In the industry of holiday gift giving, federal officials and licensed dealers often refer to firearms as a “retail phenomenon.”
“It’s the one present under the tree that’s not only a gift, but also a liability,” said Steven Fishman, president of Sidney’s Department Store in downtown Augusta.
With firearm sales holding steady nationwide, federal officials and licensed dealers, such as Fishman, are encouraging the 144,000 Americans who FBI records show were approved to buy a firearm on Black Friday to document any transfers of ownership made during the holidays.
If they don’t, they could be held responsible for any weapons that are lost, stolen or possessed illegally by minors or convicted felons, said Regina Milledge, a federal investigator at the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ Atlanta field division.
“If you want to give a firearm to someone as a gift, then you have that right, as long as you know that person by law is allowed to possess and own a firearm,” Milledge said. “If you are aware they are not allowed to own or purchase a firearm, then you could definitely be held criminally accountable.”
Under federal law, the owner of a legitimately purchased gun is the person who buys a firearm from a licensed dealer, even if they intend to gift the item to a friend or relative.
“It’s what we call in a black-and-white world, a gray area,” Fishman said of U.S. gun laws.
Since 2011, holiday sales of both guns and ammunition have soared, with the FBI processing more than 425,000 background checks on the past three Black Fridays combined, according to federal data.
Milledge said the ATF only regulates licensed dealers and recommended families and friends gifting firearms to document the exchange by drafting a receipt – signed and dated by each party – that details the gun’s brand, model, serial number, caliber and type.
Fishman, who said December is his store’s busiest month for firearm sales, agreed that it is probably a good idea to keep documents such as a bill of sale in case something happens to the weapon. “It’s better to cover yourself, because if a gifted firearm is sold or stolen, it’s likely to come back to you,” he said.
Milledge said federal law prohibits the possession of firearms by convicted felons and generally requires people younger than age 18 to get written permission from a parent or guardian to have a handgun for limited purposes such as employment, ranching, farming, target practice or hunting.
Milledge said the ATF tracks stolen or lost firearms through a three-stage process that starts with the manufacturer, moves to the licensed dealer, and then to the purchaser or transferee.
From that point, the investigation begins because the first known purchaser is the end of the trace process.
“That does not mean you are the current owner, but you might get a phone call from the ATF on where the firearm is now,” she said.
Milledge said the ATF recommends anyone wanting to give a firearm as a present to consider purchasing a gift certificate for it.
“That way the person will get the exact firearm he or she wants, and there’s no question about who is the actual buyer of the firearm,” she said.