Some pitfalls of private firearms sales

I regularly buy and sell firearms privately.  I don’t do it for a living, or even to make money at it;  if one does, one’s a dealer, and should get a Federal Firearms License and do it properly.  (If one doesn’t, the ATF are likely to have a few things to say about the matter!)  Nevertheless, there are many who do likewise.  Unfortunately, there are traps, pitfalls and scams out there.  It helps to be aware of them.  For those new to private arms sales, I thought I’d list some of them.

1.  The deal that’s too good to be true.

I ran across one of these just yesterday, advertised on a local firearms Web site.

For Sale:  Ruger SR22 pistol
Price:  $325
Gun has Crimson Trace laser also an after market stainless guide rod and spring. Included in the price are five 10 round magazines which have extra base plates. It also has an extra backstrap. Has the original box with carrying case (Ruger soft carrying case). Also in the box are the original guide rod and spring.

That price is ridiculously low for what’s being offered.  Consider:

  • The Ruger SR22 pistol is available online from $288.99 new (the lowest price I’ve been able to find at the time of writing).  Most online prices are well over $300.
  • Magazines for the SR22 are available online from $27.99.  Each pistol ships with two of them, so three would have to be bought separately to match the five on offer in the advertisement.  Those three would cost at least $83.97.
  • The Crimson Trace CMR-201 rail-mounted laser sight (as illustrated in the advertisement) is currently listed on for $107.86.
  • The “after market stainless guide rod and spring” aren’t identified, but a Galloway Precision unit matching that description is available on for $22.00.
  • Shipping, sales tax and transfer fees (where applicable) would add at least 10% to the prices listed above.

I doubt whether the total package offered for sale could be assembled, new, for less than about $550 – possibly more, unless the buyer knew where to obtain the lowest possible prices.  To offer that package, used, for $325 is a discount of over 40%.  I’d expect to pay no more than 10% to 20% less than new prices for a good-condition used firearm and accessories.  In other words, that package price sounds far too good to be true.  It’s barely possible – although, I think, highly unlikely – that the seller might not know the value of what he had, and be pricing it below market;  but items such as a laser sight and an aftermarket guide rod and spring aren’t casual, impulse purchases.  They tend to be bought by people who know what they’re doing and what they want.  I doubt that the seller of this package could be unaware of its true value, if he bought it all honestly.

(I tried to confirm the pricing by e-mailing the seller with a series of questions.  Not surprisingly, I got no reply.  That’s often been my experience when asking pointed questions.  If you sound like you know what you’re talking about, you’re frequently met with a deafening silence.  I take that as a sign of untrustworthiness.  On the other hand, if the seller has answers that sound convincing, I take that as a positive.)

2.  The seller expects to recover “sunk costs”, over and above the value of the firearm.

I encounter this surprisingly often.  A seller will have invested money in additional features like an expensive holster, or improvements like refinishing, or a “trigger job“, or something like that.  When he comes to sell the firearm, he wants to recover those costs along with the price of the firearm, and prices it accordingly.  However, a purchaser might have no interest in those “extras”, and therefore won’t want to pay for them – particularly if they raise the price of the gun to an unreasonable level.

Here’s another example from a local firearms-for-sale listing.

For Sale/Trade:  Taurus Tracker .44 Magnum
Price:  $600
Taurus Tracker .44 magnum 4 inch ported barrel stainless steel 5 shot.  Trigger job.  $600.00 or trade.

I was astonished to see a used Tracker advertised for this price, since a brand-new example can be bought online for just $531 (plus shipping, tax and transfer fees, of course).  I contacted the seller to ask about a lower price, but he said he’d spent $150 on the “trigger job” and therefore couldn’t afford to drop his price much.  I didn’t know how to put it to him, but that expense is a “sunk cost”, not recoverable on resale unless it’s been done by a name-brand gunsmith whose work is in demand in its own right.  (For example, if you have a pistol customized by, say, the late Jim Clark Sr., and can prove it by means of an invoice or other evidence, his name will add hundreds or even thousands of dollars in value to the gun;  but there are relatively few gunsmiths with that sort of reputation.)  In the same way, if someone has an expensive custom holster made to fit a particular gun, then decides to sell it, the buyer may not want or need the holster to go with the gun.  If he doesn’t, then he won’t want to pay for it.  It’s as simple as that.

I pointed all that out to the seller, as politely as possible, and added that I’d seen a (blued) Taurus Tracker in .44 Magnum sell (from the same site) for just $400 earlier that same week;  but he was adamant.  He wanted to recover the cost of the “trigger job” as well as the cost of the gun.  I suspect he’ll be doomed to disappointment, unless he meets a buyer with more money than sense.

3.  Beware the scam artist.

There are scam artists out there who’ll put up fake listings, often copying photographs and details from other Web sites, in the hope that they can induce potential buyers to send some money their way as a deposit, or something like that.  You’ll often be able to spot them by the unduly professional nature of their listings (unusual among amateurs who are advertising their own guns for sale), or the ridiculously low prices they ask.  Here’s an example from a local listing just this week.

Price:  $ 2,100

This has “scam” written all over it.  For a start, the price is far too low (something any knowledgeable firearms buyer or collector will recognize).  Secondly, even a cursory Internet search reveals that the photographs, text and other information had been simply lifted from another advertisement on Gunbroker for the same gun (at a much higher and more realistic price).  It’s worth doing an Internet search for the text, or using a service such as to compare the photographs provided with the listing.  One can often find a match in advertisements elsewhere.  Needless to say, I won’t be touching that local listing (or the “seller”) with a ten-foot disinfected bargepole!  Instead, I flagged it as a scam.

