Licensing laws are safety measures proven to promote safe gun ownership and reduce gun deaths.
Gun licensing has been proven to reduce gun violence and trafficking, and it remains a necessary component to crafting comprehensive, lifesaving gun laws. Licensing laws are an effective way to make sure guns are only purchased and used by responsible Americans, and yet just a handful of states have these laws in place.
Licensing laws ensure that gun owners have passed a background check before they purchase a gun. In contrast to states which require a background check at the point of sale of a firearm, licensing laws typically require an in-person application at law enforcement agencies, which provides an additional safeguard against fraud or inaccuracies that could allow dangerous individuals to obtain guns.
Alexander D. McCourt, et al, “Purchaser Licensing, Point-of-Sale Background Check Laws, and Firearm Homicide and Suicide in 4 US States, 1985–2017,” American Journal of Public Health 110, no. 10 (2020): 1546-1552.
Licensing laws that require periodic renewal can also reduce gun crimes by helping law enforcement confirm that a gun owner remains eligible to possess firearms and facilitating the removal of firearms from people who become ineligible. Furthermore, licensing laws can help to empower safe and responsible gun ownership. Many states will only issue or renew license after an applicant has completed a safety training course and firearm safety tests showing that the applicant knows relevant gun laws and how to safely load, fire, and store a gun.
Studies show that these attributes of licensing laws can lead to significant reductions in both gun homicides and gun suicides.
- When Connecticut passed a licensing law, its firearm homicide rate decreased by 28%1 and its firearm suicide rate decreased by 33%.2
- Conversely, when Missouri repealed its licensing law, its firearm homicide rate increased by 47%3 and its firearm suicide rate increased by 24%.4
- A study of licensing laws across 80 large urban counties found that these laws are associated with an 11% decrease in firearm homicides.5
- Licensing laws that require an in-person application or fingerprinting also help prevent mass shootings. States with these laws have 56% fewer fatal mass shootings.6
Licensing laws also help to prevent gun trafficking and the diversion of guns to criminals.
- In places with licensing laws, criminals typically acquire guns that originate from states with weaker laws.7
- After Missouri repealed its licensing law, the share of crime guns that originated from an in-state retail transaction doubled.8
- States with strong licensing laws were associated with 76% lower rates of gun exported to criminals.9
Public opinion polls show that Americans strongly support licensing laws. A 2019 survey found that 77% of Americans support a law requiring a person to obtain a license from local law enforcement before buying a gun.10 This support includes more than two-thirds of gun owners (68%).11
Summary of Federal Law
Federal law does not require licensing of gun owners or purchasers.
For information about the exemption that federal law provides for certain license holders to the background check required when a firearm is purchased from a licensed dealer, see our summary on Background Check Procedures.
Summary of State Law
In general, state licensing laws fall into four categories: (1) permits to purchase firearms, (2) licenses to own firearms, (3) firearm safety certificates, which indicate that the certificate-holder has completed required safety training and is licensed to purchase a firearm, and (4) registration laws that impose licensing requirements.12
- “Permit to purchase”: Nine states have enacted permit to purchase licensing schemes that require prospective purchasers obtain a permit or license before buying at least some firearms.13
- “License to own”: Three states—Illinois, Massachusetts, and New York—require a license to own firearms (New York’s law applies only to handguns). Unlike a permit to purchase, a license to own a firearm must remain valid for as long as the person owns the firearm.
- Firearm Safety Certificate: Two states—California and Washington—require prospective firearm purchasers to first obtain a certificate showing that they have completed required firearm safety training. California requires this for all firearms, Washington requires it only for semiautomatic rifles.
- Registration: One jurisdiction—the District of Columbia—has a registration law that also functions as a license requirement.
Any of these forms of licensing laws can be used to impose a background check requirement, or (like California’s firearm safety certificate) they can be used to supplement a separate background check system. See our summary on Universal Background Checks for further information. Permits to purchase, licenses to own, firearm safety certificates, and registration requirements can also be used to ensure that firearm owners or purchasers have undergone adequate safety training or testing.
