The Web’s Really Big Gun Show

The National Rifle Association (NRA) and other opponents of gun control can relax and save their breath. Regardless of the degree to which firearm sales may be regulated in the brick-and-mortar world, anything goes on the Internet. No one has reliable statistics, or even an educated guess as to the total amount of dollars (US$) involved, but there is general agreement that both legal and illegal online gun trafficking is on the rise.

Kristen Rand, Director of Federal Policy for the Washington, D.C.-based Violence Policy Center, told the E-Commerce Times there are “easily hundreds of Web sites” selling firearms or facilitating their purchase. Some estimates put the number in the thousands.

Guns for Kids

GunBroker.com claims to be the Internet’s largest firearms auction site, with sales exceeding $1 million per month, and says it is consistently ranked as one of the Web’s 20 most popular auction sites by the 100hot division of Go2Net. (This week the site placed at No. 17.) The rankings are based on the daily Web-surfing patterns of more than 100,000 surfers worldwide, according to Go2Net.

GunBroker.com says it caters to the hunter, sport shooter, gun collector, and law enforcement agent, allowing registered users to buy and sell guns, air guns, archery equipment, knives and swords, antique guns, hunting equipment, and gun accessories. The auction site does not directly sell firearms, but rather makes it easy for buyers and sellers to hook up with one another.

Although GunBroker.com offers “to assist in the transfer of firearms in accordance with all Federal, state, and local laws” by supplying prospective buyers with a list of Federal Firearms License (FFL) holders, neither GunBroker.com nor anyone else monitors the transactions.

“Virtually all sites contain disclaimers, but whether the rules are being complied with is unknown,” said Rand. Gun control advocates maintain that the lack of oversight not only makes it easy for criminals to obtain weapons illegally, but also facilitates gun sales to minors who might otherwise have no underworld connections.

Anecdotal Reports Surface

A reliable source within the Baltimore County Police Department told the E-Commerce Times of a sting conducted by the department, in which an undercover officer succeeded in buying a gun online without having to go through the waiting period or submit the paperwork mandated by the state of Maryland. The gun seller has been charged with the illegal transfer of weapons.

“I know of no way to track gun sales over the Internet,” the police department source said. “Because it’s the Internet, anybody can do anything on it.”

Earlier this year, two 17 year-old high school students in Montclair, New Jersey purchased at least four handguns through GunBroker.com, using a falsified dealer’s license — reportedly also obtained via the Net.

John D’Angelo, spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms (ATF), told the E-Commerce Times the ATF referred the case to the state of New Jersey for prosecution.

Few Proactive Options

D’Angelo said that the ATF will investigate if illegal transactions are brought to its attention, but the bureau is not in a position to monitor the Internet. “The ATF views the Internet as another means for people to advertise guns for sale. It is no different than magazines or other advertising, and in no way relieves people of the responsibility to abide by the law,” D’Angelo said.

However, D’Angelo acknowledged that “if people are inclined to break the law, the Internet provides them with more sources.”

It is not only the number of sources, but also the invisibility of the transactions that poses an insurmountable problem for law enforcement. Rand pointed out that in the offline world, most gun sales take place through retail outlets that can be inspected.

Even gun shows — targeted for stricter regulation by gun control forces — are easier to police than the Web. “It is fairly easy to go into a gun show, wander around, and get a feel for what’s going on,” said Rand. “You can’t do that on the Internet. You would have to go to every site and initiate a transaction.”

Thwarted Legislation

“The possibility of additional regulations on gun show sales will push more people to the Internet. Whenever legislation threatens, the gun industry looks for loopholes,” Rand said.

Several members of the U.S. Congress have attempted to place restrictions on Internet firearm sales, to no avail. Last year, Senator Charles Schumer (D-New York), a long-time gun control advocate, introduced “The Internet Gun Trafficking Act of 1999,” which would have banned anyone other than federally licensed gun dealers from conducting or facilitating Internet gun sales. The bill also spelled out detailed procedures for facilitating “non-inventory” sales between third parties.

“Unlike firearms sales at gun dealerships and even gun shows, illegal Internet firearms sales occur ‘sight unseen,’ thus presenting significant enforcement challenges for federal, state and local authorities,” Schumer said. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Illinois) introduced companion legislation, saying that because Internet gun sales are not monitored, “children and felons are able to purchase firearms illegally and evade the law.”

The NRA strongly opposed the legislation, arguing in a “fax alert” that “Schumer apparently understands that such laws, and penalties for their violation, are on the books, he just feels that what is needed is yet another law requiring the enforcement of existing law! Just because a gun is advertised and sold on the Internet does not negate the laws that would apply to the same transfer if it occurred via a newspaper’s ‘classified ads’ section.”

The Schumer and Rush bills languished in committees. “With Republicans in control of Congress, no gun control bill moves through the usual process,” Rand said. However, in the wake of the Columbine High School rampage — in which two students killed 13 people and wounded 23 others with illegally obtained weapons — Congress was pressured to take some kind of action.

Sen. Schumer attempted to advance his Internet gun sale legislation by offering it as an amendment to the Juvenile Justice Bill; although the bill passed, Schumer’s amendment was defeated.

Most Gun Sales Lawful?

There is a perception among gun enthusiasts that the majority of online firearms transactions take place above board, and that buyers and sellers follow the honor system and abide by the law. However, even those who have good intentions are often confused by the myriad requirements for compliance.

According to D’Angelo, federal law requires that any interstate transfer of firearms take place through a licensed dealer, but there is no such requirement for transactions that occur within a state. Each state, as well as local jurisdictions, could have separate laws governing gun sales.

In order to enforce compliance with transactions that occur over the Web, “there would need to be a requirement that people report these kinds of sales,” D’Angelo said, “but that requirement does not exist.”

Get Your Uzi Here

“One of the most disturbing aspects of this issue is that there are a lot of machine guns and weapons that are subject to stringent regulation under the National Firearms Act (NFA) that are available on the Internet,” Rand said. “There is no way to know whether the regulations are abided by in those transactions.”

A simple search turned up this offer: “I have a full auto IMI Uzi for sale. It is in excellent condition and comes with many accessories for only $2400.00. Check the pricing on these and I think you will find this is a good deal.” The posting said “all NFA rules apply,” but with no one minding the Internet gun store, it will be up to the Uzi owner to enforce them.

The NRA did not respond to an interview request for this story, but judging from statements published on its Web site, the organization is more than willing to allow the Internet to remain a free gun trade zone. The NRA maintains that existing firearm laws are adequate, although none of the laws currently on the books have taken the technological advances of the Internet age into account.

Gun control advocates and law enforcement agencies seem capable of little more than acknowledging the danger of the situation, and the likelihood of tragic consequences to come. With every indication that gun commerce on the Web is growing at a fast and furious pace, it seems just a matter of time before a cyberspace firearm sale will result in shots heard round the real world.

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