4.  The potentially dishonest seller or stolen gun.

This is one of those situations that’s hard to pinpoint.  There are those who try to sell stolen or misappropriated guns privately.  If you don’t have access to police records of stolen weapons, you’ll have no way of knowing about the problem.  The difficulty here is that, if you’re subsequently found in possession of stolen property, you might be charged as the receiver of it, even though you bought it under the impression that it was being legitimately sold to you by its rightful owner.

Some people try to safeguard against this by having the buyer and seller sign a bill of sale, giving details of their names, addresses, etc.  Unfortunately, that’s simple to defeat by giving false information.  It’s very easy to obtain false identity documents if you want them, with whatever name and address you choose to put on them.  Average folks like you or I won’t be able to detect that.

Another ploy is for a dishonest seller to use a false name.  I’ve had this happen to me.  I bought a handgun from someone identifying himself as “Rico McClinton”.  I met him and completed the transaction, but his behavior worried me.  Something just wasn’t “right”.  I made some inquiries online, and found that he was using the name of a well-known television actor.  (Well-known to some, at any rate . . . I hadn’t heard of him before, but then, I don’t watch television.)  I immediately suspected that the gun might be stolen.  I called a contact in a local law enforcement agency and had them check out the weapon’s serial number, but it came back clean.  (That doesn’t mean it wasn’t stolen, of course.  The rightful owner may not have noticed – yet – that it was missing.  If he reports it stolen later, I may still have problems one day.  Alternatively, he might have decided not to report it for his own reasons.)  I’ve learned from that experience, and I now do an Internet search on any seller’s name before I agree to meet them.  If that name comes back as belonging to any well-known public figure, I’ll be asking more questions before proceeding with the purchase or sale.

Ultimately, a private firearms sale or purchase has to be governed by common sense.

  • If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
  • Let the buyer beware.
  • Any seller asking more than 90% of the new value of a gun is indulging in wishful thinking, unless it’s a scarce collectors’ item.
  • Any seller offering his used gun for less than 70% of its new price is probably asking too little.  There may be something wrong with the gun, or it may not be an entirely legitimate deal.



  1. Some years ago I was having a beer in local bar before heading home from work. I was a approached by a man with a stainless L frame that wanted $150 for the same. Maybe he just needed money fast, but the deal was suspicious and I didn't know him, so I passed. The possibility of buying stolen property is a real risk and what if it had been used in a crime? You might find yourself to be a suspect.

  2. I was shocked at the price of that Colt Anaconda. Had no idea the market had changed that much. I did a quick search on Colt Python which I own. It is selling for 3 times what I paid for it. Amazing.

  3. 1. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. This is always true, no matter what is being bought or sold.
    2. Let the buyer beware. This is always true, no matter what is being bought or sold.
    3. Any seller asking more than 90% of the new value of a gun is indulging in wishful thinking, unless it's a scarce collectors' item. This is just negotiating advice. I am sure I am not the only person here who has ever overpaid for a product. Overpaying or underpaying are not really "pitfalls of gun buying".
    4. Any seller offering his used gun for less than 70% of its new price is probably asking too little. There may be something wrong with the gun, or it may not be an entirely legitimate deal. Again, same advice applies to any sort of private sale.

    None of these are really Gun-specific advice. But thanks for posting it.

  4. I recently purchased a used handgun from a private party, listed for sale on one of the large online FA sites.
    After a few email exchanges requesting further info and pics, and a couple of phone calls to coordinate shipping details etc, the transaction went without a hitch.
    I had some concerns about sending my money halfway across the country to a total stranger. Before committing to the purchase I did what research I could, checking similar offerings, price, condition, and as everything seemed legit, I went ahead.
    This transaction worked very well for me. The handgun was delivered to my LGS in a timely manner, and condition was as described.

    You will note these sites may have ratings for sellers who have completed multiple transactions. This may instill confidence when considering a purchase.


  5. Peter,

    Why would someone using the verbiage from a professional ad ring bells about being a "scam"? I have a Sabatti Bockb├╝chsflinte (over/under .36-06/12 gauge) for sale, and I copied some of the verbiage from the Frankonia Jagd catalog. I wanted to appeal to the people who wanted specifics that I couldn't provide. It certainly isn't a scam of any sort.

    Just wondering.


  6. @Waidmann: It wasn't just the use of the verbiage, it was also the use of the proprietary photographs from that advertisement. Furthermore, the price asked in the local ad was way too low compared to the actual value of the gun. Taken together, the combination screamed 'Scam' from the get-go.

  7. A seller on one of my FB gun pages today lists a "32 Smith and Wesson" revolver for sale. That may be the caliber but the gun is manufactured by CLERKE, a very cheaply made 'Saturday night special' if ever there was one. Judging by the comments from several potential purchasers, they believe that is truly is a Smith and Wesson revolver. Buyer beware, indeed.

  8. I've encountered the same things in vehicle ads in Craigslist. What got my attention was the errors in the various military references that she listed as the reasons for having to sell the truck. Supposedly, she was being transferred, and didn't want to ship it to her new post in HI. But, she would ship it to me. A quick Goggle confirmed my suspicions on the military data, so I dropped a dime on her to CL.

  9. Better to buy from a fellow gun nut friend. Pretty much every long term gun owner you know has a gat or two they'd be happy to part with for that other gun they have an eye on.

    Personally, I find my best deals at proper gunshops. Of course, that's one of those things where you need to frequently browse the secondhand shelves, and a working knowledge of firearms prices, and how to function check autos and revolvers.

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