Posted On July 27, 2012 by Print This Post

Adam Firestone: Arms Acquisition and Transfer as Plotline Buttress

Adam Firestone‘s previous guest spots at Romance University were so popular we invited him to join us as a regular contributor. We’re very excited to welcome Adam to the RU team!

One of the more useful (and, arguably, overused) plot mechanisms in a thriller or mystery is a character’s obtaining a firearm while away from home. Many authors, unaware of the degree to which the law permits and enables travel with firearms, tend to rely on tired (and often incorrect and/or implausible) depictions of extra-legal firearms acquisition. Factual liberties of this type, in addition to being indicative of less than diligent tradecraft on the author’s part, has the potential to actively alienate readers. For the rest of our time together, we’ll discuss both benchmarks for depicting the acquisition of firearms and the realities of acquiring and traveling with firearms in the United States.

The Dogs of War and the Gold Standard

The gold standard for the depiction of weapons acquisition in a work of fiction was set by author Frederick Forsyth in his 1974 novel, The Dogs of War. The novel tells the story of a group of European and African mercenaries hired by a ruthless British industrialist to execute a coup d’etat against the government of the fictional African country of Zangaro. The mercenaries are led by an Anglo-Irish former Royal Marine named Carlos Alfred Thomas (“Cat”) Shannon. Now, had Forsyth left off at this superficial level of detail, the book would have been just another well written and interesting thriller.

But Forsyth didn’t leave off there. He meticulously researched the world of grey and black market arms transfers, and introduced his readers to contractual and regulatory mechanisms such as “End-User Certificates” (EUC), the corruption rampant among the government officials responsible for controlling the issuance of such documentation and the idea that there are places in the world where arms stockpiled for past or future wars can be had for bargain prices.

In doing so, Forsyth not only laid a groundwork of plausibility for his plot, but also created a sub-plot that enticed and involved the reader as much as the main plot (the mercenary-led coup). As a result, Forsyth’s readers transition from passive observers, listening to a story, to participants with knowledge of how, what and why. Factual detail buttressing the fictional plot enticed, enthralled and enfranchised the readers to the point that they were an integral element of the tale.

Bulk Weapons Transfers

Obtaining weapons in bulk requires two things of your characters: They need to know where a suitable supply of the desired weapons can be found, and they need to obtain permission from the local government to export the weapons. Insisting that your characters deal exclusively in and with the Western world may pose some realism issues.

In most developed countries, the international transfer of munitions is tightly controlled. For example, the United States enacted the Arms Export Control Act (AECA) and the related International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) in 1976. Laws and regulations of this type make it both difficult and dangerous (from the perspective of criminal prosecution) for citizens of the United States, and countries with similar laws, to export weapons and munitions.

However, that need not be an issue for your plotline. Between the Second World War and the end of the Cold War, huge arms stockpiles were built up in Western and Soviet client states in the third world. Government in these countries was (and is) volatile, reacting to shifting ethnic, religious and political winds. What remained (and remains) largely constant was the venal nature of minor (and poorly paid) government functionaries, and the willingness of these officials, for a price, to grease the skids of the international arms trade.

As a result, stocks of shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles in Tajikistan, AK-47 assault rifles in Angola and heavy machinegun ammunition in Cambodia can be purchased and shipped to almost any desired global destination, if the relevant government official will issue the proper paperwork. In many cases, this paperwork consists of the EUCs mentioned above.

The EUC certifies that the buyer is the final recipient of the materials, and is not planning on transferring the materials to another person or organization. With respect to weapons, EUCs are used by many governments to restrict delivery to undesired destinations or organizations. However, EUCs are a notoriously porous control mechanism. They are often forged or falsified and are routinely obtained from corrupt officials. They also do not guarantee that the recipient will actually live up to its promise not to re-transfer the weapons received. In one example, in 1936-1938, German arms were supplied to both sides in the Spanish Civil War via Greece using Greek then Mexican end-user certificates. In another, Austrian artillery components were shipped to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1987 using EUCs supplied by the Jordanian government.


