About nine months ago a friend in New Zealand alerted me to the imminent arrival of a young friend of his, Mike B., who was coming to Virginia Tech as an exchange student. Would I able to assist him if he needed it during his year in Blacksburg? Needless to say, I was happy to oblige. In the time he's been here Mike and I have been out hunting once or twice.  He's a very nice guy, and avid outdoorsman, and seems to be enjoying himself mightily here.

Since he's a keen hunter back in New Zealand, and since rifles are much cheaper here than there, he wanted to buy one during his stay.  As an alien legally in the USA (he's on a J-1 exchange visa) and the holder of a valid Virginia hunting license, this is permitted.  He went down to our local Wal-Mart and placed an order for a Remington Model 700 SPS in .308. This rife is done up in stainless steel and a synthetic stock. Mike told me that where he hunts the land is rugged and the climate wet, and he needed something that would stand the punishment. When it arrived together we went down to Christiansburg to pay off the balance and to pick it up.

There's been a lot of gum-flapping recently about how "easy" it is to buy a gun in the US, and especially in Virginia, much of it from the completely uninformed and thoroughly biased press, whose crews of vultures have descended on Blacksburg in the wake of the massacre at Virginia Tech. They also have made a big deal about how the VT shooter was an "alien" and thus should have been barred, etc., etc., all of it total bullshit, the sort expected from press idiots when the subject of guns comes up. (The shooter should have been barred because he was as mad as a hatter, and the state knew it, but that's another story).  After going through the system Mike might dispute how "easy" it is, but all in all it was a learning experience for everybody involved. If in the future I need to walk another legal non-resident alien though the process I'll know how to handle it more expeditiously.  Generally the system worked well. 

Virginia has an Instant Background Check system, in fact was the first state to install one. It's been in place for over a decade and the kinks have been worked out of it, mostly: it works well for buyers and sellers when everything is routine.  When I buy a gun I show them my Virginia driver's license, plus another piece of ID with the same address to prove residence. The seller calls the Background Check Hotline, and usually in a minute or two the sale is approved. I take the gun and walk out of the store with it.

That's how it's supposed to work, but things are a little more complicated when the buyer is a legal alien who hasn't got a Virginia driver's license.  Mike did of course have identification and proof of residence. He had his NZ driver's license, his NZ passport with a whacking big visa glued into it to prove his legal status, a bank statement going back to December 2006, which proved he'd been here the requisite 90 days to be a "resident," and of course, his current hunting license.  We thought he had all his ducks in a row, but it took a good deal longer than a minute to complete the transaction.

The people at Wal-Mart couldn't have been nicer or more helpful; even though by my count it took eight of them to figure out how to handle the sale, not including the person who originally took the special order.  We went to the Sporting Goods counter and showed them Mike's passport, hunting license, and bank statement.  We showed them the elaborate visa that showed date of entry and legal status. They started filling out the two forms required (one for the Feds and one for the State Police). 

Mike of course doesn't have a Social Security number, since he's not working here. Although a Social Security Number is technically "optional" on the 4473 form, in general it makes the State Police and the BATF somewhat irritated when they don't get one. Nevertheless, there is no requirement to have it or disclose it. That said, I've never heard of anyone who bought a gun without it, until Mike did it.

The clerks normally fill out the forms mechanically, ticking off the various boxes and writing in the information on the identification papers, after the buyer has answered all the questions about whether he's a fugitive from justice, a drug addict, a felon, a subject of a restraining order, a mental defective, etc. (I once asked a dealer if anyone ever is crazy enough to say "Yes," in those boxes, and was told, yes, indeed some people do. It takes my breath away to imagine that this happens, but apparently it does.)

They were not familiar with what happens if you do SAY "Yes," in some of those boxes, and what additional parts of the Federal Form 4473 have to be completed then, so I had to point out to them where on the form they were supposed to enter what data. One of the blocks asked if the buyer falls into one of the "exceptions" to the general prohibition of non-resident aliens possessing firearms. Since Mike had a hunting license, he did, so we entered that number on the form.  None of them had made a sale to a non-citizen before (there aren't many gun-buying aliens in southwestern Virginia).  Eventually all the spaces in the form were filled out and it was time to call the Hotline for the background check.  It took perhaps 45 minutes to get all the paperwork completed.

The State Police office asked the clerk for Mike's "N number."  None of us knew what in the poot she was talking about. An "N" number?  We gave her the number of his visa.  We gave her the passport number.  Neither sufficed.  It had to be a number beginning with "N," of which there were none that we could find on any of his papers.

Mike then remembered that he did indeed have another piece of paper from INS back at his dorm room.  We climbed into my truck, and went back to campus where he retrieved what proved to be the receipt for his visa fees. Sure enough, there was a number on it beginning with "N," which we were sure was the mysterious one the State Police wanted. Back at Wal-Mart  the lady called the State Police again.  Nope, that number isn't it, ma'am, you need the number on the "I-94" form. 

