Gun violence prevention advocates have praised Facebook over the past week for its decision to ban private gun sales from the social network. Facebook’s new policy, enforced by reports from users, was announced at the tail end of a month that began with President Obama’s week of speeches and executive actions aimed at reducing gun violence. One of the most parsed moments in President Barack Obama’s speech unveiling his executive actions on guns on January 4th was a sentence that drew little interest from pundits and mainstream reporters.
“A violent felon can buy [a gun] over the Internet with no background check, no questions asked,” he said from the East Room, echoing a familiar refrain of gun violence prevention advocates. Almost immediately, conservative critics pounced.
Why are gun violence prevention activists so alarmed by Internet gun sales, and why do pro-gun voices often completely dismiss their concerns? The tension comes from the fact that the term can apply to two very different kinds of transactions: one regulated, and one not. Here’s how it all works.
My computer’s fired up and I’m ready to buy a gun. Where do I start?
You have a few options. If you Google “online gun store,” you’ll find a slew of websites with names like Grabagun.com, Impactguns.com, and Budsgunshop.com that act like digital versions of physical gun stores. Websites like Gunbroker.com, in contrast, host auctions, much like eBay. Then there are sites that don’t conduct gun sales, but rather allow individuals to arrange sales. The most well known is Armslist.com — essentially a Craigslist for guns — but discussion boards like Glocktalk.com also often have sections dedicated to classified ads.
What happens when I make an online purchase from a gun store’s website?
You go through a background check.
Customers who purchase weapons from the website of a federally licensed firearms dealer (FFL), like Kentucky-based Buds, can’t just enter their credit card and address and have it shipped to their doorstep. Instead, the seller will mail the gun to a local FFL, which will then perform a background check on the buyer before handing over the gun. In most cases, the local FFL will charge a transfer fee, usually $25–$50, for facilitating the transaction.
These rules apply to sellers with brick and mortar locations, like Bud’s, and those that conduct all their sales online, like Grabagun, which is based out of a Texas industrial park and has no storefront.
What if I buy through an auction site?
It depends on who’s selling the gun, and where you live.
Gun auction sites are a sales platform for both FFLs and private, unlicensed parties. Gunbroker.com claims to be the largest such site on the internet, with more than 143,000 firearms currently listed.
If the seller is an FFL, or if the winner of the auction lives in a different state (this applies whether the seller is a licensed dealer or a private one), the gun must be received at an FFL, where the buyer will go through a background check before taking it home. But if a private party sells a gun on an auction site to a buyer in the same state, they can sometimes ship it directly to the purchaser without performing a background check. The United States Postal Service will mail rifles and shotguns (but not handguns) between individuals inside state lines, so long as the shipper certifies they are unloaded. FedEx and UPS both prohibit the shipping of guns between individuals.
Here a second caveat comes in: Such sales can only occur in one of the 32 states where gun transfers between unlicensed individuals are not subject to a background check. The remaining 18 states and the District of Columbia place restrictions on private gun sales, and must have an FFL run a background check before a transfer is completed.
There’s some evidence that gun auction sites may be vulnerable to fraud. On the Gunbroker.com discussion forum, one user described a situation in which that buyer went to their local FFL to pick up the purchase — only to discover that it was a stolen gun. The licensed dealer that was handling the transfer turned over the gun to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Gunbroker kicked the seller off the site, but the buyer didn’t get their gun, and was on their own when it came to getting a refund.
If I have to go to a brick-and-mortar store and get a background check before picking up the gun I bought on the internet, then why the fuss over online gun sales?
Because of the other category of such transactions, where sales are sales arranged online but actually conducted in person. These are the deals that concern law enforcement and gun violence prevention activists.
If you think of online gun stores as being like Amazon and online gun auctions as like eBay, then sales arranged online but conducted in person are like Craigslist. And like transactions arranged on Craigslist, they are essentially beyond regulation.
Where do these kinds of arrangements happen?
The most prominent platform for arranging gun sales online and then completing them in meatspace is Armslist.com. Like Craigslist, whose name Armslist deliberately echoes, the website is a platform for classified ads. Armslist maintains no inventory, but it hosts ads for guns that number in the thousands (though the website does not allow users to see how many ads it hosts in total). Individuals can post ads with whatever information they please, and finish sales however they please. The site’s administrators wash their hands of any responsibility to ensure sales follow the law: as they say in their FAQ, “it is the sole responsibility of the buyer and seller to conduct safe and legal transactions.” The website provides essentially no information on how parties might comply with the relevant local, state, and federal laws.
