The Truth About Internet Gun Sales

posted on January 12, 2016

When President Barack Obama took to the national airwaves last week to call the 5 million law-abiding members of the National Rifle Association “liars,” it was actually the Prevaricator in Chief himself who spoke a litany of half-truths, deceptions, inaccuracies and outright lies. 

Perhaps most prominent among these “whoppers” was Obama’s description of “Internet gun sales.” If you go to a gun show and wish to buy a gun from a firearm dealer, you must undergo the regular NICS background check before you take possession of the gun.

“Today, background checks are required at gun stores,” he said. “If a father wants to teach his daughter how to hunt, he can walk into a gun store, get a background check, purchase his weapon safely and responsibly.” 

So far, so good. But he then veered off the tracks. And unfortunately, many Americans who don’t understand gun laws probably believed him. 

“The problem is some gun sellers have been operating under a different set of rules,” Obama said. “A violent felon can buy the exact same weapon over the Internet with no background check, no questions asked. … So we’ve created a system in which dangerous people are allowed to play by a different set of rules than a responsible gun owner who buys his or her gun the right way and subjects themselves to a background check.” 

Truth is, federal law requires all firearm dealers, manufacturers and importers to be licensed, and requires such licensees to initiate a background check on a non-licensee to whom they intend to sell or otherwise transfer a firearm, without regard to where the transfer takes place. 

In a nutshell, that means if you go to a site that actually sells guns on the Internet, the gun is shipped to a Federal Firearms License holder. When you go to pick up the gun, that FFL runs an NICS background check before you can receive the firearm. That’s in accordance with federal law—no ifs, ands or buts. Any variation on this formula is a federal crime, period. 

What Obama is talking about here—and I believe he knows he’s not telling the truth—is advertisements for firearms sales on the Internet. This is, of course, perfectly legal, and it’s no different than a decade ago when many newspapers carried classified ads for guns. 

If a prospective gun buyer looks on Armslist or some other site and finds a gun he wants to buy, he can contact the seller of that gun. If they reach an agreement, the buyer can go to the seller, or they can meet at some neutral site, and the purchase can be finalized completely legally. If the seller is a licensed dealer, a background check must be conducted. If, however, the seller is an individual selling his personally owned firearm and he is not “in the business” of selling guns, no background check is required. That’s how the federal law works. 

It’s the same at gun shows. If you go to a gun show and wish to buy a gun from a firearm dealer, you must undergo the regular NICS background check before you take possession of the gun. If, however, you buy a personally owned firearm from another person who is not “in the business,” no background check is required. There is no shame in a law-abiding gun owner legally purchasing a gun from another law-abiding gun owner without a background check, nor is it in any way illegal. The law is intended to protect legal transfers only between lawful possessors, and thwart even the unintentional creation of an illegal (also by federal law) registry based on background check data. In 2010, roughly 80,000 prohibited people committed a felony by trying to buy a gun. Yet only 44 were prosecuted for it. 

But that provision does not protect a transfer or sale to a felon: Both parties are committing a crime in such cases, though under a slightly different section of the federal code. The fact that the government almost never chooses to prosecute such offenses is a problem of its own making, and hardly the fault of small-scale, non-criminal buyers and sellers. Again, that’s simply the way the law works.

So it’s easy to see that Obama’s assertion that “dangerous people are allowed to play by a different set of rules than a responsible gun owner” is patently false. Everybody has the same rules. 

What he should say is that violent criminals don’t follow the rules when they buy on this “black” market, whereas law-abiding gun owners are, in fact, abiding by the law. And don’t forget just how far over the line a convicted felon is when he or she buys a gun. Such people are not allowed to possess—or even touch—a firearm or ammunition. If or when they do, prosecution should be the default, not the current, absurd and murderously dangerous catch-and-release. 

Yet Obama went even further with his assertion that guns are easily bought by criminals over the Internet. “A recent study found that about one in 30 people looking to buy guns on one website had criminal records—one out of 30 had a criminal record,” he said. “We’re talking about individuals convicted of serious crimes—aggravated assault, domestic violence, robbery, illegal gun possession.” 

In truth, any individual who has been convicted of a serious crime, as described above, is breaking more than one federal law if he or she purchases a firearm. It’s another reminder that criminals simply don’t follow the law—that’s why they are called “criminals.” So it’s actually not the law that is broken, it’s enforcement of the law. 

The real tragedy here lies at the feet of the president and the failure of his administration to crack down on violent felons. During Obama’s tenure, prosecution for gun laws has fallen dramatically. 

If a person walks into a gun store, tries to buy a gun by lying on his background check form and is denied by NICS, he has just committed a felony punishable by five years in federal prison. Yet instead of having these felons arrested, Obama simply allows them to walk away to get a gun from a gang buddy, a family member or to simply steal one. Want proof? In 2010, roughly 80,000 prohibited people committed a felony by trying to buy a gun. Yet only 44 were prosecuted for it. 

If Obama really wanted to protect law-abiding Americans, he would focus his efforts on the small portion of the population who are armed, violent criminals. That would be much more effective than his constant badgering of law-abiding Americans who like to cruise online classified ads for firearms.


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