State Laws Governing Licensing of Gun Owners or Purchasers
State Licensing Requirements for Gun Purchase or Possession
|State||Type of Firearms||Type of License||Safety Training or Exam Requirement|
|California14||All firearms||Firearms Safety Certificate||Yes|
|Connecticut16||All firearms||Permit to purchase||Yes|
|District of Columbia17||All firearms||Registration||Yes|
So long as eligible
|Hawaii18||All firearms||Permit to purchase||Yes (handguns)|
No (long guns)
|Illinois19||All firearms||License to own||No|
|Maryland20||Handguns||Permit to purchase||Yes|
|Massachusetts21||All firearms and ammunition devices||License to own|
Permit to purchase (handguns only)
|Michigan22||Handguns||Permit to purchase23||No|
|Nebraska24||Handguns||Permit to purchase||No|
|New Jersey25||All firearms||Permit to purchase26||No|
So long as eligible (long guns)
90 days (handguns)27
|New York28||Handguns||License to own||No|
|North Carolina 29||Handguns||Permit to purchase||No|
|Rhode Island 30||Handguns||Permit to purchase||Yes|
|Washington 31||Semiautomatic rifles||Firearms safety certification||Yes|
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States with Licensing Requirements that Apply to All Guns
The seven states listed below have enacted the strongest licensing laws because they require licenses to possess, permits to purchase, and/or firearm safety certificates for all classes of firearms. Many of the states below also require applicants for a license or permit to successfully complete safety training courses.
California: Firearm Safety Certificate
California requires a Firearm Safety Certificate (“FSC”) prior to purchase of any firearm.32
- Duration: California FSCs are valid for five years from the date of issue.
- No Limit on Number of Firearms Purchased: California does not impose any limit on the number of firearms that may be purchased by the holder of an FSC.
- Safety Training? Yes, applicants must complete required safety training.33
Connecticut: Permit to Purchase
Connecticut requires a person who wishes to purchase or receive a handgun to obtain a permit to carry a handgun or a handgun eligibility certificate. Connecticut also requires a person who wishes to purchase or receive a long gun to obtain a long gun eligibility certificate, a permit to carry a handgun, or a handgun eligibility certificate. Permits and certificates may be revoked in the event the holder becomes disqualified.
- Duration: Connecticut permits and certificates are valid for five years from the date of issue.
- No Limit on Number of Firearms Purchased: Connecticut does not impose any limit on the number of firearms that may be purchased by the holder of a permit or certificate.
- Safety Training? Yes, applicants must complete required safety training.34
District of Columbia: Registration
Details about D.C.’s registration requirements for all firearms can be found in our summary on Registration of Firearms in the District of Columbia.
- Duration: D.C. previously required firearm registrants to renew their registration certificates every three years, but this requirement was struck down under the Second Amendment by a federal appeals court.35
- No Limit on Number of Firearms Purchased: D.C. previously prohibited registering more than one handgun in D.C. during any 30-day period, but this requirement was also struck down in the same appeals court decision.36
- Safety Training? Yes, applicants must complete required safety training.37
Hawaii: Permit to Purchase
In Hawaii, anyone wishing to acquire a firearm must obtain a permit from the county chief of police.38 As part of the application process, applicants undergo a background check and must sign a waiver allowing access to mental health records. Permits may not issue until at least 14 days have passed after the date of application, and all permits must be issued or denied before the 20th day from the date of application.39 Permits may be revoked for good cause.
- Duration: Permits to acquire a handgun are valid for 10 days from the date of issue, and long gun permits are valid for one year from date of issue.
- Single Purchase: Handgun purchases are limited to one handgun per permit.
- Safety Training? Yes, applicants must complete required safety training.40
Illinois: License to Purchase or Possess
In Illinois, no person may acquire or possess any firearm or ammunition without a valid Firearm Owner’s Identification (FOID) card,41 or a valid permit to carry concealed handguns.42 Each applicant for a FOID card is required to complete an application and “submit evidence” to the Department of State Police (DSP) that she or he is not a prohibited purchaser.43 The DSP has the authority to revoke a FOID card if the holder becomes a prohibited purchaser. Effective January 1, 2014, a private person who sells or transfers a firearm must contact DSP to verify the validity of the purchaser’s FOID card.
- Duration: FOID cards are valid for ten years from the date of issue.
