The private sale of guns online
is virtually lawless
What's the easiest way to buy a gun? In some states, you can pick one up at Walmart with your milk and eggs, or pop into Dick's Sporting Goods or a similar big box for a hunting rifle. But many states require customers to hand over purchase permits to gun retailers which requires a background check, a process that's slightly harder than acquiring a permit to purchase a bottle of 151-proof Everclear and certainly a less intensive process than acquiring a driver's license.
Illustration: Leonard Peng/Hopes and Fears
Buying a gun at Walmart is not the easiest way to buy a gun. The easiest way to buy a gun is to personally know someone who will sell you his or her gun. There's no waiting period, you can avoid a paper trail by paying cash, and you may even be able to acquire something uncommon, like a World War II antique or a foreign assault rifle. But maybe you don't know someone who will sell you a gun. Enter the internet, and its network of loosely regulated private gun sales.
A quick Google search for “buy guns” will lead you to eBay-like auction sites for firearms such as GunsAmerica.com and GunBroker.com. But still, you have to wait to receive the shipment and you can only pay by check or credit card. Even more convenient is Armslist.com, a Craigslist-style site full of classifieds posted by firearms owners looking to unload. The service has been running since 2007 when it was started by two friends who met at the United States Air Force Academy, Jon Gibbon and Brian Mancini. There are currently well over 100,000 listings on the site for a variety of firearms and firearm accessories.
Buying a gun on Armslist is about as easy as it gets. Purchasing a couch from someone on Craigslist ends up being a bigger hassle because you need to find a vehicle that can transport it. Click on your state, browse the active listings, and get in touch with a seller. Above all else, it is the sole responsibility of the buyer and seller to conduct safe and legal transactions, as Armslist states that it "is purely a service provider that allow sellers to list items. As such, Armslist can not and will not be a party in transactions." And Armslist is not only a boon for buyers, but the vendors too. As Zak from McHenry, Illinois—who I found selling a Smith & Weston pistol issued to Atlanta police—put it over email, “Armslist appeals to me because it provides the ability to resell weapons to private party buyers for the same price or very close to what I paid for the weapon new at a dealer. Dealers would never pay the prices Armslist buyers do for used weapons.”
Firearm deaths in America in 2013
Number of firearms manufactured and exported in the USA
One of the more prominent arguments against gun control these days is epitomized by the National Rifle Association's axiom. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” It was first espoused by the organization's head, Wayne LaPierre, at a press conference seven days after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut that left 20 children dead. It's an argument in favor of getting guns into the hands of Americans, implying that responsible gun owners will keep the irresponsible ones in check in crisis situations. (Successful interventions like this are very rare.)
Of course, this idea doesn't sit well with a large proportion of Americans, particularly following Dylann Roof's white supremacist massacre of nine black victims at the historic Mother Emanuel church in Charleston, South Carolina in June, and Christopher Harper-Mercer's slaying of nine Christian students at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg earlier this month. (Over 300 mass shootings took place on the US soil in 2015 alone.) Most vocal among this contingent of Americans is President Barack Obama who, in a speech following the Roseburg atrocity, noted that there is a gun for every man, woman, and child in America. Obama's officials have proposed a major gun control overhaul "that would establish new guidelines for who is legally defined as a licensed gun dealer and therefore required to conduct background checks on potential buyers" but has yet to see any firm action.
The implication is that America is on the business end of a massive domestic firearm proliferation. A site like Armslist is so well trafficked because, simply, there are lots of guns to go around in America. Some statistics seem to suggest that we're seeing the largest proportion of Americans ever who are not happy with the current state of gun control, according to a long-running Gallup poll showing that, since 1990, more Americans than not have been in favor of stricter gun regulations. (The percentage in favor of stricter regulations has sunk drastically to somewhere between 46% and 49% since 2008, the year the economy plunged and Obama took office. Support for regulation peaked at 58% following the Sandy Hook massacre.)
If you are curious why a site like Armslist exists, you have to ask how so many guns got into the hands of Americans in the first place. While the Department of Justice has conducted extensive research on how guns get into the hands of violent criminals—outlining practices as “straw purchases,” in which people ineligible for permits hire eligible people to buy guns for them—there is a scant research on gun ownership in the average American household. The last study was conducted in 1997, when the Department of Justice found that about 35% of households owned guns, and about 60% of purchases were made through dealers.
This means that about 40% of purchases were private ones, made outside of the purview of regulatory laws. Buyers in those transactions were potentially able to skirt the background check and waiting period process. While there aren't reliable numbers on how many guns are sold privately today, the regulatory framework hasn't changed on a federal level since 1993. That's the year the last major gun control act was passed: the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, named for Ronald Reagan's press secretary Jim Brady, who was permanently injured during John Hinckley Jr.'s attempt on the president's life. The Brady Bill mandates that licensed firearm dealers need to wait five days before delivering a firearm to an unlicensed customer, giving that dealer the chance to conduct a background check. The law made no provisions for private dealers, who vend firearms at gun shows and on internet venues like Guns for America and Armslist. This is what's colloquially known as the “gun show loophole.”
