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November 16, 2018

The Devil’s in the Details with Online Firearms Sales

By Wally Nelson, NSSF Compliance Consultant Team Member

In 2011, NSSF published a compliance brochure entitled “Sweat the Details” to raise awareness within the firearms retailer community about the importance of developing and implementing business practices that ensure compliance with Gun Control Act and ATF regulations. The brochure emphasized that, if you don’t “sweat the details,” as one court put it, ATF could revoke your federal firearms license (FFL) and put you out of business for a single willful violation.

The brochure cites court decisions, explains the applicable law and details what constitutes a willful violation. None of the cases in the brochure involved a firearms retailer selling firearms online, but the fact of the matter is, if you’re participating in online sales as a firearms retailer, you need to “sweat the details” about those transactions just as much as if the sales were taking place in your store.

The online sale of a firearm, in which a customer buys a firearm from one FFL who then ships it to another FFL in the buyer’s home state for transfer, was once a rarity. It is now commonplace as more and more establishments add an e-commerce element to their brick-and-mortar retail businesses to meet a modern and diversifying customer base. Unlike just about every other product sold over the internet, firearms purchasers must to go to a brick-and-mortar building to receive their firearm in an in-person transfer. Those buyers must complete an ATF Form 4473 and undergo a NICS background check (unless they have been issued a valid permit qualified by ATF as an alternative to a background check).

FFLs involved in both the selling and the transferring of the firearm need to exercise care in such transfers to make certain they are not facilitating an improper sale or straw transfer. Recently, two FFLs agreed to a significant monetary settlement with the family of a woman who was killed with a firearm those FFLs sold and transferred via an online sale. The internet buyer was a mentally troubled young man with a history of criminality and drug use and was barred from receiving a firearm. He’d purchased the firearm from the originating online retailer with his credit card, but his mother went to the brick-and-mortar retailer, filled out the Form 4473 and underwent the background check. She took possession of the firearm from the retailer, and that firearm was then used by her mentally ill son to commit the murder. She’d lied on the Form 4473 when she stated that she was the actual buyer, as she knew her son had paid for the firearm.

Legally, this case is analogous to an FFL selling a firearm over the counter to one person, but then allowing another person to complete the ATF paperwork. In other words, it’s an illegal straw purchase.

What are some steps that the online seller and the transferring FFL retailer can take to prevent such sales from occurring?

The online originating retail seller should:

  • Record the buyer’s name, address and date of birth.
  • Record the credit card information used, including to whom the credit card is issued and the address of the person to whom it was issued.
  • Verify the buyer’s identity by obtaining a scanned copy of their driver’s license or other qualifying government-issued identification.
  • Require the buyer to check the box(es) on the online order form by which they declare they are purchasing the firearm solely for themselves and that they are not prohibited by federal or state law from receiving or possessing a firearm.
  • Include the personal information about the buyer noted above, including the copy of the driver’s license, with the firearm when shipping it to the transferring FFL. FFLs have reported that they sometimes receive firearms to transfer, but that the shipping FFL provided them with little or no information about the buyer to whom the firearm is to be transferred. (This information can also be emailed to the transferring FFL.)

Transferring retailers should:

  • Verify that the person who bought the firearm online is the same person appearing at the store to complete the Form 4473 and undergo the background check. The transferring FFL should not allow any other person to complete an ATF Form 4473 or undergo a background check with regard to the firearm to be transferred.

Online sales are certain to become increasingly common. FFLs should put in place business practices to ensure firearms are legally transferred and avoid possible straw purchases. These firearms retailers need to do this not only for their own protection and peace of mind, but because doing so helps to stop firearms from getting into the wrong hands — and that is something the entire firearms industry can get behind.

NSSF provides numerous resources to our member retailers to help ensure their compliance with all ATF regulations. Among these resources is our straw-purchase prevention and education “Don’t Lie for the Other Guy” Retailer Toolkit, which includes a training DVD, brochures, counter cards, window display logo stickers and posters. To learn more about “Don’t Lie for the Other Guy” and how your FFL can help prevent straw purchases, visit

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