- No Limit on Number of Firearms Purchased: Illinois does not impose any limit on the number of firearms that may be purchased by the holder of a FOID card.
- Safety Training? No safety training requirement.
Massachusetts: License to Possess and Permit to Purchase
In Massachusetts, all firearm possessors are required to obtain either a Firearm Identification (FID) card or a Class A or B license to carry a firearm. FID cardholders are permitted to purchase and possess rifles or shotguns, excluding large capacity weapons.44 A Class A license allows the licensee to purchase and possess all types of lawful firearms; a Class B license is limited to “non-large capacity” handguns and any rifle or shotgun, but does not permit carrying concealed, loaded handguns in a public place.45 All applicants must undergo a background check. The licensing authority has 40 days to approve or deny the application. A FID card or Class A or B license must be revoked or suspended if the holder becomes disqualified from obtaining the card or license.
To purchase a handgun in Massachusetts, a FID cardholder must also obtain a permit to purchase. A permit to purchase is issued at the discretion of the licensing authority for a “proper purpose,” following a background check.
- Duration: FID cards and Class A and Class B licenses are valid for six years; permits to acquire handguns are valid for 10 days.
- Single Purchase: Handgun purchases are limited to one handgun per permit. However, there is no limit on the number of firearms that may be purchased with a Class A or Class B license, or on the number of non-large capacity rifles or shotguns that may be purchased with a FID Card.
- Safety Training? Yes, applicants must complete required safety training.46
New Jersey: Permit to Purchase
In New Jersey, all handgun purchasers must obtain a permit to purchase a handgun, while purchasers of rifles or shotguns must obtain a Firearms Purchaser Identification Card (FPIC). Both require the applicant to undergo a background check and waive confidentiality relating to any institutional confinement for a mental or psychiatric condition. New Jersey law also provides that no handgun transfer permit or FPIC may be issued where the transfer would not be in the interest of the public health, safety or welfare. In addition, the applicant must be of “good character and good repute in the community” where he or she lives. The FPIC or permit must be issued within 30 days of application, or 45 days if the applicant is a non-resident. A FPIC may be revoked by a superior court after a hearing with notice, upon a finding that the holder no longer qualifies for the FPIC.
- Duration: Handgun purchase permits in New Jersey are valid for 90 days, and may be extended for an additional 90 days for good cause. New Jersey FPICs are valid as long as the holder remains eligible to possess a firearm.
- Single Purchase: Handgun purchases are limited to one handgun per permit and one handgun per 30-day period.47
- Safety Training? No safety training requirement.
States with Licensing Requirements for Certain Classes of Weapons
The six states listed below all require licenses or permits for purchase or possession of handguns, but not other types of guns.48 Of the below states, only Maryland and Rhode Island require safety training to receive a license or permit.
Additionally, though it does not require a license or permit to purchase a gun, Washington requires safety training certification for purchase of semiautomatic rifles.
Maryland requires that a person obtain a permit before the person buys, rents, or receives a handgun. A permit is valid for 10 years. Maryland applicants must complete an approved safety training course that includes instruction on state firearms law, home firearm safety, handgun mechanisms and operation, and an orientation component that demonstrates the person’s safe operation and handling of a firearm.
Michigan requires either a license to carry a concealed handgun or a handgun purchase license, although a person who purchases a handgun from a licensed dealer does not need either license. A handgun purchase license is valid for 30 days.
Nebraska issues handgun certificates, although handgun purchasers outside Omaha who purchase from licensed dealers or who have a concealed weapons permit do not need a handgun certificate. Purchasers from private sellers must obtain a handgun certificate. Handgun certificates are valid for three years.
New York requires a license to purchase or possess a handgun.49 Handgun licenses in New York must be recertified every five years and must specify the weapon by caliber, make, model, manufacturer’s name and serial number. Specific provisions apply to permits in New York City, where the duration is three years, and in Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester Counties, where the duration is five years.
North Carolina requires a handgun purchaser to obtain either a permit to purchase a handgun or a concealed handgun permit. Both are valid for five years. The handgun purchase permit is valid for purchase of a single handgun and must be revoked if the person becomes ineligible.