The current provisions under the Gun Control Act of 1968 (GCA) to “keep firearms out of the hands of those not legally entitled to possess them because of age, criminal background or incompetency” apply to online firearm transactions, but legislation is slow to catch up. In her 2012 "Internet Firearm and Ammunition Sales" report, Legislative Attorney Vivian S. Chu credited the internet for its "ample opportunity for abuse of the existing firearm regulations or an increased potential for violations of federal law." Current firearms provisions for Federal Firearms Licenses (FFLs) apply to the online sale of guns, but for private gun dealers, the only main provision is not selling a gun out of state to a non-FFL purchaser. Meanwhile, there are essentially no regulations on the private sale of ammunition. A bill prohibiting unregulated online sale of ammunition has been introduced to Congress in 2012, and has yet gone nowhere.
Number of private sales of firearms in US in 2014
Number of listings on Armlist as of 10/15/2015
Less publicized than the “gun show loophole” and equally crucial to Armslist's existence, are specific interpretations of the Second Amendment during Obama's tenure as president which have nudged the constitution in favor of private gun ownership. These were both 5-4 rulings by the Supreme court: the 2008 decision in District of Colombia v. Heller that the Second Amendment protects a citizen's right to own a handgun for self defense, and the 2010 decision in McDonald v. Chicago that Chicago could not ban private ownership of handguns.
In an op-ed for The Washington Post, former Supreme Court justice John Paul Stephens explains exactly what kind of revisionist reading happened in both of these decisions. He points out that the Second Amendment protects the right to hold firearms for the purpose of “a well organized militia,” which is why the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in 1939 that Congress could ban sawed-off shotguns—they have little utility in battle.
Stephens then goes on to quote his own dissent in McDonald v. Chicago: “Even apart from the States’ long history of firearms regulation and its location at the core of their police powers, this is a quintessential area in which federalism ought to be allowed to flourish without this Court’s meddling. Whether or not we can assert a plausible constitutional basis for intervening, there are powerful reasons why we should not do so.” Ironically, critiques of federal power are more typical of the conservative justices, especially in matters like affirmative action and women's reproductive rights.
Between these Supreme Court rulings and the Brady Bill loophole, the political climate is ideal for an unregulated, easily accessible gun market to bloom. When unregulated from the outside, the market must watch after itself, making Armslist and other sites of its ilk a libertarian's or free-market capitalist's dream come true. When I asked Zak from McHenry how he would pose an argument in favor of Armlist to a regulation activist, he was quick to admit that he was “aware of cases in the past where Armslist has been used by criminals to procure weapons and commit crimes—this fact sickens me.” But he revealed himself as the model of the NRA's good guy with a gun, writing, “What I have done, and will continue to do, is report illegal requests and strange behavior. I always verify potential buyers using Illinois [Firearm Owners Identification] check system. I always file transfer papers, and abide by the waiting period. I make sure that every sale ends with a good vibe, and I would not complete a sale if someone is underage, does not have a FOID, or comes across as unstable.” Users are encouraged to follow ATF guidelines, but it depends on the user the level to which they follow this protocol.
Number of active websites hosting gun classifieds
Number of active websites hosting gun suctions
Chicago comes up again and again in the national conversation about gun violence, thanks to the harsh reality that gun control is more or less a fantasy in the city. In July, DNAinfo Chicago reported that there had been 12,000 shootings in the city since the beginning of 2010—which averages out to about 6 shootings a day—resulting in 14,000 injuries and 2,000 deaths. September 2nd of this year held the dubious distinction of the deadliest day since April 5th, 2010. Nine people were shot dead. Chicago is my own city of residence and I can attest to the fact that on the Fourth of July, one of the city's most consistently violent days, you tend to hope that the rapid fire booms coming from down the street are firecrackers.
Some conservatives, such as presidential candidate Chris Christie enjoy skewering gun control by claiming that Chicago has some of the strictest regulations in the country. Indeed, there are tight regulations on purchasing guns in Chicago, but the majority of weapons confiscated by the Chicago police come from out of state. Earlier this month, the Chicago Tribute reported that 19% of those come from Indiana, whose border is just about 10 miles from Chicago's southern city limits. That state has lax gun laws, making it easy for customers to purchase weapons in bulk, something that Chicago street gangs regularly exploit in those straw purchases researched by the Justice Department during the Bush administration. When Chicago gangs are using their out of state firearms to self-regulate the drug black market, you begin to wonder where the good guys are, and what they would even do with their guns.
Number of firearm transactions processed by the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System in 2014
Number of firearm transactions denied by the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System in 2014
Mike Sugarman lives and writes in Chicago. He has contributed to Motherboard, The FADER, and Adhoc.