This is a topic I see come up in conversation a lot, and there’s generally a lot of confusion about the process of purchasing a firearm in the United States. Understandably, lots of people are concerned about where their information goes when you fill out the paperwork to buy a firearm. To some people, it seems like a lot of sensitive information is collected, and it can be a cause for concern that the information can be abused. I spent several months on the other side of the gun shop counter, and I’ve talked to people who have done it longer than I’ve been alive to get an idea of their experience.
Going into this, understand that the system I’m describing is a Federal system. All states and territories have to follow the Federal process, but many states impose no additional burdens or steps beyond the Federally mandated process. Other states (California, New York, New Jersey, and Illinois among others) have additional requirements to procure licenses before purchase or possession or even maintain a registry of certain types of firearms within that state. Obviously not everything here will be true for these states.
What Information Is Recorded When Buying a Gun?
A copy of the ATF Form 4473 can be found here. That is the form that you are required to fill out when you buy a firearm from an FFL (Federal Firearms Licensee). It asks you some basic identifying questions, as well as some qualifying legal questions. The buyer (transferee) of the firearm must complete Section A, all questions up to 17, while the seller (transferor) completes the rest of the form.
You must furnish your full name including middle initial on the form. If you don’t have a middle initial, the accepted answer is to write “NMN” or “No middle name”. You also must include your current residence address, place of birth, height, weight, gender, birth day, ethnicity, and race. You may notice that there are two other sections there: Social security number and UPIN (Unique Personal Identification Number). Both of these boxes are optional, and you can successfully complete the purchase without providing either of these. It’s often advised that you do provide your social security number, as this may be helpful during the background check process to clear your name in the event that someone with a similar or same name raises flags in the system and causes a delay or wrongful denial on your purchase. If you don’t feel comfortable providing your social security number, you can leave it off and the FFL cannot require you to provide it. In the majority of cases, this is no issue.
A UPIN number is something that not many people are familiar with and not many people have. It’s a number that can be voluntarily requested to attach specifically to you. The UPIN number is a type of recourse for people who often experience delays in purchasing a firearm even though their record is clean and they’re legally allowed to purchase them. I’ll talk about different types of delays later.
Questions 11.a- 12 ask you qualifying legal questions to make sure you are a prohibited person. Although I obviously can’t tell you which “right” answers you should select, you should know at this point that you need to answer all of the questions truthfully, as you sign at the end that you have provided correct information. Lying on the form is a felony and punishable by up to 5 years in prison. If you have questions about how can or cannot purchase a firearm before you go to make your purchase, there is a helpful guide here. Questions 13-15 establish your residency and citizenship, and questions 16 and 17 date and certify your form.
When purchasing a gun through an FFL dealer, you’ll have to show identification that satisfies a couple criteria. The identification must be up to date and unexpired, have a picture of yourself, and list your address. The address must reflect your current residence. If everything but your address is up to date, you may use another document issued by the government with your name on it and your current address – commonly used forms of alternate documentation include voter ID cards, vehicle registration, and property tax bill.
Information from this documentation is recorded on the 4473, but your FFL will take care of this part as it’s on the second part of the form. The most commonly used form of ID is your driver’s license. Basic information such as your driver’s license number as well as issue date and expiration date will be recorded here. If you have to use any alternate documentation, such as a vehicle registration, there’s an extra spot on the form to record any information on that document. If you use any form of Concealed Weapon Permit, License to Carry etc. for any reason (skipping the background check in qualifying states, skipping a state required waiting period etc.), your license or permit information will also be recorded. The issuing authority, issue and expiration date, and any license number will be recorded here.
Finally, the information on your firearm will be recorded. This will include the manufacturer and importer of the firearm (if the two are different), the model, the serial number, and the caliber or bore.
The Background Check
If you’re going through an FFL (we’ll talk below about when you need to), you’ll do a background check through NICS (National Instant Criminal Background Check System) at the same time as the Form 4473. The background check is required for all sales that go through an FFL, with some exceptions. For instance, in certain states where Concealed Weapon Permits or similar permits/licenses meet minimum federal criteria, presenting a concealed weapons license may allow you to skip the background check. You will still have to fill out the Form 4473, but you won’t have to wait on the results of the background check.