Rhode Island requires a pistol/revolver safety certificate issued by the state Department of Environmental Management. The certificate remains valid indefinitely. In Rhode Island, anyone wishing to purchase a handgun who does not have a concealed handgun license and is not a member of law enforcement must complete a basic two-hour handgun safety course.50
Though there is no formal certificate or permitting process, effective July 1, 2019, Washington requires purchasers of semiautomatic rifles to have completed a safety training program in the past five years. This program must include instruction on: basic firearms safety, safe storage, talking to children about gun safety, suicide prevention, safe handling of firearms, and state and federal firearms laws, including prohibited firearms transfers.
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Selected Local Law
New York City
As noted above, while state law in New York requires a person to obtain a permit for the purchase or possession of a handgun, this requirement does not apply to rifles or shotguns. In New York City, however, a permit is required for the purchase or possession of rifles or shotguns. Permits are issued following a background check and are valid for three years. Permits are renewed automatically unless the police commissioner has reason to believe the applicant’s status has changed since the previous application. Permits may be revoked and weapons seized upon evidence that the holder of the permit has become disqualified. A rifle or shotgun permit is also required for possession of rifle or shotgun ammunition and a rifle or shotgun ammunition feeding device.51
Key Legislative Elements
The features listed below are intended to provide a framework from which policy options may be considered.52 A jurisdiction considering new legislation should consult with counsel.
- License is required for possession of any firearm (D.C., Illinois, Massachusetts), and must be shown prior to purchase of any firearm (California, Connecticut, Hawaii, New Jersey).
- License must be shown prior to purchase of a firearm from any seller, even if the seller is not a licensed dealer (five states and D.C. — any firearm; eight states — handguns only).
- License conditions include:
- Thorough background check (Connecticut, D.C., Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey — all firearms; Michigan, New York and North Carolina also require background checks, but only for handgun licenses).
- Safety training (Connecticut, D.C., Massachusetts — all firearms; Hawaii, Maryland, and Rhode Island also require safety training, but only for handgun licenses).
- Hands-on testing, including firing testing, to demonstrate safe use of firearms.
- Written testing to demonstrate knowledge of applicable firearm laws (California requires testing on firearms laws).
- License has finite duration (California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts — all firearms; Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey and North Carolina also have licenses of finite duration, but only for handguns).
- Renewal process includes background check and testing as described above (Massachusetts).
- Licensee is required to report theft or loss of license and firearms.53
- License is subject to revocation in cases where licensee becomes a prohibited purchaser (Connecticut, D.C., Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey — all firearms), or fails to comply with applicable federal, state and local firearms laws.
- Fee for license is set at a level sufficient to cover administrative costs associated with licensing system.
- Firearm seller or transferor must obtain a copy of the purchaser’s license, record a description of the firearm purchased, and forward this record to law enforcement.54
- Additional requirements are imposed for handgun permit to purchase:
- Short duration applies to handgun permit to purchase (Hawaii, ten days; Massachusetts, ten days; Michigan, 30 days; New Jersey, 90 days).
- Permit to purchase is limited to one handgun per permit (Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina).
Universal background checks are essential to close deadly loopholes in our laws that allow millions of guns to end up in the hands of individuals at an elevated risk of committing violence each year.
Laws that prevent people with significant histories of domestic violence and abuse from accessing firearms are vital to ensuring victims’ safety.
Firearm registration systems are a useful method of curbing illegal gun activity and encouraging responsible gun practices.
- Alexander D. McCourt, et al, “Purchaser Licensing, Point-of-Sale Background Check Laws, and Firearm Homicide and Suicide in 4 US States, 1985–2017,” American Journal of Public Health 110, no. 10 (2020): 1546–1552.
- Cassandra K. Crifasi, et al., “Association Between Firearm Laws and Homicide in Urban Counties,” Journal of Urban Health 95, no. 3 (2018): 383–390.
- Daniel W. Webster, et al, “Evidence Concerning the Regulation of Firearms Design, Sale, and Carrying on Fatal Mass Shootings in the United States,” Criminology & Public Policy 19, no. 1 (2020): 171–212.