What about the situation where your protagonist isn’t planning a coup, but needs to get from Savannah, Georgia to Columbus, Ohio or Minneapolis, Minnesota, and to be armed when she gets there? Support for this plotline is blissfully simple, and supported by firearms laws in the United States. For clarity’s sake, we’ll divide the matter into the two primary use cases: Obtaining a firearm in the destination city upon arrival, and traveling with a firearm.

Use Case 1: Obtaining a Firearm Upon Arrival

Firearms laws in the United States are an interesting mix of Federal and State regulations. The interplay between the two can be confusing, and an accurate understanding of what is and is not permitted in a given locality often requires a good deal of familiarity. However, there are a few constants:

Handguns are a no-go. With rare exceptions, it is illegal to transfer a handgun to a person who does not reside in the state where the transfer takes place. Note that I didn’t say it is illegal to SELL or to PURCHASE a handgun. Your protagonist can walk into the gun store of her choice, purchase the pistol of her choice….and the law abiding proprietor will smile and ask her to which licensed dealer in her home state she would like the pistol shipped.

That limits your protagonist to a long gun; either a rifle or a shotgun. Generally speaking, since 1986, a resident of any state can purchase, and receive, a long gun in any other state. However, there are a number of states that still enforce the pre-1986 “contiguous state” restrictions.” Specifically:

a. California: California residents may not purchase long guns in any other state.
b. Colorado: Colorado residents may only purchase long guns in Arizona, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah and Wyoming.
c. Illinois: Illinois residents may only purchase long guns in Iowa, Missouri, Indiana, Wisconsin or Kentucky.
d. Maryland: Maryland residents may only purchase long guns in Delaware, Pennsylvania, Virginia or West Virginia.
e. New York: New York residents may only purchase long guns in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Vermont.
f. Ohio: Ohio residents may only purchase long guns in Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Pennsylvania or West Virginia.
g. Oregon: Oregon residents may only purchase long guns in California, Idaho, Nevada or Washington

These restrictions, of course, assume that the person making the purchase isn’t a felon or otherwise legally barred from doing so, and that the long gun in question is of a type that is permitted in the purchaser’s home state.

Use Case 2: Travelling with a Firearm

If you don’t want to have your protagonist spend several pages sauntering into the local arms emporium, there is always the option of having her travel with a firearm. Thanks to a piece of federal legislation, the Firearm Owners’ Protection Act of 1986, a person who legally possesses a firearm in their home state can travel to any other state with the firearm, so long as they can legally possess it at their point of destination. While there are some issues with motor vehicle travel having to do with notoriously restrictive states such as New Jersey, generally speaking, as long as the firearm is unloaded and locked where it isn’t available to the vehicle’s occupants when the vehicle is in motion (i.e., in the trunk), it can be legally transported.

Things become interesting when travel by air is involved. Your protagonist shows up at the airport with her Glock in her luggage. This is perfectly legal provided the following occur:

a. She has packed the unloaded pistol inside a HARD SIDED CASE. This means either a dedicated, lockable hard pistol case packed inside her soft luggage or a piece of hard sided (plastic or metal) luggage.
b. She has declared the unloaded pistol at time of check in.
c. She is the only person with a key or access to the firearm inside the luggage.

The last point is not only critical, but an absolutely phenomenal plot mechanism, so let me make it very clear. Federal regulations absolutely prohibit anyone – including airport personnel and the Transportation Security Administration – from unlocking the container in which the declared firearm has been placed, or, for that matter, possessing the key. This means that your protagonist now has the figurative equivalent of a diplomatic pouch in which to transport not only a firearm, but electronics, documents and just about anything else that isn’t prohibited aboard a commercial aircraft. Once it’s in the piece of luggage with the gun – even if the gun is a flare pistol or a starter pistol – it is completely safe. Assuming, of course that you’ve had your protagonist use a metal case that is secured with heavy-duty padlocks that are resistant to cutting, prying, and picking. And, that, of course, are NOT “TSA locks.” Doing so would violate federal laws and regulations!


Weapons in general and firearms in particular are an integral part of many literary genres, including very popular ones such as the romance thriller. However, mistakes and authors’ willful ignorance of the mechanisms and modalities that enable characters to have access to firearms will not only alienate readers, but deprive the author of useful plot mechanisms.