The background check will either be phoned in or sent electronically to NICS or a POC (Point of Contact) for NICS. In Florida, where I sold guns, our background checks went through the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Your background check will use certain information from the Form 4473, but not all of it. The information sent to NICS or POC does include the general type of firearm (long gun, handgun, other firearm, or some combination), but does not collect information about the make, model, or serial number of your firearm. Other information that’s passed along to NICS includes your full name, date of birth, race and ethnicity, place of birth, state of residency, and social security number/UPIN if provided.
This information is held for 72 hours after final approval and then deleted from the system.
There are several results you may get from your background check:
- Proceed – You have passed your background check and may pick up your gun immediately or as soon as state and local law allows
- Delay – A delay happens when your information produces a “hit” and more time is needed to investigate, but not enough information has been found to create an outright denial. Your background check will be delayed for a short time while it’s investigated further. After 3 days, if NICS or the POC is unable to give a proceed or deny response, the FFL may legally allow you to take your firearm home. This is up to the discretion of your individual dealer, not a guarantee. Unlike approvals, delayed responses will be purged from the system 88 days after entry. Your FFL will be notified of a final decision when it is reached. You can appeal a delay, but it’s recommended that you allow 30 days before appeal to allow as much time as is needed to work through your application. More on delays can be found here.
- Deny – A denial means that your background has been checked and something has been found that indicates you are a prohibited person and you’re not allowed to purchase or possess firearms or ammunition. You won’t be able to purchase your firearm, and it’s most likely illegal for you to possess any firearms or ammunition at all. If you believe this to be an error, you can appeal your denial. Your FFL dealer will be able to help you through the process if this happens to you. Records of denied sales may be kept long-term.
How Is My Information Kept?
Although the information from your NICS transaction must be deleted after a relative short time period, the Form 4473 must be kept longer. It is required to stay with the FFL dealer for at least 20 years after the transaction. If the FFL goes out of business before that 20 years is up, the records must be sent to ATF for records keeping. In this case, ATF will keep the records but does not centralize or aggregate them, nor does it maintain a registry.
FFLs tend to be very careful with how they store their customers’ records. For one thing, they must be able to procure them in the case of a criminal investigation, so losing them or having them destroyed would be a very big problem. In addition, good gun dealers respect their customers’ right to privacy and security, and will go to extra lengths to ensure that records are kept safely and responsibly. Where I worked, we kept them in the walk-in vault where we also kept our firearms when the store closed. If you’re worried about the safety of your records, ask your FFL before filling out any forms. Although they may not tell you the exact location for security reasons, they should be able to provide you an answer that will help you feel more comfortable and secure in the transaction.
Another form to be aware of is Form 3310.4. Form 3310.4 is a reporting form for the disposition of multiple handguns to an individual. This form is filled out when an FFL sells or dispositions two or more handguns to the same individual within a period of 5 business days or less, unless the handguns are being returned to the original owner (such as being returned after repair). 3 copies of this form are made. One copy is sent to the ATF, a second copy to your local Chief Law Enforcement Officer, and a third is kept with the FFL for at least 5 years.
Is the Gun Registered to Me or My Name?
At a federal level, there is no registration of the vast majority of firearm sales. A registration is kept on all firearms subject to the National Firearms Act, but you will undoubtedly know if you are purchasing an NFA firearm – these include silencers, machine guns, sawed-off shotguns, and grenade launchers which require a large amount of extra paperwork as well as taxes, fingerprinting and other things which would make you aware you were not purchasing a regular firearm. Nothing else is registered unless state or local law has created a registry, the majority of states remaining unregulated in this regard.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t necessarily be traced to your firearm, or at least your purchase. If there’s a trace request placed on a firearm (for instance, if it turns up at a crime scene), authorities will follow the paper trail as far as it will go. First, they’ll identify the manufacturer and serial number of the firearm and get in contact with the manufacturer. The manufacturer is required to maintain a log of all individuals and other Federal Firearm Licensees that they disposition firearms to. If traced to another dealer, that dealer then must supply paperwork showing that it was either transferred to an individual or to another dealer. Dealers must keep a log book of all firearms that go into and leave their possession, and must furnish any information required when the firearm is the subject of a legitimate criminal investigation. The Form 4473 is typically the last line in the paper trail and will lead the authorities to the person who bought it from the dealer.
