The Ins and Outs of Shipping Firearms
Shipping a firearm can be a confusing ordeal and the plethora of conflicting information and anecdotes floating around online and at gun counters doesn’t make the matter any clearer. Is it illegal to ship a firearm with a particular carrier? Is it against this carrier’s company policies? What about the USPS? Can it go across state lines? Does it matter who I ship it to? Can I ship it to myself instead of flying with a firearm?
First off, the rules are different for licensees (FFL holders) versus non-licensees. We are mainly going to cover the rules for the non-licensed average Joe here since, if you are an FFL you probably already know how to ship firearms. We will briefly touch on some aspects of FFL shipping, however, since having a licensee do your shipping can often be easier and more affordable than doing it on your own.
If you ship incorrectly, you may end up facing consequences like denied insurance claims if your firearm is lost or damaged or, worse, going to jail. With these kind of high stakes, it pays to do it right at all levels when shipping a firearm.
Who (and where) can you send a firearm to in the first place?
Before endeavoring to ship any firearms, one should understand that there are general rules about who you can (and can not) send a firearm to. There is a difference between shipping a firearm to an individual who won your online firearm auction, shipping a firearm to yourself when traveling or moving, and shipping a firearm to a licensed gunsmith or manufacturer to be serviced.
In general, an individual can send a firearm directly to a licensee in any state, provided that the applicable regulations are followed. An individual may send a long gun directly to another individual in their own state or a licensee in any state through USPS or send a handgun or long gun via common carrier (such as UPS or FedEx) to a resident of their own State or to a licensee in any State. Additionally, an individual may ship their firearms interstate for their own lawful use. To do this, the package should be addressed to the owner “in the care of” the out-of-state resident and nobody other than the owner may open the package or take possession of the firearm.
At this point, it should be noted that firearm shipping FAQs from the ATF, carriers, and other sources often conveniently omit portions of the law or word their answers in such a way as to make the process sound more difficult or cumbersome what what it actually is. For instance, the above ATF FAQ on common carrier shipping also indicates that “Federal law requires that the carrier be notified that the shipment contains a firearm.” While this is true in some instances (e.g. when a non-licensee ships a long gun to another non-licensee for transfer within their own state), 18 USC §922(e) explicitly states that this requirement for notification is only required by law when the recipient is not a “licensed importer, licensed manufacturer, licensed dealer, or licensed collector.” For this reason, whenever possible, we link to the applicable laws so you can read it for yourself.
Shipping out of state
One of the more common reasons to ship a firearm is because you are selling (transferring) it to someone else. This is covered in 18 USC Part 1 Chapter 44 §922. §922(a)(5) specifies, in part, that “It shall be unlawful for any person (other than a licensed importer, licensed manufacturer, licensed dealer, or licensed collector) to transfer, sell, trade, give, transport, or deliver any firearm to any person (other than a licensed importer, licensed manufacturer, licensed dealer, or licensed collector) who the transferor knows or has reasonable cause to believe does not reside in the State in which the transferor resides.“
There are a couple of exceptions given for things like the succession of inherited firearms or loaning firearms for “sporting purposes” but, in general, if you are sending a firearm to an (unlicensed) individual in another state, it has to go to an FFL in that state and the recipient must pick it up from that FFL. If the firearm is going to a gunsmith, dealer, manufacturer, or other licensee to be worked on, it can be shipped directly.
But how can you ship it…?
Sending firearms through USPS
The USPS details the rules for shipping firearms in §432 of Publication 52.
Non-licensees can not mail handguns through the United States Postal Service. This is due to the blanket nonmailability covered in Title 18 Part 1 Chapter 83 Section 1715 of the US Code. For non-licensees, §1715 reads, in part, “[p]istols, 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.”
Individuals, however, “may mail a shotgun or rifle to a resident of his or her own State or to a licensee in any state.” Firearms shipped through the USPS must comply with all other requirements laid out in §432, including the prohibition against “markings of any kind that indicate the nature of the contents […] on the outside wrapper or container.” See §432.3 for the complete USPS regulations for shipping rifles and shotguns, which must bear a “Return Service Requested” endorsement, be sent by signature-required Priority Mail Express or Registered Mail and include either $200+ insurance or Signature Confirmation service. This section also details how to use USPS to ship firearms to yourself out of state.