In a nutshell, the real world intricacies of the bulk transfer of firearms from one country to another country or organization, or the movement of one character with one firearm are, and should be embraced and used by authors to enhance their work and entice their readers.


Do you have any questions for Adam regarding purchasing or transporting weapons? If you have other plot issues regarding weapons, Adam is the one to ask!

New RU staff members DAVE AND MJ THOME host our special guests next week. Join us!


Bio: Adam Firestone brings more than 25 years of experience with weapon systems including small arms, artillery, armor, area denial systems and precision guided munitions to Romance University. Additionally, Adam is an accomplished small arms instructor, editor, literary consultant and co-author of a recently published work on the production of rifles in the United States for Allied forces during the First World War.

Adam has been providing general and technical editing services to authors and publishing houses specializing in firearms books since the early 2000s. Additionally, Adam provides literary consulting services to fiction authors including action scene choreography, technical vetting and technical editing. In this line of experience, Adam has had the fortune to work with well known authors including Shannon McKenna and Elizabeth Jennings.

Check out Adam’s blog here:

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23 Responses to “Adam Firestone: Arms Acquisition and Transfer as Plotline Buttress”

  1. Good morning, Adam! Seems quiet today – a lot of RU people are in Anaheim at RWA National this week.

    Thanks for choosing this topic to blog about! You went into this at the OVRWA workshop in April, but my notes didn’t catch all the details.

    This is great information for a mystery plot – I’m bookmarking it for future reference!

    Here’s a question I hesitate to bring up: The Colorado shooting is all over the news, and one thing that it’s made clear is how easy it is to order guns and ammunition online.

    I’m looking at this as it would relate to plotting a story now. Would someone go to the trouble of traveling with a weapon when they could order it online and have it shipped to wherever they’re going?

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | July 27, 2012, 8:30 am
  2. Fascinating. I recently had my luggage searched while trying to get on a plane in London to return to the U.S. Because I was carrying a loaded Kindle. Really–45 books, including Fifty Shades of Grey AND the Bible. Next time I’ll stick it in a box with a .45 so I can cruise on through.

    By the way, what happens if you say you’re the only one who has a key and your traveling partner is standing off to the side, whistling and trying not to look guilty?

    Posted by Dave Thome | July 27, 2012, 9:00 am
    • International flights are subject to the laws of the country of departure. If you were traveling from London, Kentucky, then having your .45’s frame in the luggage would have helped. In London, England, not so much.

      Also, it doesn’t prevent them from SEARCHING the bag. It prevents them from OPENING the bag without you present.

      In the case of your hypothetical, they could ask you to open the case and observe the search.

      Posted by Adam Firestone | July 27, 2012, 9:04 am
  3. Hi Becke –

    I think we need to start by dispelling some misinformation spread by the reports of the Colorado tragedy.

    You ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY CANNOT order a firearm online if you are not a Federal Firearms Licensee. What you can do is place an order, pay for it, and have it shipped to a Licensee (read that “dealer”) who has provided a copy of his/her license to the seller. The dealer will accept shipment for you. You will then go to the dealer, fill out the federal and state paperwork, undergo a background check, pay the dealer’s transfer fee, and pick up your firearm. If the media told you anything else, the media LIED.

    Ammunition can be sold, with some jurisdictional limitations, to anyone who is over 18.

    This should explain why someone could NOT just order a firearm online…

    Does this help?



    Posted by Adam Firestone | July 27, 2012, 9:01 am
  4. Thanks, Adam. It seems you’ve not only provided useful information for anyone who wants to write a romantic thriller, but also a romantic comedy. Imagine a heroine freaking out over having her 4.5 ounces of hair gel confiscated and worries about how she’ll look when she arrives in New York from London, Kentucky, with her .45 to blow away a Mafia don.

    Posted by davethome | July 27, 2012, 9:13 am
  5. Adam, welcome!

    I have a question that I may not be asking correctly (so apologies in advance!). Do police service weapons vary from state to state, or is there a standard set of weapons that are consistent across state lines?

    Posted by Jenn McGowan | July 27, 2012, 10:45 am
  6. MJ and Dave are coming to RU? Awesome!