Sellers using Armslist don’t have to create an account. Buyers can also specifically search for listings from private parties — that is, those that are not licensed dealers, and who are under no obligation to conduct background checks. Private sellers using Armslist can go through an FFL to conduct the transfer if they wish. Or they can meet at one of their homes, or a parking lot, collect the buyer’s money, and hand over the gun, with no vetting involved. Though federal firearms law bans private sellers from selling guns to buyers they suspect may be prohibited from buying a weapon, it doesn’t mandate those sellers verify the sale is legal.
According to a study by Everytown for Gun Safety (a seed donor to the Trace), 90 percent of guns on Armslist are posted by private sellers.
Until January 29th, Facebook was also home to many private groups where gun owners arrange private sales, but the world’s largest social network has announced it will no longer allow users to arrange such person-to-person transactions on the site. In 2014 Facebook came under pressure to crack down on them after it was used to facilitate illegal sales. Reddit has an entire section, r/GunsForSale, dedicated to facilitating buying and selling guns both between FFLs and private sellers, though the popular r/Guns subreddit bans such transactions. In a statement to Mother Jones, Reddit said it “neither condones nor does not condone the buying and selling of firearms through the site,” and makes no effort to monitor those exchanges for legality.
Are transactions on Armslist any different from those conducted by private sellers at gun shows or other physical locations?
Not really, but the fact that Armslist is online makes it different from gun shows in some important ways. It’s available all day, every day. It allows buyers to search for weapons anywhere in the country. And it offers sellers the option of anonymity.
In 2011, the City of New York and Mayors Against Illegal Guns, an earlier incarnation of Everytown for Gun Safety, conducted an undercover study of private gun sales arranged online. It found that 62 percent of the sellers contacted through Armslist and other websites agreed to continue with a sale even when the undercover buyers explicitly told them they probably couldn’t pass a background check.
Is there any proof private sales arranged online actually put guns in dangerous hands?
Yes. One particularly gruesome example occurred this past August in Houston, Texas. David Ray Conley, a domestic abuser who was prohibited from owning a firearm, arranged to purchase a 9mm handgun over the Internet in a private sale. He used it to murder his former domestic partner, her boyfriend, and her six children, all at once.
Conley’s not the only murderer to have arranged a gun sale online when they should have been banned from buying any guns at all. In 2012, a Wisconsin man named Radcliffe Haughton bought a pistol on Armslist even though he was subject to a restraining order barring him from such a purchase. The day after he bought the gun, he used it to murder his wife and several of her coworkers.
To be sure, both Conley and Haughton broke the law when they bought their guns in this way.
But because the guns were purchased in private sales, there were no safeguards to prevent their illicit purchases from going through. Private sellers can ask buyers whether they have criminal records or other prohibiting factors; their customers can lie, and the seller has no way to check. When a sale goes through a licensed dealer — whether it originates from a computer keyboard, or with the buyer driving straight to a nearby gun store on a whim to add to his collection — that sale will involve a background check, which from 1998 to 2015 blocked sales to more than 2.5 million purchasers with personal histories designating them too high-risk to own a firearm.
By Jen Hayden, Daily Kos, 2/23/16
Police in Bell County, Texas arrested Justin Ryan Jones, a 34-year-old man who shot his 9-year-old daughter in the chest in what police said was reckless behavior.
An investigation by the sheriff’s department revealed the girl’s father, Justin Ryan Jones, was watching the girl and her two younger brothers while the children’s grandparents were out of town.
Officials say Jones shot his daughter in the dining room of the residence and his actions concerning the shooting were considered reckless….
read more at Daily Kos
by Eric Boehlert, Media Matters, 9/22/16
Presidential Candidates Not Asked About Gun Violence
Police say Jason Dalton began his killing spree at 5:42 p.m.when the Uber driver from Kalamazoo, Michigan, shot a woman multiple times as she stood in the parking lot of her apartment complex on Saturday night. More than four hours later, Dalton killed a father and son as they looked at cars at a local dealership. Then just fifteen minutes later, Dalton opened fire on two parked cars at a Cracker Barrel restaurant, killing four women.
