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Buying Illegal Guns Online Isn’t Easy, GAO Reports

Buying Illegal Guns Online Isn’t Easy, GAO Reports

Originally published in the March 2018 Official Journals of the National Rifle Association

ast November, the Government Accountability Office (GAO)—the “audit, evaluation, and investigative arm of Congress”—released a report detailing the results of a two-and-a-half-year investigation into online gun sales. Their findings underscore what most of this magazine’s readers already know: that private sellers of firearms are overwhelmingly knowledgeable, conscientious and self-policing. The report, “Internet Firearm Sales: ATF Enforcement Efforts and Outcomes of GAO Covert Testing,” also blew a giant hole through one of the anti-gunners’ favorite narratives: that the internet is a “vast illegal marketplace for guns.” The GAO’s undercover investigators went 0-for-72 in their attempts to provoke illegal gun sales from listings on readily accessible internet sites.

Ironically, the report was generated in response to a request by three NRA F-rated legislators—Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., current ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, along with Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii. They asked GAO investigators to “assess the extent to which ATF is enforcing existing gun laws as they apply to firearms transactions facilitated by the internet and investigate whether online private sellers sell firearms to prohibited individuals.”

No doubt these anti-gun members of Congress were confident the report would reinforce the findings of earlier “investigations” by anti-gun advocacy groups that supposedly showed the ease with which prohibited persons buy firearms online.

One such effort was “Point, Click, Fire,” conducted by the city of New York during the mayoral administration of Michael Bloomberg, the gun control lobby’s biggest spender. At the time of that report’s release in December 2011, Bloomberg was the driving force behind Mayors Against Illegal Guns (MAIG), and he wasn’t above using city taxpayers’ funds to wage what for him is clearly a very personal war against America’s gun owners. Bloomberg would later merge MAIG with another gun control group, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, to form Everytown for Gun Safety, a private anti-gun group funded primarily by Bloomberg’s vast personal fortune.

In the 2011 report, Bloomberg’s investigators claimed that 62 percent of sellers advertising on five different online sites agreed to sell a firearm to a buyer who said he “probably couldn’t pass a background check.” The report concluded that “[t]he private sale loophole and the private-sector failures that enable too many unscrupulous individuals to sell guns online, and too many dangerous people to buy them, should be reformed.” Specifically, Bloomberg called for federal legislation to ban private sales.

MAIG followed this up in 2013 with a report titled “Felon Seeks Firearm, No Strings Attached.” There, the group claimed to have compared contact information provided by persons posting “want-to-buy” ads on a popular online firearms marketplace with criminal records to determine that about 3 percent of the prospective buyers supposedly had disqualifying criminal records. From this, they extrapolated that “more than 25,000 guns may be transferred to criminals each year” through that one website alone.

Everytown followed this up yet again with “The Wild Wild Web,” a January 2016 report that focused on internet gun markets in Nevada and that was timed to promote an initiative heavily backed by Bloomberg to impose “universal” firearm background checks in the state. This time, Bloomberg’s lackeys found that 8.7 percent of people in Nevada shopping online for a gun were prohibited from possessing firearms.

All these results were eagerly and uncritically parroted by the media, and a new anti-gun mythology was born: that vast numbers of criminals were arming themselves through “online gun sales,” thanks to the essentially “unregulated” internet marketplace for firearms. This, of course, necessitated immediate action on the No. 1 anti-gun agenda item of the time—banning transfers of firearms between private persons.

Yet GAO—which unlike Bloomberg has no obvious dog in the fight—sharply undercut MAIG’s 2011 findings that most private sellers advertising online were willing to transact with known prohibited buyers. And even assuming Bloomberg’s latter reports were correct, that prohibited buyers were trying to buy guns with online listings (clearly not a safe assumption, given his obvious bias), the GAO report showed that private sellers had no interest in accommodating them.

