There is an old joke that women go shopping while men go buying, but I find that when dealing with firearms, it simply isn't true.
Men love shopping for firearms.
The choice of a weapon goes beyond the make and model and includes such elements as the condition of the firearm, its intended purpose and (perhaps most importantly) its cost.
A person wishing top purchase an inexpensive personal defense pistol will go about the process of making a purchase quite differently from a collector seeking a rare piece to add to armory.
What both of these individuals do have in common is one of the most regulated markets in our supposedly free country.
The media loves to spin lies about "gun show loopholes" but in fact this is just as much a mythical media creation as "high-powered assault weapons" and "cop killer" bullets.
On the federal level, all retail firearms purchases - and this includes gun shows - must go through the national instant background check system. Of course like all gun control measures, it tends not to work, but no worries, we just need new, more restrictive laws that won't be enforced.
In addition to these federal requirements, many states require waiting periods, special permits and so on. In Michigan, the state used to require persons wishing to buy pistols to first obtain a permit to purchase. This was a ten-question true-false quiz. The permit was then good for ten days.
After obtaining the permit, the buyer could then purchase the pistol which has to be brought to the local police department (or county sheriff) for a "safety inspection" (which the resulting document explicitly spelled out provided no assurance that the weapon was actually safe.
Essentially, this created a statewide handgun registry.
As part of the revision of Michigan's gun laws in the early Aughts, this useless and time-consuming system was replaced with a slightly less useless and time-consuming one. The permit to purchase and safety inspection are gone, but the Michigan State Police still keep a handgun registry which (depending on whether they are asking for money when you ask) is either an essential crime-fighting tool or a massive money sink.
One of the interesting trends of the last decade has been the increasing willingness of big-box outdoor outfitters to carry firearms in their stores, particularly non-sporting weapons like concealed carry handguns and sporting rifles like the the AR-15 and AK derivatives.
Back in the 1990s, these stores limited themselves to purely guns designed for hunting and target shooting. The finish was almost always a traditional satin black finish with natural wood stocks and grips. There might be a few long weapons with a tree-bark finish, but everything was styled in a way that emphasized a non-military, non-self-defense role.
All that is changed and even discount chains like Dunham's feature sales on 'tactical' ARs and 'combat pistols' with all manner of wicked-looking accessories.
For the discerning buyer, these retailers are an excellent place to start.
Their selection is usually limited to the larger, well-known manufacturers and their staff may not be as knowledgeable as some (since big-box stores are notorious for staff turnover), but they provide a good place to get an idea of what is out there as well as a reasonable cost estimate.
Specialized gun shops are a mixed bag. Some can offer far greater selection, a very skilled and helpful staff and excellent prices. On the other end of the spectrum they can be pricey, not particularly helpful and have a tiny selection.
One advantage they have is that gun shops often sell used firearms, which can be an excellent way to save money on a purchase and often is the only way to find a collectible piece that is no longer in production.
Michigan has some hybrid stores that have the size of a big-box but are independently owned. Jay's Sporting Goods has two stores and both are excellent. I have gotten some excellent deals there over the years and whenever I am passing through Clare or Gaylord, I take a moment to stop in.
As I said, the big box stores are a useful baseline to compare the specialized gun stores with and if you find the big box guys give you a better deal, so be it. I will note that some of the gun shops offer other services that a big box can't, such as access to a firing range or even allowing to test a rental gun before making your purchase. In that case, the customer service is worth a slight discrepancy in price.
Perhaps the most challenging environment to purchase a firearm is a gun show. The deals one can find are often amazing, but as in all things, the buyer must beware. When going to a show, it is essential to know exactly what one is looking for - not necessarily the specific item, but at least the function.
It is very easy to get caught up in the moment and make a purchase you might later regret.
This is because unlike other products, firearm sales are final. This is partly a function of the background check and paperwork involved. It is also inherent in a device that is essentially powered by an explosive charge. Once a gun has been fired, it is no longer "new." The gun seller cannot simply return it to the manufacturer or repackage it and put it back on the shelf.
In some instances it is possible to make an exchange after the purchase, but in my experience this is really just a trade of one used firearm for another, with the vendor offering full credit on the purchase value.
It is useful to return for a moment to the myth of the gun show loophole, which suggests that people meet at the gun show but then go out in the parking lot to make their deal, thereby circumventing the law.
This is false for several reasons. First and foremost, there is no federal requirement for a background checks on long weapons (rifles and shotguns) between two individuals. If I have a rifle and my neighbor would like to purchase it, I can simply sell it to him. No paperwork, no hassle (although some states have their own rules).
This is held up to be a huge problem by gun control fanatics, yet it is only common sense. Criminals, it should be noted, won't bother anyway, so all that will happen if this "loophole" is closed is that ordinary, law-abiding people will deal with even more red tape while the illegal trade continues to flourish.
Resources that should be directed to combating real crimes are then diverted to harassing the law-abiding. These rules also create a new class of criminal who simply get the paperwork done incorrectly but are otherwise no threat to society. And so we waste more resources.
If the 40+ years of the War on Drugs has shown us anything it is the utter futility of believing passing a law can eliminate a trade for something people want. I notice that once again there has been an incident in Europe where a terrorist somehow obtained an AK-47 despite their allegedly perfect gun control laws and attempted yet another shooting spree that was only stopped by the timely and courageous intervention of three off-duty US Marines.
Another gun control failure.
A close cousin of the gun show in terms of risks and rewards is the second-hand store. Depending on the state, pawn shops or second-hand stores may be able to sell used firearms. Like a vendor at a gun show, one must be very cautious in making a purchase. Some stores may have helpful and knowledgeable staff, but others are simply moving inventory.
One can easily get ripped off, but a seasoned buyer can also obtain outstanding deals. They are at least worth a look.
Finally there are the online retailers. In almost every case, you will have to have the gun shipped to an Federal Firearms License holder in order to complete the purchase. Nonetheless, I know people who swear by this method, particularly for purchasing brand-new firearms.
To follow this route, one must obtain a tame FFL, which can be a challenge. Many gun shops will handle the purchase for you, but they will require a fee (usually around $25) for their time. Sites like gunbroker.com also can serve as a handy price-check for something the big box retailers don't carry.
Buying a firearm is in many ways like buying a car: There are a lot of rules that vary by state and purchases are extremely difficult to return.
That being said, firearms tend to hold their value quite well, with minimal depreciation. In fact, several of the firearms I purchase years ago have appreciated considerably in value.
As I said, guns are one of the few areas where men will shop and shop before making a purchase, sometimes waiting years for the exact right circumstances before closing the sale.