When police apprehended Dalton at 12:45 a.m., they found a semi-automatic handgun in the car. According toThe New York Times, a neighbor said Dalton “used guns in a troubling manner,” including occasionally firing off rounds out of the back door of his house.
In all, six people were killed and two were injured in the Kalamazoo County gun rampage. Police are still searching for a motive in what they’re describing as random killings that terrorized the city for seven hours.
Coming in the wake of other recent shooting sprees across America, including deadly attacks in a church in Charleston, SC, a community college in Oregon, and at a government center in San Bernardino, CA, which was later deemed a terrorist attack, the Kalamazoo killings fit into a uniquely American pattern of gun rampages. Continue reading
Dear Members of the 114th Congress:
Gun manufacturers make up the only industry in America that is protected from lawsuits when its products lead to violence and death.
In 2005, Congress passed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), which granted broad immunity from liability to gun manufacturers and dealers in federal and state courts. PLCAA prevents plaintiffs from filing lawsuits against gun manufacturers or dealers for negligence or “criminal or unlawful misuse” of a firearm or ammunition.
We are the parents of Jessica Ghawi, an Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting victim. We filed a lawsuit against Lucky Gunner, the online company that provided the ammunition to the gunman who murdered our daughter along with 11 others and injured 70 others. We brought our lawsuit because we thought it was outrageous that companies could sell a dangerous man an arsenal without getting any information about him, and without making any effort to see if he was a dangerous killer—which he was. Continue reading
By Josh Harkinson, Mother Jones, Nov. 3, 2015
So-called smart guns could become a $1 billion market—and make us safer.
One success of gun-rights activists over the past decade has been their campaign to block the advent of smart guns, firearms that use biometric and other sensor technologies to prevent them from being fired by anyone other than their owners. Even though smart guns are widely available overseas, no American gun retailers sell them—in no small part due to threats and harassment aimed at any who have tried. But now, pending legislation could shake up that status quo.
The chill on smart guns in the United States is to some degree the unintended consequence of a 2002 New Jersey law that would phase out the sale of conventional guns in that state; the law requires New Jersey gun dealers to sell only smart guns once they become available in retail stores anywhere else in the country. The law was intended to spur the market for the technologically innovative weapons, whose backers believe they could enhance safety and help reduce certain types of gun violence, such as attacks with stolen firearms and the all too common accidental shootings deaths of children. But the law badly backfired by becoming fodder for gun-rights activists, who argued that smart guns are part of a government plot to track and ultimately ban all guns.
New Jersey legislators are now aiming to get, well, smarter about the issue….
read more at Mother Jones
Tony Williams owns guns but knows firsthand the damage they can do in the wrong hands. When a gunman in August 2009 opened fire inside an LA Fitness gym in Collier, three people were killed and nine others were wounded, including Williams’ daughter, Melina. He firmly supports a call for a federal law that would require all potential gun buyers to undergo background checks. “It doesn’t even make sense not to do background checks,” said Williams, 56, of Collier. “Why would you want to put guns into the hands of a crazy person or a criminal? If it saves just one life …”
Williams is not alone, according to a recent poll from Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster. Results released last week show that while Pennsylvanians remain split over gun control in general, an overwhelming majority of respondents favored universal background checks — whether purchases are made in a store, at a gun show or between private individuals. Those who favored new laws regulating gun ownership outnumbered those against such regulations, 55 percent to 42 percent. When it comes to a federal law requiring background checks on all potential gun buyers, 88 percent said they would support such legislation.
The results did not surprise G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at the Lancaster college who has tracked gun control polls in Pennsylvania since 1991.“We have a big hunting and fishing culture in this state,” said Madonna, noting that Pennsylvania is largely rural outside of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. “But that doesn’t mean they don’t support reasonable gun control.
Shira Goodman, executive director of Philadelphia-based gun control-advocacy group CeaseFire PA, called the poll results reassuring when it comes to support for universal background checks for all firearm purchases. No such laws exist “I don’t think people realize you can buy guns without background checks,” Goodman said. Laws currently require background checks for all firearms purchased through licensed dealers and for handguns sold privately. Background checks for long guns, such as rifles, are not legally required. And exemptions exist for the transfer of firearms among certain immediate family members. “There always is a way for someone intent to do harm to get a gun. But let’s not make it easy,” Goodman said. “These polls show we should be able to get some consensus around it.”