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I will be traveling to the United States soon (with an ESTA application). I come from an European country where firearms are forbidden. (For regular citizens.) I would really like to try it when I'll be in the US, but I don't know what the law says about that. I'll be in California.

  • Are tourists legally authorized to use firearms? In what conditions?

Assuming the answer is yes, where can/should I try? The only thing that comes to mind is the shooting range, but I don't know if there are other options.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Mark Mayo Supports Monica May 5 '16 at 8:58
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    You can even try them out in Europe. There are plenty of shooting ranges and it is a tourist attraction in most former eastern block countries. – TomTom May 5 '16 at 9:33
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    Unlicensed ownership or possession may be forbidden, but it's unlikely that usage in a controlled enviroment is. Otherwise Europe would do a lot worse in the Olympics. – Stop Harming Monica May 5 '16 at 13:44
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There are both legal and practical issues related to possessing a firearm in the United States for nonimmigrant aliens (visitors from other countries who are not attempting to migrate to the United States). The rules are complex and are dependent on your country of origin.

Here is a document from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives which gives a rather complex explanation to the issue.

If you are admitted to the United States under a nonimmigrant alien visa then you may not possess a firearm unless you meet a certain set of exceptions. Two of those exceptions are you must have a hunting license issued by a government entity within the United States or be admitted to the United States for lawful hunting or sporting purposes.

If you are a nonimmigrant alien without a visa (e.g. your country participates in the Visa Waiver Program) then you may possess a firearm in the United States provided that you are not otherwise prohibited from doing so (typically a convicted criminal, mental defective or drug user).

There are also ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations) rules that prevent anyone in the United States from providing instruction in the use of firearms to nonresident aliens. This is a little-known regulation that can get someone teaching about firearms in deep trouble.

Most gun ranges, especially in California, will not rent a firearm to a single person in order to reduce the probability of suicide. There was a rash of suicidal people who visited gun ranges, rented a gun and then shot themselves about 20 years ago. You'll now find that gun ranges as part of a "best-practices" approach to policies will no longer rent a firearm to a person who is alone and didn't already bring a firearm.

That's the legal stuff. I'm not a lawyer and can't and won't provide legal advice. I am, however, a professional firearms instructor and am in constant concern about keeping my business dealings legal.

From a practical perspective it is unlikely you will run into any problems unless you create problems. Assuming you are permitted to possess a firearm then you are legally allowed to rent a gun at a range and shoot all day long, if the range will rent you the gun.

Under current interpretation of ITAR it would be illegal for anyone to teach you about the gun, its operation or, probably even gun safety. Of course, nothing prevents you from watching any of the gun-related instructional videos on YouTube. From an advice perspective, this last part has me the most concerned. All of my students get very detailed instruction on gun safety and close supervision until I'm sure they can operate their firearm in a safe manner.

Please note that this answer only pertains to U.S. federal law. As others have pointed out in the comments one also has to be aware of individual state laws and regulations.

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    Does renting a gun also fall under possession in the states? I would assume the gun remains under the possession of the range. I mean, if you rent a house, you don't possess it, the landlord posesses it. – Nzall May 4 '16 at 13:15
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    If you have the gun then you possess it. Ownership is a different issue. – Dave D May 4 '16 at 13:33
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    @NateKerkhofs in New York law, at least, when you rent a house you possess it from the moment the landlord gives you the keys. The landlord owns it, but the tenant has possession. The landlord's right to enter the property without is very limited. – phoog May 4 '16 at 17:13
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    @vsz - In the U.S., possession does not refer to ownership but to the physical attribute of in your control. It is illegal for a prohibited person, e.g., a convicted felon, to be in possession of a firearm. That means they can't touch one no matter who owns it, including a range. – Dave D May 4 '16 at 20:17
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    How the hell does making it illegal to teach people about gun safety make anyone safer? That's insane. – DCShannon May 5 '16 at 1:50
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There are plenty of ranges nearby in Nevada that you can try. They are popular with European tourists. Locals would probably find them rather expensive. There are definitely also some in the Los Angeles area.

If you have some gun-owning friends in California you might want to ask them if they could take you to their range as a guest as it will almost certainly be cheaper and probably more enjoyable. Nobody is going to ask your citizenship if you come as a guest- you will not be buying firearms or ammunition (those would not be legal, though the latter is probably possible-don't do it) and your friend would take responsibility for making sure you handle the firearms safely.