In the course of my numerous dealings with foreigners, I'd heard the phrase "I-94 Form" more than once, but if one of these forms ever found its way into my view I don't remember it.  But I am not a Professionally Trained Academician for nothing: one of my few talents is ferreting out obscure information from people who have it. In a flash of brilliance, I called the person at Virginia Tech who handles international students, and asked him what in the heck an I-94 form was.

"Oh," he said, "that's his Travel Permission Document.  It should be stapled inside his passport."

So it proved.  We opened the passport, and there was a single piece of card stock, perhaps 3x5 in size, with the words "Form I-94" in minuscule type along the bottom. It had been there all the time, but nowhere on it was a "number that begins with N." I asked my informant about this, and was told "The number is on the top, it ends with a 10 or a 12," and he was right! Back to the phone to the State Police.  Yep, that was the number we needed, all right.  OK, we'll process it now...ummm, err, we can't issue an approval just yet, we'll call you back.  By this time we were two hours into the process. I had another gun store to visit that closed in an hour so I suggested we go there while we waited for state police to approve. Mike was amenable, so off we went, leaving the Wal-Mart ladies with his cell phone number.

I was looking for a cheap, reliable revolver for a friend and found a finish-worn but tight Charter Arms Undercover .38, vintage mid 1970's, for under $120, exactly what I was after.  I whipped out my driver's license and voter registration card, and in less than 5 minutes (most of which was spent filling out the forms) I was writing a check.  At least Mike got to see how the system is SUPPOSED to work. While I was thus engaged Mike got a call on his cell phone.  The state police had called Wal-Mart back and the sale was approved, come pick it up.  Hooray, at last!  Back into the truck again for the final lap.

Then we encountered not government snarls but the Wal-Mart bureaucracy and its corporate procedures. Occasionally I've bought a gun at a large discount store, and they always trot out a high level supervisor whose job it is to check every single number on the ID, the BATF and state forms, the rifle, the box the rifle is in, and everything else he can think of, to finally approve the sale. This is done to protect Wal-Mart from the thugs in the BATF, who will jump on them in jackboots if they make so much as single transcription error in their records. This post-approval vetting took another 20 minutes, and was conducted by a very pleasant young man who was also very thorough.

Mike had paid half the price up front when he placed the order and had been given a 10% discount on the total price. That involved more Wal-Mart gyrations. None of the Sporting Goods ladies knew how to handle discounts, which apparently aren't routine in their department. Eventually they got guidance from an eighth person: the jewelry counter clerk, don't ask me why. Once that was done, Mike paid off the balance. One of the supervisors, again in accordance with Wal-Mart policy, then carried the boxed gun to the door. I've encountered this before too: presumably they do that lest the buyer load it up and rob the store he just bought it from. Considering that there are people dumb enough to admit they're felons on the Form 4473, I suppose there must be some who would rob a store they've just shown two forms of ID.

One more teeny hurdle had to be jumped: at the door the old lady who was the Greeter had to check off the receipt.  Outside the door the Sporting Goods Supervisor handed Mike his prize, and thanked him for his patience.  We stuffed it behind the seat of my truck, and it will reside temporarily in my basement until he leaves the country.

Mike was actually smart in choosing to buy his gun at a large retailer. Such places do, from time to time, sell to non-residents and non-citizens, and they have established policies for doing so.  Any small gun shop owner of my acquaintance would have thrown him out of the store.  It's a regrettable fact, but a lot of small gun shop owners are intransigent assholes who can't be bothered to learn the law as it's written, not as they think it is or as they think it should be written. They get fixed notions in their heads about what is and isn't legal and nothing, not even a tsunami, can move them. Sometimes they just don't want to take the trouble to find out the facts, and often they're just so intimidated by the BATF's goon squads they adopt a "no sale" policy on any transaction that they aren't 110% sure about.

Wal-Mart isn't everyone's cup of tea, and the very mention of the name in gun-buying circles often sets off reflexive cussing and denigration. They are accused of selling sub-standard products, of having ignorant clerks, of not caring about post-sale service, etc., etc. In all of these accusations there is perhaps some truth except the one about sub-standard products: Wal-Mart is the largest retailer of firearms in the world and the last thing any manufacturer wants to do is irritate a customer who buys guns literally by the tens of thousands. Mostly, though, the scathing remarks about Wal-Mart are sour grapes from dealers who think they can do business the way they did forty years ago. No one can compete with Wal-Mart on price; and it seems to be too much trouble for the average gun shop owner to compete with them by offering a different selection and better customer service.

The Christiansburg store gets my approval for the way they handled a complicated and confusing transaction. They could easily have adopted the attitude that it was too much trouble, here's your deposit sir, and thanks for shopping at Wal-Mart; but they didn't. Instead, eight employees made every effort they could to help Mike out and to do whatever needed to be done to complete the sale. That strikes me as a pretty good example of "customer service."