movies or playing first-person shooter video games. It can only be built up through practice, which leads us to mistake number 7.
Mistake # 7: You Don’t Practice Enough
Most of us can get in the car and drive somewhere as if we were on auto pilot. We have so many miles under our belt that we do things like flip on the turn signal and hit the brakes almost unconsciously. You want to practice with your firearm enough that you “drive” it safely without having to think about it.
As a first-time gun owner, you are going to be a bit like that 16 year old kid who never drove a car. You will probably be nervous and have unconscious expectations about what is going to happen based on what you have seen on TV. You are going to lack knowledge and technique. You are not going to know how to stand, where to put your hands, and how to ride the recoil and get your sights back on target.
Our advice: Get the firearms equivalent of driver’s ed. Find an experienced shooter to show you the ropes. If you don’t have a friend who can do this, many gun stores and firing ranges offer familiarity or introductory courses. If they don’t, they may have business cards from those who do.
If you bought a gun because it makes you feel cool or macho, because you think it will be a good investment, or because you wanted to get one before they are banned, then there’s really no need to practice any more. But if you expect to hunt, carry, or use your gun for self-defense, then you need to keep practicing on a regular basis.
Once you have mastered the basics, practice them over and over to help build muscle memory. As you get more skilled and can put rounds on target faster and faster, add some realism into your practice. If you wear a holster, take it to the range and draw from it instead of starting off with the gun already in your hand. If you think you are going to have to shoot a home invader when you are kneeling behind the couch, then be sure to practice drawing and shooting while kneeling, preferably from behind cover. Learn to shoot with both hands and in different positions. Learn to shoot, move, and shoot again. Practice reloads and how to clear jams.
Once you’ve developed basic skills consider taking some professional training. There are plenty of respected trainers out there, so do a little research to find the class that is right for you. That may mean a day or three at a local range, or it may mean traveling to a training facility in another state. It’s really up to you and your pocket book.
For decent shooters looking to develop both the skill and the will, we can personally recommend both the Massad Ayoob Group and John Farnham’s Defense Training International. The former offers the best discussion of applicable laws we’ve ever experienced while the latter really emphasizes mindset and also offers classes taught by women just for women.
For beginning rifle shooters, it’s hard to get a better primer on accurately sending bullets down range than that offered by the popular Appleseed program.
More Advice: Go to the range at least four times a year. Seek out instructors who are knowledgeable and stress common sense. Use dry fire techniques to practice when you cannot go to the range.
When it comes to practicing, remember two things:
- Proper Practice Prevents Piss-Poor Performance, so practice good, effective techniques.
- Amateurs practice until they get it right; professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong.
Mistake # 8: You Do Not Know the Three Basic Rules of Gun Safety
If you show up at a gun store and wave around the pistol you are looking at buying, everyone in the store – employee and customer alike – will know you are a no-nothing chump. Treat weapons with respect and for your safety and the safety of those around you, always follow the three basic rules of gun safety:
- Treat every gun as if it was loaded until you have checked and double checked. This means, when handed a weapon in a store, remove the magazine and visually inspect it to be sure the chamber is empty. You should do this even if there is no magazine in it, even if it is a revolver or shotgun, and even if the salesperson just checked. Check and double check.
- Never point your weapon at anything you do not wish to see destroyed. Even if you just checked to be sure the weapon is empty, don’t point the muzzle at anyone, or any part of your body. That means don’t sweep one hand in front of the muzzle and don’t point it at your leg. You may ask what is considered a “safe” direction, but you can usually assume that the floor and/or the sky is a safe direction. If you lift up a gun to eye level, be sure to point it at an inanimate object or aim high enough that there is no danger of anyone else thinking you are pointing the gun at them.
- Keep your finger off the trigger until you are on target and ready to fire. Guns do not fire themselves; someone or something has to pull the trigger. When handling a weapon for the first time, it’s natural to stick your finger on the trigger. Don’t! Keep your finger off the trigger – finger straight and just above the trigger guard – and you will eliminate the majority of unintentional discharges. To try the action in a gun store, first ask the sales person if you can do so. Then point it in the aforementioned safe direction.
Please note that the NRA has a watered down version of these rules and you may find other, different wording online. Most of them boil down to the same basic idea. Over the years, we have found that the three above work better for those who carry daily for work or self-defense.
If you have decided to purchase a gun, please accept our congratulations and our warning that owning a gun is a serious responsibility. Avoid the above mistakes and you will be well on your way to safe, legal gun ownership.
The author has been carrying guns daily for more than two decades and buying and shooting them for even longer! An experienced shooter, he is a lifetime member of both the NRA and USPSA, an NRA certified instructor, has been certified as a range officer by the NROI, and has competed in multiple shooting disciplines. He has trained with many different trainers including Massad Ayoob, John Farnham, and Louis Awerbuck.