- Daniel W. Webster, Jon S. Vernick, and Lisa M. Hepburn, “Relationship Between Licensing, Registration, and Other Gun Sales Laws and the Source State of Crime Guns,” Injury Prevention 7, no. 3 (2001): 184–189; Glenn L. Pierce, Anthony A. Braga, and Garen J. Wintemute, “Impact of California Firearms Sales Laws and Dealer Regulations on the Illegal Diversion of Guns,” Injury Prevention 21, no. 3 (2015): 179–184.
- D.W. Webster, J.S. Vernick, E.E. McGinty, and T. Alcorn, “Preventing the Diversion of Guns to Criminals through Effective Firearm Sales Laws,” in Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis, eds. Daniel W. Webster and Jon S. Vernick (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), 109-122.
- Tim Malloy and Pat Smith, “U.S. Voter Support For Abortion Is High, Quinnipiac University National Poll Finds; 94 Percent Back Universal Gun Background Checks,” Quinnipiac University Poll, May 22, 2019, https://bit.ly/2w6sChE.
- The categories in this summary do not include states that issue permits to carry concealed weapons. That topic is addressed in our summary on Concealed Carry. Nor does this summary include a description of state background check requirements; that is covered in our summary on Background Check Procedures.
- This does not include Minnesota, which offers an optional permit to purchase handguns and semiautomatic military-style assault weapons. This permit exempts the holder from the state requirement of a background check prior to the purchase of such weapons from a federally licensed dealer. Minn. Stat. §§ 624.7131, 624.7132. See our summary on Background Check Procedures for more information.
- Cal. Penal Code §§ 16370, 16670, 26840-26859, 31610-31700.
- In California, universal background checks help to ensure that prohibited persons would not be permitted to purchase firearms, notwithstanding the long duration of the Firearm Safety Certificate (FSC). To address the problem posed by gun owners who could fall into a prohibited category while the FSC remains valid, the state maintains a Prohibited Armed Persons File, an on-line database that allows the California Department of Justice to cross-reference information on persons who own or possess a firearm against a list of individuals who have become ineligible to own or possess firearms. Cal. Penal Code §§ 30000, 30005. This information may be shared with a limited group of public and private entities and individuals, including law enforcement, for the purpose of determining if persons are armed yet prohibited from possessing firearms. Cal. Penal Code § 30000.
- Conn. Gen. Stat. §§ 29-33, 29-36f – 29-36i, 29-37a, 29-38g – 29-38j.
- D. C. Code Ann. §§ 7-2502.01 – 7-2502.10; D.C. Mun. Regs. tit. 24, D.C. Mun. Regs. tit. 24, §§ 2311 – 2320.
- Haw. Rev. Stat. Ann. §§ 134-2, 134-13.
- 430 Ill. Comp. Stat. 65/1 – 65/15a.
- Md. Code Ann. Pub. Safety § 5-117.1. 2013 Md. SB 281 (Approved by the Governor May 16, 2013).
- Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 140, §§ 121, 129B, 129C, 131, 131A, 131E, 131P.
- Mich. Comp. Laws §§ 28.422, 28.422a.
- Michigan’s permit requirement appears to apply to purchase but not possession, although Michigan’s law says that the license is required to “purchase, carry, possess, or transport a pistol.” The word “possess” was added in 2008. 2008 Mich. ALS 195 (effective January 7, 2009). However, the law also says, “A license is void unless used within 30 days after the date it is issued.” Mich. Comp. Laws § 28.422. In addition, individuals who obtain a handgun from a licensed dealer after a background check are exempt from the license requirement. Mich. Comp. Laws § 28.422a.
- Neb. Rev. Stat. Ann. §§ 69-2404, 69-2407, 69-2409.
- N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:58-3.
- New Jersey’s law appears to prohibit “possession” without a permit, but exempts possession in the home or place of business from this requirement, making this prohibition apply primarily to guns in public. See N.J. Stat. §§ 2C:39-5, 2C:39-6(e).
- New Jersey’s handgun permit may be extended for an additional 90 days upon a showing of good cause.
- N.Y. Penal Law §§ 400.00 – 400.01.
- N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 14-402 – 14-404.
- R. I. Gen. Laws §§ 11-47-35 – 11-47-35.1.
- Rev. Code Wash. (ARCW) § 9.41.090(2).
