If you’re one of the tens of millions of Americans buying a firearm for the first time, then you’re in the right place. Elections, political campaigns, and catastrophes alike bring new demand for firearms, and the past 365 days have been staples of that mantra. Either one of these may have caused you to decide to buy a gun. But before you go slinging lead downrange, you should learn a little about responsible firearm use and gun ownership, first.
If you haven’t even bought a gun before reading this, well, good. It pays little to invest in a firearm without the requisite knowledge. That’s how mistakes happen, and a gun is both an expensive and dangerous tool in the wrong hands. Let’s go over all the big points you should consider before buying your first firearm: Common types of guns, buying versus building one (that’s a popular thing now), proper storage and protective equipment, and the four rules of gun safety.
Types of Firearms
There are loads of firearms available today: Tactical weapons, shotguns, handguns, revolvers, bench rifles, hunting rifles, lever-actions, bolt-actions, the list goes on. Each has its purpose and that purpose will dictate what type of firearm you buy.
We’re starting with the most popular, first: The typical semiautomatic rifle is considered a “do-it-all” weapon. It’s capable of functioning as a personal defense weapon (PDW), a hunting rifle, and a sporting rifle for competition shooting. The most popular of them all, the AR-15, is a good starter weapon for new owners who want a general-purpose firearm. It fires a relatively small cartridge with little recoil. It’s a lightweight and easy-to-use weapon that doesn’t come with complicated components. It can be purchased at just about every single gun shop in the country, for an affordable price – many come in around the $500 mark. Most of all, you can even build one for less, but we’ll get into that later.
Bolt guns are the hunter’s gold standard in weaponry. These conventional rifles date back over a hundred years and afford excellent accuracy at long range. They maintain a relatively low magazine capacity, and they tend to be bigger and heavier than any other class of weapon. So, they tend to only serve well for taking some game or for target shooting at great distances.
Shotguns can fulfill both the “general purpose” and hunting roles. When you think of defending your home from an intruder, you probably think of the cliché shotgun being racked to scare away would-be burglars. While shotguns may serve well as personal defense weapons in a pinch, they can create a lot of collateral damage. Shotguns are configured as semiautomatics or pump-actions. A pump-action shotgun functions like a bolt-action rifle, requiring the action to be manually cocked and chambered after each round is fired. With advancements in rifles and handguns, shotguns are best left to hunting and competition use.
Chances are, you’re going to buy a handgun first. That’s simply the statistical likelihood when it comes to a first-time gun purchase. Handguns serve best as personal defense weapons because of their size, weight, price, and relatively simple functionality. Handguns are categorized as semiautomatics or revolvers. The latter has become the mainstay for new buyers, since they tend to provide better accuracy, capacity, and safety. Revolvers are somewhat nostalgic among experienced shooters, often carried as a back-up gun.
Buying vs. building Your Firearm
If you’re like most first-time gun owners, you’ll probably purchase a semiautomatic rifle like the AR-15, or a semiautomatic pistol, like a Glock or Sig Sauer. Yet with record-shattering gun sales and complications from Coronavirus affecting the industry, it’s actually a little difficult to obtain a decent firearm from conventional retailers – at least not without paying a high premium. Thanks to the burgeoning online market, many of the firearms popular with first-time buyers can simply be built by you, custom, piece by piece. You don’t need gunsmithing experience or any special tooling. The process is legal and well-established: Buy a receiver or frame (the part of your firearm considered a gun under federal law) and assemble it with the necessary components.
For something like the AR-15, this can be accomplished by purchasing an 80% lower (an un-fabricated receiver) or stripped lower receiver, and something called a lower parts kit. Pair the two together (first fabricate your unfabricated receiver, if you go that route) and you’ve got the makings of a rifle. Simply buy something called an upper receiver assembly, which includes the barrel and bolt, put it all together (no special tools are required) and you can hit the local range to practice.
For a popular handgun like the Glock or Sig Sauer, the process is similar: One must purchase the frame separately, and then buy the necessary parts to put it all together. Frames can be bought as firearms-by-definition, already fabricated, or unfabricated, aptly called an 80% frame. These units exist for the most popular makes and models, allowing you to get your hands on the personal defense weapon of your choice, albeit with a little physical labor, but for a much lower total cost.
Being a Responsible Gun Owner
Proper Safety Equipment
Getting your hands on a firearm in the first place is just one aspect of gun ownership. Before you visit a range or pull the trigger with a live round in the chamber for the first time, you should understand the dangers – and necessary safety precautions – that come with responsible firearm ownership. That means investing in appropriate safety equipment (eye protection and hearing protection) and a lockable storage container to keep your firearm out of the wrong hands.
Most gun ranges won’t even allow you to step onto the firing line without all three of these items presented. The sound of an un-suppressed gunshot is enough to cause permanent hearing damage, and firing any type of gun presents inherent risks to the shooter’s eyes if they’re unprotected. Spent shell casings, blown back gunpowder, and (in rare cases) ricochets can cause permanent vision loss.
The Four Rules of Firearm Safety
First and foremost, you must master and remember these rules of gun safety at all times. In fact, you should commit these rules to memory before even stepping foot inside a firearm retailer. Not adhering to any of these rules could result in a negligent discharge of a firearm – that’s an unintended live round being fired in an unsafe environment. At best, you’ll likely be jailed if this ever happens. At worst, an innocent life could be taken by accident.
- Keep the firearm always pointed in a safe direction.
“Down, no matter what” is a safe bet. Never point a firearm’s muzzle in any lateral direction. That means never aim it at anything in front, behind, above, or to the sides of your person. Aiming the muzzle vertically is usually acceptable, but not ideal: A bullet inadvertently fired in the air can retain its arc and velocity, remaining lethal on the way down. A round that gets discharged into the ground can’t do much harm. If you inspect and handle a firearm in a gun store, keep it pointed downward.
- Treat every gun as if it is always loaded.
This is simply extra insurance against having a negligent discharge. Even if you think a firearm is empty, it does you no good to assume so. Even after inspecting a weapon and clearing its firing chamber, treat it as if it’s loaded. This enforces good safety discipline over time, and it will prevent any negligent discharge if a weapon is ever accidentally loaded during handling.
- Know your target and everything behind it.
This applies to both target shooting and a self-defense scenario. You cannot simply confirm your target and fire. You must know that nothing is behind your target that can be damaged, harmed, or killed. Even small-caliber firearms can penetrate most walls and hard surfaces. Even when you’re at a gun range, confirm no collateral damage will result when you take a shot.
- Keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to shoot.
This provides yet another layer of protection against inadvertently setting a live round off. Other shooters will judge you by your discipline and adherence to these rules. Review any video or photo of a shooter, and if their finger is on the trigger, you can rest assured you’ll find a plethora of comments calling out this behavior.
With these safety rules in mind, you’ll be better equipped to handle your first firearm. Whether you’re at the gun store, building your first shooter, or visiting the range for the first, commit to these rules and always bring the proper equipment. Before you purchase your first firearm, review them in-person. Visit a local dealer and get a feel for their functionality and weight. Don’t be afraid to test out different models with rentals at a gun range. These best practices and tips will help make the process of becoming a gun owner much safer and less intimidating.