    Adam, this is so helpful, and I do have a somewhat related question I’d be thrilled to have answered, either in the comments or in a future column.

    Would you mind describing the legal process for traveling with a pistol from the US to Canada and back? (Glock acquired in Texas, gun owner now living in California, travelling to the western provinces and then returning home.)

    If you felt like going for the gold, I’d love to know the information for both commercial flights *and* a motor vehicle–the latter via a regular border crossing.

    Posted by Jan O'Hara | July 27, 2012, 10:58 am
    • Yes!! MJ and Dave are part of the RU team now, PLUS Adam’s columns were so popular, he’s now going to be a regular columnist here.

      I’m betting he can “go for the gold” and answer those questions, too!

      Posted by Becke Martin Davis | July 27, 2012, 1:00 pm
    • What model of Glock?

      Most Glocks, by their nature will be classed as “prohibited firearms” in Canada. In that case there is no legal way to bring them into the country.

      The Glock Models that are not, on their face, prohibited firearms, are the Models 17, 22, 20, 20, 37 and 31.

      However, they cannot be brought in with a magazine exceeding 10 rounds.

      If the pistol fits the above, an “Authorization to Transport” must be obtained prior to entering the country. This is usually obtained from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and can take upwards of two weeks. No ATT, no entry.

      At the border, a “Non-Resident Firearms Declaration” must be filled out, and the fee paid.

      There must also be compliance with the Canadian transport regulations.

      When exiting Canada, you MUST stop at Canada Customs and show your license, registration certificate(s) and/or Non Resident Firearms Declaraion, and ATT. Canada Customs will inspect these documents, verify that you are exiting Canada within the validity range of the ATT, and inspect the restricted firearm(s) to verify that they are in your possession and transported in accordance with the transport regulations. Once they’re satisfied, your ATT will be stamped and returned to you. You then exit Canada.

      Upon return to the US, you’ll have to declare that you are “re-importing” your firearms. US Customs may ask to see the Canadian Non-Resident Firearms Declaration. It is helpful to have a Certificate of Registration For Personal Effects Taken Abroad that you previously got from US customs.

      The above is the same for both commercial air and motor vehicle.

      Hope this helps,


      Posted by Adam Firestone | July 27, 2012, 1:49 pm
  7. Hi Adam,

    There are so many guns in our movies. The end of classics like, BONNIE AND CLYDE, THE WILD BUNCH, and THE MAGNIFICIENT SEVEN end in a hail of bullets. I know Bonnie and Clyde were killed by law enforcement. In real life, could the others take place?

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | July 27, 2012, 11:14 am
  8. Hi Adam!!

    Wow!!! So much stuff I didn’t know! And never would have guessed. Amazing. So here’s my questions….=) First, what if the person had a gun that wasn’t metal. I think I’d read somewhere that they made those? Could those be disassembled in your luggage and carried through the airport?

    Also, I imagine you can transport your gun in your vehicle, loaded and by your side – as long as you don’t get caught. But if you got stopped for speeding and they noticed the gun, what’s the penalty for taking a weapon across state lines? Is there further charges because it’s not in a lockbox?

    Awesome to have you here! I learn so much every time!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | July 27, 2012, 1:36 pm
  9. Hi Adam,

    Thanks for another informative post.

    If someone was a member of a private security firm based in the UK, would they be allowed to carry a concealed weapon in the U.S.? Let’s say NYC?

    Also, I’ve always wondered about security teams who work for celebrities. A while back, there was a scuffle in a NYC nightclub where a man, who was a part of the security detail, fired his weapon. I’m assuming he was licensed to carry a concealed weapon?

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | July 27, 2012, 3:25 pm
  10. Thanks for responding to our questions, Adam! It’s been fun hanging out with you today.

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | July 27, 2012, 7:52 pm
  11. The post was good and useful … Thanks for it…

    Posted by Brandon Maddox | August 7, 2012, 12:40 pm


  1. […] Firestone’s column on Romance University: Arms Acquisition and Transfer as Plotline Buttress. (Adam will be writing a regular column for them. He’s a goldmine of information on firearms and […]

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