- California has also implemented universal background checks to help ensure that prohibited persons cannot purchase firearms. For more information, see note 10 above, and our page on Background Checks in California.
- To obtain a California FSC, the applicant must pass a written safety test. In addition, subject to limited exceptions, all firearm purchasers in California are required to perform a safe handling demonstration with the firearm being purchased in the presence of a certified instructor. California law specifies various safe handling tasks the prospective purchaser must perform based on the type of firearm to be purchased.
- Applicants for a handgun eligibility certificate, a permit to carry a handgun, or a long gun eligibility certificate must successfully complete an approved course in the safety and use of firearms.
- Heller v. District of Columbia (“Heller III”), 801 F.3d 264, 277-278, 281 (D.C. Cir. 2015) (striking down D.C. Code Ann. § 7-2502.07a).
- Id. at 279-80 (striking down D.C. Code § 7-2502.03(e).
- An applicant to register a firearm in D.C. must complete a firearms training and safety class. See D.C. Code § 7-2502.03(a)(13).
- Hawaii also requires registration of all firearms. Registration requirements are outlined in our summary on the Registration of Firearms.
- Several exceptions exist to the 14-day waiting period, including transfers to law enforcement officers, persons licensed to carry a handgun, and sales to licensed dealers.
- Hawaii requires handgun permit applicants to complete an approved course that focuses on: (1) the safe use, handling and storage of firearms and firearms safety in the home; and (2) state firearms laws. Hawaii includes firing training as one of several options available to applicants to satisfy the firearms safety training requirement. Haw. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 134-2(g).
- 430 Ill. Comp. Stat. 65/2(a)(1)-(2)
- 430 Ill. Comp. Stat. 65/2(c)(5).
- Illinois prohibits any person who has been a patient in a mental institution within the past five years from obtaining a FOID card, with certain exceptions. Upon request by the Department of State Police, the applicant must sign a release waiving any right to confidentiality and requesting the disclosure to the Department of State Police of limited mental health institution admission information. 430 Ill. Comp. Stat. 65/4.
- Massachusetts defines “large capacity weapon” to include assault weapons, certain semi-automatic weapons, and certain large capacity rotating-cylinder firearms.
- A Class A license allows the licensee to purchase, rent, lease, borrow, possess and carry all types of lawful firearms, including both large and non-large capacity handguns, rifles, shotguns, and feeding devices and ammunition for these firearms. Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 140, § 131(a).
- Applicants for a FID card, Class A or Class B license, or permit to purchase a handgun must submit a basic firearms safety certificate issued following a course that includes instruction on: (1) the safe use, handling and storage of firearms; (2) methods for securing and childproofing firearms; (3) the applicable laws relating to the possession, transportation and storage of firearms; and (4) knowledge of operation, potential dangers and basic competency in the ownership and usage of firearms.
- For limits on the number of firearms that may be purchased over a specified time period, see our summary on Sales of Multiple Guns.
- State laws in Nebraska, Michigan, New York and North Carolina explicitly require a background check prior to issuance of the requisite handgun license or permit. The handgun licensing systems in Maryland and Rhode Island are designed primarily to ensure that the handgun owner has undergone the required safety training; those three states have other laws that require a background check before sale of a handgun.
- In New York, in addition to passing a background check to verify that the applicant is not prohibited from possessing a firearm, no one may possess a handgun unless he or she is of “good moral character” and presents “no good cause” for denial of the license.
- Rhode Island’s concealed handgun licensing process includes a requirement that the applicant pass a target shooting test. R.I. Gen. Laws § 11-47-15. Rhode Island does not require firing training or testing for other handgun licensees.
- New York, N.Y., Admin. Code § 10-131, 10-303 et seq., Rules tit. 38, § 3-01 et seq.
- The most comprehensive system of regulating the purchase, possession and ownership of firearms combines licensing of gun owners with registration of all firearms. Additional information on registration of firearms, including the features of comprehensive registration laws, is contained in our summary on the Registration of Firearms.
- See our summary on Reporting Lost or Stolen Firearms for further information about this requirement.
- See, e.g., Haw. Rev. Stat. § 134-2. See our summary on Maintaining Records on Gun Sales for more information about these laws.