Shipping Firearms: It’s Complicated

What follows is an attempt to clarify a confusing area of firearms law–the issue of private, unlicensed persons mailing firearms. There’s a lot of misinformation out there about whether an unlicensed person–that is, a person without a Federal Firearms License or FFL–can mail or ship firearms to another unlicensed person. Before we attempt to cut through the confusion, we offer this little caveat: the discussion below does not take into account state firearms laws, which vary. What follows concerns federal law.

So, can an unlicensed person mail or ship a firearm to another unlicensed person without an FFL as an intermediary?

Short Answer

Legally, yes, if intrastate. Practically . . . it’s complicated. Fed-ex

Longer Answer

Legally, an unlicensed person in, say, Wyoming, can ship a firearm to another unlicensed resident of Wyoming, so long as the transferor “does not know or have reasonable cause to believe the transferee is prohibited from receiving or possessing firearms under federal law” (B1 and B7, pg. 197, ATF Federal Firearms Regulations Reference Guide, 2014 (Reference Guide); see also the citations to the USC and the CFR at B1 and B7). In other words, unlicensed persons or non-FFLs can legally ship firearms INTRASTATE to other non-FFLs. However, if that same unlicensed transferor wanted to ship that same firearm to someone in Utah or Florida–that is, INTERSTATE–s/he would have to ship the firearm to an FFL in Utah or Florida. The law and commentary I’ve cited above is pretty clear on this point–though apparently not to everybody.

Where things get confusing is on the practical side. Practically speaking, if we’re talking about shotguns or rifles–long guns, if you will–a Wyoming resident can mail to a Wyoming resident without an FFL. If it’s a handgun, though, that unlicensed person in Wyoming is probably going to have to ship the gun to an FFL in Wyoming as well–or have a face-to-face meet up with the buyer/transferee–because, as I said, it’s complicated.

You see, there’s the USPS and then there are common carriers like Fed-Ex who service the public at large and contract carriers like trucking companies who service a short list of clients. The Reference Guide says common or contract carriers can transport handguns; the USPS can’t.USPS

Title 18 USC §1715, the law governing the US Postal Service and firearms, is quite explicit. Except in very limited circumstances,

Pistols, revolvers, and other firearms capable of being concealed on the person are nonmailable and shall not be deposited in or carried by the mails or delivered by any officer or employee of the Postal Service.  (Emphasis added)

However, our unlicensed person can mail shotguns and rifles to another unlicensed person in the same state via the USPS, subject to certain requirements. Both the ATF (see B6, pg. 197 of the Reference Guide cited above) and the USPS give thumbs up to the process. And handguns? Well, the AFT says that “a common or contract carrier must be used to ship a handgun” whether it’s INTRASTATE to an unlicensed person or INTERSTATE to an FFL (B7, pg. 197 Reference Guide).

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view) at least the large common carriers are not so willing participants in the shipment of firearms–handguns or long guns. Both Fed-Ex and UPS clearly state that they will only ship if an FFL is at the receiving end, regardless of whether the shipment is INTRASTATE or INTERSTATE.UPS

Of course, Fed-Ex and UPS are not the only common carriers around. Check your local listings. If you find another, probably smaller or local carrier, they may allow an unlicensed person to ship both handguns and long guns to an unlicensed person who lives in the same state without the FFL intermediary. The law allows them to that. The question is do their internal policies? You’re going to have to ask around.

Contract carriers, trucking companies and the like? That’s a concern for another day.

One more point worth noting: Transfers between unlicensed persons that go through an FFL are subject to background checks–with few exceptions. Thus, given that

  • at least the larger common carriers require that all firearm shipments–intra and interstate–between unlicensed persons go through an FFL,
  • the USPS doesn’t ship handguns at all and requires interstate shipments go through an FFL,
  • Federal law requires that all interstate transfers between unlicensed persons go though an FFL,
  • even simple transfers–no money exchanged–between residents of different states must go through an FFL, and
  • at least 18 states and the District of Columbia require all or most intrastate transfers between unlicensed persons go through an FFL,

few firearms transfers legally escape background checks. And that includes online purchases through online outlets like that cater to private sellers. In fact, as explained in the Reference Guide:

An unlicensed person who is not prohibited from receiving or possessing firearms may purchase a rearm from an out–of–State source, provided the transfer takes place through a Federal rearms licensee in his or her State of residence. (B3, pg. 197)

Yes, some do escape and fall into the wrong hands. The law is not the only ass, after all.

To this end–the end of keeping firearms out of the hands of asses–the ATF encourages federal firearms licencees (FFLs) to work with private sellers to facilitate background checks on private buyers (see page 175-176 of the Reference Guide for more). Not a bad idea, especially if you–the private seller–are worried about bona fides of a potential buyer. Could save you and someone else a lot of heartache.

How about shipping to yourself? Well, as they say, that’s different. Federal law–remember, we’re talking only about Federal law–says that you can ship interstate to yourself for your own use to engage “in hunting or other lawful activity,” but according to question B8, pg. 198 of the Reference Guide:

The package should be addressed to the owner 1in the care of’ the out–of–State resident. Upon reaching its destination, persons other than the owner may not open the package or take possession of the firearm. (emphasis added)

Likewise, a gun owner moving from one state to another may “may transport or ship the firearm interstate” and if using a moving company, “must notify the mover that firearms are being transported” (B9, pg. 198).

And NFA firearms? Do the same rules apply? Of course, if any of the firearms you want to ship or transport are of the NFA variety, then you “must have prior approval from ATF.” The prior approval process does not apply to suppressors/silencers, by the way (CFR §478.28).

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