Instead, the GAO report documented how legitimate online advertisers helped law enforcement authorities identify and successfully prosecute illegal activity or freeze unlawful transactions before they could be completed. It also indicated that ATF is actively pursuing illegal firearm transactions arising from online activity.

The GAO report additionally reinforced what the NRA has been saying for years, that “firearms transactions facilitated by the internet are subject to the same legal requirements and regulations as traditional firearms sales.” In other words, the internet marketplace for firearms is hardly “unregulated.”

For example, those “engaged in the business” of dealing in firearms—including sales originating from online postings—must be federally licensed as firearm dealers, keep detailed records of their transactions, and run a background check on prospective purchasers. A person crosses this threshold when he or she “devotes time, attention, and labor to dealing in firearms as a regular course of trade or business with the principal objective of livelihood and profit through the repetitive purchase and resale of firearms.” 

Unlicensed persons who make occasional sales may also advertise online, but they still must follow the laws that pertain to every firearm transaction. For example, they cannot sell to a buyer who they have reason to believe is prohibited from receiving or possessing firearms, and they cannot directly transfer to a buyer who resides in a different state. Interstate transfers must be processed in a face-to-face transaction by a licensed dealer, with all the formalities of any other licensed sale (identification check, recordkeeping, background check, etc.). 

Shipping a firearm is also a complicated process. Handguns and other concealable firearms may not be shipped through the U.S. Postal Service, although the Postal Service will ship long guns under certain circumstances. While it’s legally permissible to ship a handgun or long gun intrastate or to a licensed dealer through a contract carrier, these carriers often have their own policies and procedures concerning firearm shipments. In all cases, the law requires that the carrier be notified when a package contains a firearm.

The GAO report provides a good example of how this all works in the real world with regard to a variety of readily accessible gun forums or classified ads. The goal, according to the report, was to determine “whether private sellers would knowingly sell a firearm to an individual prohibited from possessing one” under federal law.

Exactly none of the (GAO’s) 72 purchase attempts succeeded.

The GAO’s undercover buyers revealed information during each transaction that indicated they fell within one of five prohibited categories. These included felons, individuals with histories of domestic violence or outstanding restraining orders against them, addicts or unlawful users of controlled substances, persons dishonorably discharged from the military, or unlawful aliens or former Americans who had renounced their citizenship. Investigators set out to run each scenario again and again until they successfully completed a purchase, exhausted the number of applicable ads, or reached their predetermined cap of 15 purchase attempts for each category. Ultimately, 72 total purchase attempts were made.

Exactly none of the 72 purchase attempts succeeded. Fifty-six of the sellers “outright refused to complete a transaction once our undercover agents revealed either that the shipping address was across state lines or that the agent was prohibited from owning firearms.” In five other cases, the forum on which the ad was posted “froze” the prospective buyers’ accounts and blocked the transaction once information on their prohibited status was revealed. The agents failed to complete the remaining 11 cases because they determined the sellers wanted to take their money without actually making delivery of the firearm.   

One hundred percent of the time, however, the sellers would not deliver a firearm to a buyer they had reason to believe was prohibited or lived in a different state. That’s hardly the “Wild Wild Web” that Bloomberg has spent so much time and money trying to conjure in the public imagination.

Another facet of the investigation involved attempted transactions on the “Dark Web,” which “contains content that has been intentionally concealed and requires specific computer software to gain access,” thus affording users “little risk of detection.” The atf describes the Dark Web as “designed to facilitate criminal activity online.” In these cases, the agents did not pose as prohibited buyers.

Yet even in this inherently suspect realm, the investigators only completed two of seven attempted transactions. One involved a semi-automatic Uzi that had been advertised as a machine gun, and the other was an AR-15 with an obliterated serial number. Both cases were referred for further investigation.

Unsurprisingly, the GAO’s report is not generating the breathless media coverage associated with Bloomberg’s earlier publicity stunts. But that’s the difference between the best results Bloomberg’s money can buy and the far less convenient findings provided by unbiased professionals who aren’t on his payroll.

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