The eBay ban sparked weeks of complaints on the site's message boards and prompted U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, (D-New York) to introduce a bill that would tighten regulations regarding ads for firearms on the Internet. But it also created some accidental entrepreneurs.
James Brown, a self-described "auction junkie" who has traded several guns on eBay, launched SellGuns.com with some friends and their own start-up capital on April 1. "When eBay discontinued the category, I saw a big opportunity," he said. SellGuns.com now has about 150 auctions open with listings ranging from handguns to shotguns, ammunition and accessories, Brown said. SellGuns.com is just one of many gun auction sites operating on the Net.
When eBay banned firearms, the company cited the difficulty auctioneers encountered in verifying whether buyers were qualified. Other large auction sites, including Yahoo and Amazon.com, also prohibit firearms sales. However, the federal firearms licensing program, which allows for interstate sales as long as the transfer is done through a licensed dealer who can run the required background check on the buyer, covers Internet sales as well as offline sales.
"I wish that people realized it's not illegal to do this," said Brown, who is a licensed dealer. Besides listing other dealers throughout the country, for a minimum of $10 SellGuns.com will act as an escrow service in a transaction, verifying that a firearm matches the listing before releasing the buyer's payment.
Interstate firearm trades between individuals are not just an Internet phenomenon, of course. Shotgun News, a Primedia-owned newspaper based in Peoria, Illinois, has been carrying classified ads for firearms since 1946. Its thrice-monthly issues usually contain between 180 and 200 pages of ads placed by dealers, individuals and manufacturers, said general manager Bob Hunnicutt.
Shotgun News has never been in the auction business, but posts the classified ads on its Web site. According to Hunnicutt, the Internet is simply a new advertising venue, not an entirely new way to sell firearms. "All sales of modern firearms since 1898 have to be between licensed dealers," he said. "How you find out about [a firearm for sale] is not the salient factor."
All firearms laws apply equally to Internet-enabled and offline gun sales, according to Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms spokesman B.J. Zapor. Nevertheless, he added, "Consumers should be very wary when buying from any source that doesn't include a federally firearms license--the burden is on them to know the law."
Despite the existence of legal means of intrastate firearms sales, the company's decision had nothing to do with a desire to be "politically correct," said eBay spokesman Kevin Pursglove. Rather, he said, the firearms category, which was originally meant to be a place for collectibles, had begun attracting a greater number of general-issue firearms.
"We were wrestling with it internally and came to the conclusion that that was not the direction the company wanted to go in," Pursglove said. The firearms category represented less than 1 percent of eBay's revenues, he added.
The popularity of eBay's firearms category caught the attention of electrician and gun collector Bill Spalding early this year, and when the category was closed, he hired a "freelance computer dude" to design his Web site, which is hosted by a local ISP. Spalding, who launched Guns-USA.com in March from his home in rural Washington, believes that sites catering to special interest groups such as gun enthusiasts are the future of online auctions. "eBay was getting so big that it seemed like if you wanted a particular item it might take a long time just to figure out where it was," he said.
Although he is not a licensed dealer, to underscore the legal nature of transactions resulting from auctions on his site, Spalding includes a link to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms' FAQ on firearms sales, as well as a list of licensed dealers.
If passed, Schumer's proposed Internet Gun Trafficking Act would require that Spalding become a federal firearms dealer even if he doesn't handle the firearms himself and register his site with the Secretary of the Treasury.
ATF spokesman Zapor declined to say whether the agency patrols the Internet looking for potentially illegal firearms sales, but those running the auction sites say the Internet may actually help law enforcement. "To commit an illegal purchase on the Internet is harder than at your local gun store," said Spalding. "The Internet is so much more traceable."