Although individuals may not ship handguns via USPS, dealers can. The requirements for this are also spelled out in §432. As you will see below, shipping handguns via common carrier can be an expensive proposition, so many people opt to have a friendly FFL ship their handguns (often for a small fee).
Shipping firearms via common carrier (like UPS or FedEx)
Shipping firearms by common carrier is, arguably, the most common method of getting them from point A to point B. It is also the focal point of a lot of internet and gun counter lore, misinformation, misconceptions, and general confusion. We will try to clear up some of that confusion here.
It is important to understand that multiple sets of rules may be in play when shipping a firearm. Generally these rules do not contradict one another; rather, they supplement one another by putting into place further restrictions beyond what the other set of rules did. For instance, 18 U.S.C. 922 sections (a)(2)(A), (a)(5), (e), and (f), along with 27 CFR 478.30 (which echos 922(a)(5)) and 478.31 (which echos 922(e) and (f)) comprise the bulk of the US laws and rules governing the shipment of firearms. This is “the law of the land” about what you can and can not legally do. Beyond that, are the carrier policies. While failing to follow to a carrier’s policies may not violate the law, it will likely violate their terms of service and may result in their refusal to ship your items, honor claims for lost or damaged items, or result in an inadvertent violation of the law. Thus, one should always ensure that they are not only complying with the letter of the law when it comes to shipping a firearm, but also to the individual carrier’s policies.
Carriers generally make their policies for shipping firearms available online, such as those of the two major US carriers UPS and FedEx. Shippers should refer to carrier policy information for firearm packaging guidelines as well as specific policies for the handling of firearm shipments. Packaging guidelines generally require sturdy containers with no visible indication that the package contains a firearm, per §922(e).
UPS specific regulations
UPS firearm shipping regulations require that handguns may only be shipped via UPS Next Day Air Services. They will ship some NFA items, including silencers, under their normal firearm shipping provisions; however, they will not accept automatic weapons for shipment.
Firearms may be shipped only through a UPS Scheduled Pickup Account, or through a UPS Customer Center (counters at UPS operational facilities). It is UPS policy that firearms are not accepted for shipment via UPS Drop Boxes or UPS On-Call Pickup, and may not be tendered to or dropped off at locations of The UPS Store, any third party retailer, or any UPS Access Point location. It is also UPS policy that when you are shipping a package that contains a handgun, you must verbally notify the UPS driver or UPS Customer Center clerk.
The shipper must use Delivery Confirmation Adult Signature Required service for each package containing a firearm and affix a UPS label requesting an adult signature upon delivery, per §922(f)(2).
FedEx specific regulations
FedEx firearm shipping regulations specify that they will ship firearms, but only between licensed importers; manufacturers; dealers; collectors; and federal, state, or local law enforcement agencies and, “where not prohibited by local, state and federal law, from individuals to licensed importers, licensed manufacturers or licensed dealers (and return of same).”
Per §922(f)(2), FedEx requires firearm shipments to include the Direct Signature Required or Adult Signature Required Delivery Signature Option. They also require that packages must be shipped via FedEx Priority Overnight service. FedEx firearms shipments cannot be placed in a FedEx Express Drop Box; they must be presented for shipment at a FedEx location and, upon presenting the package for shipment, the person tendering the shipment to FedEx Express is required to give notification that the package contains a firearm.
General tips and quick links
18 USC 922 – US Code. “The Law.” Mainly reference (a)(2)(A), (a)(5), (e), and (f)
27 CFR 478 – Code of Federal Regulations. “The Rules.” Mainly reference §30-32
USPS Publication 52 §432 – Postal service regulations for shipping firearms
UPS Firearm Shipping guidelines
FedEx Terms & Conditions – Click “show more”, scroll to “firearms”
BATFE FFL eZCheck – Online tool to verify FFL status for out-of-state recipients