You should at least reimburse your friend for the ammo you use- it's not cheap (especially larger calibers such as .40, 9mm and .45 ACP) and is sometimes hard to find (especially smaller calibers such as .22LR).

If you have some desire to fire fully automatic firearms you might have to go to Las Vegas. Indoor ranges may have restrictions on the caliber and type of projectile.

If you want to bone up, here are some manuals for training on firearms from a Canadian perspective. Non-Restricted firearms are generally rifles and shotguns ('long guns') in Canada and restricted are generally handguns and some semi-automatic rifles, but the US safety rules will be similar (safety is safety), except the Canadian rules on transport and storage will be far more restrictive. If you go into a range where tourists are the main customers you'll be closely supervised and have minimal safety training.

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I have friends in the US who operate ranges and training facilities, they get a lot of tourists and yes, they will show you how to operate a firearm in a safe environment, most ranges will (for a fee). Watching a Youtube video is NOT a good way to learn how to operate any firearm, it requires proper hands-on, supervised training. Taking a short-cut can and does cause serious injury and even on a well run range, accidents can happen, you will have to sign an insurance waiver. You will have to be accompanied and supervised and you will almost certainly be unable to legally purchase a weapon from any reputable dealer. You can find details of good range facilities from the NRA website.

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    BUt are any of those friends based in California? As I understand it, firearms regulations vary quite a lot by state. – CMaster May 4 '16 at 11:58
  • My mates are all further east You can ask the local police or sheriff, they will know of the best ones available as that will be where they go to practice. – Pete Wales May 4 '16 at 12:05
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    @PeteWales - I disagree with your remark to some extent. First, California is not known for being a gun friendly state, this includes local police forces. Second, police forces often have their own range facilities or exclusive contracts. There are better options to get this information – Freiheit May 4 '16 at 14:26
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Depending on what firearms you want to try, California may be a big disappointment for you. California has the strictest firearms regulations in the United States, such that many iconic firearms are outright illegal or must have their functionality severely reduced.

As an analogy, imagine you live in a place where Ferraris or Lamborghinis are illegal and you had an opportunity to drive one in another country, but their laws require the engine to be replaced with an economical 3-cylinder model, and you are only allowed to drive in first or second gear. This will mirror your experience in California if you want to shoot most guns from TV/movies/videogames, with the exception of large-caliber revolvers (.44 magnum, etc.).

California law limits magazine capacity to 10 rounds, and requires many guns to be modified such that they cannot be reloaded without using tools to remove the magazine for reloading. In addition, full-auto and burst-fire functions are strictly prohibited, so only one bullet may be fired per pull of the trigger. There are also numerous restrictions on what kinds of accessories are allowed such as handgrips and the shape of the gun's stock.

With that said, many established indoor gun ranges will rent you guns and ammunition as long as you have a valid ID and bring a friend with you (they typically will not rent to a person arriving alone without a firearm of their own).

As for specific firearms recommendations, here are mine:

  • Start with a rifle and pistol in .22LR caliber and fire at least a few dozen rounds through each. This is the preferred caliber for first-time shooters because of its low cost and negligible recoil. Many guns in this caliber will be accurate and easy to handle.
  • Model 1911 pistol, .45ACP - a classic handgun with a long history. moderately heavy recoil.
  • Pump-action shotguns - you can try a 12 or 20 gauge with a variety of different types of shells. 20 gauge will have less recoil and a slightly smaller selection of shell types.
  • Revolvers - anything from the classic .38 snub-nosed "police special" up to the .44 Magnum "Dirty Harry"
  • Bolt action hunting/sniper rifles - these tend to have stiff recoil and require precise aim. They are very fun to shoot if you can have a friend teach you at an outdoor range that stretches to at least 100 yards. at a smaller indoor range, these guns will be very less fun to shoot due to the loud report and the complications of telescopic sights on close range targets.
  • Semiautomatic handguns and any modern "military-style" rifles or submachine guns - go to Nevada, or keep in mind the car analogy above. These guns will have reduced functionality, ranging from a slightly smaller magazine on some pistols, to being virtually a different gun on many of the rifles. Submachine guns will just be a waste of your time in California.
  • Welcome to Travel SE! This does not really answer the legal aspect of the question though, is a tourist allowed to use fireams? – mts May 5 '16 at 20:39

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