Disclaimer: The below article makes reference to federal laws related to gun purchases. Please note that state gun laws vary, and you are well advised to seek expert assistance from an attorney knowledgeable of your state’s statutes regarding the ownership, possession, and/or transfer of firearms if you have questions before buying or selling. The below is not legal advice.
Time Magazine ran a somewhat hyperbolic article this week about the ability of Facebook users to arrange firearm purchases through the site’s messaging features (gasp!). The article’s breathless hook was that it was easier to purchase a gun on Facebook than it was to understand the site’s privacy settings (oh, the horror!), which is not only misleading, but a misstatement of fact to boot.
The implication was that nefarious individuals were using Facebook as a way to skirt gun laws, but the article provided scant evidence to support that assertion. And, as several commenters pointed out, it’s entirely legal to purchase guns from private citizens, as long as certain guidelines are followed.
None of those guidelines prohibit the use of online platforms to arrange a firearm sale.
According to the federal Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms web site:
A person may sell a firearm to an unlicensed resident of his State, if he does not know or have reasonable cause to believe the person is prohibited from receiving or possessing firearms under Federal law.
Federal law is silent regarding how the sale is arranged or whether those arrangements can be made online, and there is no requirement that a background check be completed by private sellers under federal law. According to the ATF, federal law only prohibits the sale or transfer of a firearm to an individual who:
- Has been convicted in any court of a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding 1 year;
- Is a fugitive from justice;
- Is an unlawful user of or addicted to any controlled substance;
- Has been adjudicated as a mental defective or has been committed to a mental institution;
- Is an alien illegally or unlawfully in the United States or an alien admitted to the United States under a nonimmigrant visa;
- Has been discharged from the Armed Forces under dishonorable conditions;
- Having been a citizen of the United States, has renounced his or her citizenship;
- Is subject to a court order that restrains the person from harassing, stalking, or threatening an intimate partner or child of such intimate partner;or Has been convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence Cannot lawfully receive, possess, ship, or transport a firearm.
There’s no restriction — that I could find, at least — barring the use of online platforms to discuss or arrange a gun purchase. To suggest otherwise, or to imply that people are somehow buying guns directly through Facebook (which the article noted doesn’t offer an e-commerce capability anyway) would be factually inaccurate and, frankly, a little dumb.
The reality is that people all over the country frequently use the internet to search for and purchase firearms. A Google search for online gun stores returns millions of hits, including Armslist.com, which alone had 1.3 million unique visitors per month, as of August, 2012.
So, a more relevant and interesting point for debate might be the issue of universal background checks for all gun buyers, including those making a purchase from a private seller they met on a site like Facebook.
Gun control advocates argue that the lack of universal background checks allows unqualified or dangerous buyers to purchase firearms from private sellers. They argue that all purchases, whether through a licensed gun dealer or not, should be required to complete the same background process. They also note that:
…because federal law does not require universal background checks, “individuals prohibited by law from possessing guns can easily obtain them from private sellers and do so without any federal records of the transactions.”
The NRA, on the other hand, opposes such measures as an unnecessary restriction on the rights of law-abiding individuals to purchase weapons. They argue that most legal gun purchases are made through licensed dealers, who do background checks as a matter of course, or from family, friends, and acquaintances who should already know whether or not the buyer has some disqualifying characteristic.
In terms of how criminal offenders obtain guns, the NRA points to the problem of straw purchasers:
In 1985, the Department of Justice reported that only about one in five convicted felons obtained guns through legal channels such as retail stores. In 1991, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms reported that 37% of armed career criminals obtained firearms from street sales, 34% from criminal acts and associates, 8% from relatives, and only 7% from dealers and 6% from flea markets and gun shows. More recently, a Bureau of Justice Statistics survey of state prison inmates convicted of firearm crimes found that 79 percent acquired their firearms from “street/illegal sources” or “friends or family.” This includes theft of firearms, black market purchases of stolen firearms, and straw purchases. The survey also found that 12 percent obtained their firearms from firearm dealers (gun stores, pawn shops), while only 1.7 percent obtained firearms from anyone (dealer or non-dealer) at a gun show or flea market. The FBI’s National Crime Information Center stolen firearm file contained over 2 million reports as of March 1995, and an annual average of 232,400 firearms were stolen between 2005 and 2010. 46.3% of firearms traced by the BATFE in relation to firearm trafficking investigations originate with straw purchasers.
Requiring private sellers, therefore, to conduct a background check would be needlessly burdensome and a waste of resources. The people least likely to comply with background checks are those who aren’t law-abiding in the first place. So, nothing is really gained by requiring such checks by private individuals conducting private sales.
Whether buyers and sellers connect on a social media site, through a web site designed specifically around firearms sales, or via some other online platform, hardly matters at all. If people are abiding by local, state, and federal laws, I can’t see why there’s concern about this happening on Facebook.
What are your thoughts?
Share this post with all your favorite services!