This means that, if you sell a firearm and it ends up being used in a crime, it’s possible that you may receive a visit or some other form of contact from the ATF or other law enforcement agency responsible for the investigation. This doesn’t mean that the gun is registered to you or that you have any obligation to furnish proof that you sold the gun to any other person. There is no registration, so unlike the tile of a car, there usually doesn’t exist any obligation to keep records or to officially transfer it to another person. However, if a gun that was transferred to you (especially recently) ends up being the subject of a criminal investigation, you may find yourself in a difficult spot. For this reason, there are a couple of recommended steps you can take to protect yourself.
- Be aware of local, state, and Federal laws. Laws can change based on legislation, court ruling, or even the interpretation of a government official such as your state Attorney General. Make sure you know if your state has any requirements for reporting of a stolen firearm, background checks, record keeping of sales, etc. This article and others like it are helpful guides to give you an idea of the process and get you started down the right path, but they’re not legal advice unless you’re taking them from a legal website. Even if you are taking them from a legal organization, chances are you haven’t paid them to be your lawyer, so there’s no guarantee that they will represent you if you get in trouble somehow.
- Keep good records for yourself. When selling a gun (or buying from a private individual), many people establish certain requirements above the legal minimum to protect themselves. Many will write down driver’s license information and ask to see a Concealed Weapon Permit, Hunting License or other document to show that they are a trained shooter or at least someone interested in owning a firearm for good reason – self defense, hunting, target shooting etc. This will upset some private buyers and sellers, and it is an individual’s choice to deal with people who set these requirements for sales, but two adults interested in coming to a mutually agreeable conclusion will usually be able to work out a system that works well for both of them. Going a step further, many people will complete a bill of sale for each party to keep in their own records. A bill of sale usually includes contact information, identifying information of all firearms traded or sold, and a certification that neither person is prohibited from possessing firearms or ammo.
In addition, consider keeping records of all of the firearms you possess. This may include pictures, serial numbers, written descriptions, and special pictures of any unique descriptors. Others choose to scribe their information in a hidden place, such as under a foregrip where the information can only be seen with a part removed.
- Report stolen firearms. Not all jurisdictions require reporting lost or stolen guns, and there isn’t a requirement at the Federal level unless you hold an FFL. However, reporting lost or stolen guns helps protect you in the case that they are used in a crime. It’s also the best chance of recovering a stolen firearm. Many states maintain a registry where you can submit information on any stolen firearms. Some even allow private individuals to search this database before buying a firearm from another individual. I have a friend who had a firearm stolen from his car, and he received a call 2 years later from his local police department that they had his rifle which he could come pick up. When his rifle was stolen, he registered it with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s stolen guns search, and a person at a gun show ran the serial number before his purchase, resulting in a “hit”. If he hadn’t listed his gun for a public check, the gun show sale may have gone through and he may never have seen his rifle again.
- When in doubt, go to your local FFL. Although it may not be required to go to your local dealer to complete a private sale, it’s an option. If you’re not sure of your responsibilities, want to protect yourself, or want the other person to undergo a background check for your own peace of mind, you may certainly consider just taking it to an FFL and having them complete the transaction for you. There, the Form 4473 will be completed and the background check will be run. You will know that the seller is legally able to possess the firearm you’re transferring to them, and if something happens with the gun, you can direct authorities to the FFL where you had the transfer to prove that it legally left your possession. The Firearms Industry Center discusses how this is handled at the FFL side here. The FFL will usually charge a fee to offset the cost of time invested, record keeping requirements etc. Some states limit the amount an FFL can charge, but in my area I could expect to pay $40-50 for a transfer, well worth the peace of mind if you’re unsure of your requirements.
When do I have to Go Through an FFL?
Not all sales have to go through an FFL under Federal law. Private sales between adults within the same state typically can be done without going to an FFL to fill out the Form 4473 and get a background check. Typically, the only requirement is to see the ID of the other person to verify that they meet the minimum age for a private sale (18 on all guns unless local law specifies otherwise) and that they are a resident of the same state. A private seller must also not sell to anybody that they know or have reason to know is a prohibited person under Federal law. In many states, this is the end of the exchange required for a sale between two individuals if neither is a licensed firearm dealer.
You do have to go through an FFL in many other cases: Buying from a licensed firearms dealer, buying a gun online (which must be shipped to a dealer in your state for you to complete the sale), or buying from other non-licensed individuals in states where it is mandated. FFL Dealers must complete the Form 4473 and background check as appropriate when selling at a gun show, but private sellers at gun shows are not required to do so in all states.
As stated above, if you’re in doubt, you always have the choice to do your transfer through an FFL and protect everybody involved.
Image by Sten Dueland
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