It's only natural, when shopping for someone you know is a firearms enthusiast, to want to give them a gun as a Christmas present. Depending on what the gun is, who the recipient is, and where the recipient lives, this has several different levels of complexity. It can definitely be done: According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, “It is legal to purchase a firearm from a licensed firearms retailer that you intend to give as a gift.” However, there are some things you should know if you’re going to gift a gun.
The Legal Don’ts
First, it’s against federal law for you to give or sell a gun to an individual you know or have reason to believe is a “prohibited person”—that is, anyone who cannot legally possess the gun. You absolutely cannot do this.
Most people are probably aware that you can’t buy a gun on behalf of a prohibited person—if your best friend has a felony on her record and can’t legally own a firearm, she can’t give you cash and have you buy a gun for her. What you might not know or fully understand, however, is that you cannot buy a gun on behalf of another person, period. Form 4473, which you will fill out every time you purchase a gun from a dealer, asks with very specific language, “Are you the actual transferee/buyer of the firearm listed on this form?” This means you can purchase a gun you’re giving as a gift to another person (as long as they’re not prohibited from owning it), but you cannot purchase a gun on another person’s behalf, even if they can legally own it.
For example, if a buddy were to approach you and say “Hey, my brother really wants a 20-gauge for duck hunting. I don’t know anything about guns. Can I just give you $500 and you go buy one you think he’ll like?” If you say yes to this plan, because money is involved, you are buying a gun on behalf of someone else. Even if your friend and his brother are legally allowed to own the gun, this purchase is illegal. Don’t do it.
There are also laws in some states about gifting guns to people under a certain age (usually 18, sometimes 21) without the permission of their parents, and some states have laws stating that guns gifted to minors must be kept unloaded in the home and during transport. If you’re giving a gun to a kid, particularly someone else’s kid, read up on the laws and requirements in your state.
Gifting a Gun Legally
You can buy a gun and gift it to a friend or family member, provided you follow the legal requirements for transferring a gun to another private party. Some states require that transfer to go through a Federal Firearms License (FFL) dealer for a background check; in other states, private individuals are free to buy and sell guns to each other without this step. You need to know the laws in your state. If a background check is required where you live, you can wrap up the gun and let the recipient open it, but you’ll need to actually retain possession of it yourself until you can accompany him or her to an FFL dealer to make a legal transfer.
If you are gifting a gun you already own, maybe a family heirloom, all you have to do is make sure the recipient is legally allowed to own the gun and make sure you follow the private transfer laws in your state.
Whether the gun is a new purchase or a hand-me-down gift, if the recipient lives in a different state, you are legally required to make the transfer via an FFL, regardless of the private transfer laws in your state and theirs. Crossing state lines makes it a federal matter.
It’s also relatively easy to purchase a gun and give it to someone you live with (again, if they’re not a prohibited person). When I gift a gun to my husband or daughter, I just buy the gun myself and wrap it up for them. We all live in the same house and shoot the same firearms, so although it technically remains “my gun,” there’s no functional difference as long as we all live together. When my daughter grows up and moves out, if she chooses to take any of the guns she has been gifted with her, we’ll follow the private transfer laws in our state to make sure everything is legal.
The Best Way to Give a Gun
Be aware that an FFL dealer has the right to refuse to sell you a gun for basically any reason—if the dealer suspects that you’re buying a gun on behalf of someone else or the whole situation just feels “off,” the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco and Explosives (AFT) gives the dealer the right to say no, even if you pass the background check. If you’re not accustomed to shopping for guns and don’t know what you’re doing, acting nervous or shifty is going to ping the dealer’s red flag radar. Just tell the associate behind the gun counter what’s going on. The salesperson can talk you through the process, if you simply say, “Hey, I’m buying a gun as a gift, but I’ve never done this before.”
Although it’s legal for you to buy a gun as a gift for a non-prohibited person, if you just would rather not deal with the legalities or you’re not comfortable making a purchase of a gun that’s not for you, the best alternative is to give a gift card from your local gun shop and let the giftee pick out their own firearm. You can also speak to the dealer and make an arrangement where you pay for the gun but they keep it in the store until the recipient comes in, fills out the form 4473 themselves, and takes possession of it.
I know, I know. Handing someone an envelope with a gift card or a picture of their new firearm is not nearly as fun as seeing their face when they unwrap a new gun. But it might be the easiest way to go, and it eases all concerns about gifting a gun to someone else.
Lastly, as the NSSF reminds us, “Ownership of a firearm brings with it some serious responsibilities and legal obligations that other consumer products don’t.” If you’re giving a firearm as a gift, be sure the recipient understands basic gun safety at a minimum. Follow up your gift with some instructional classes, if needed, or spend some range time with the recipient.