New e-commerce market: guns

Gun enthusiasts are using the immediacy and anonymity of the Internet to buy firearms through message boards, gun sites, and chat rooms.

3 min read
Gun traders are taking advantage of the immediacy and the anonymity of the Internet to sell and purchase firearms through message boards, Web sites, and chat rooms.

Just as with such popular topics as books and cars, the Internet is host to hundreds of Web sites dedicated to the interests of hunters and gun collectors. Sites such as Shooters.com and Guns.com offer community-oriented features such as chat rooms and message boards.

Because online commerce is so new, neither law enforcement agencies nor gun-control organizations have statistics on the number of guns being sold through the Internet. But the vast, unregulated nature of cyberspace has raised some concern among reputable gun site operators, who say that the anonymity of the medium may make it more difficult to know who will ultimately end up with the firearm being sold.

"For all I know, a 10-year-old kid could buy a used Glock from someone he met in a chat room," said Mike Bradley, Internet director of Guns.com. "The lack of personal communication combined with the ease of making contacts on the Internet creates many risky situations."

Legitimate gun sales that are initiated on these sites are subject to all the regulations and red tape that come with buying weapons offline. But Bradley and others are concerned about the practice of "secondary" sales, which could create more potential for abuse, and they fear that unscrupulous transactions online will taint their business.

Under federal law, it is illegal for either a dealer or an individual to simply ship a gun to a buyer after they receive payment. Instead, the seller must ship the weapon to a licensed gun dealer in the state where it is purchased, to be picked up there by the buyer. Thus, no actual sales of firearms by dealers are legally permitted to take place over the Internet.

Secondary sales by gun resellers, which are exempt from federal waiting period and background check laws, are popular on many message boards. Although the gun must first be shipped to a dealer for pickup under federal law, these types of situations are much more difficult to police.

"People will often try to sell a gun by posting a message on a chat forum or bulletin board. I wonder who is trying to buy these guns and how much background research is really done before an exchange is made," Bradley said.

Advocates of gun control note that the same problems that occur in "real life" through secondary sales, such as guns being sold to criminals and children, are possible in online transactions.

After purchasing a gun through legal channels, one can "turn around and sell it to anyone, with no documentation of that transfer. Secondary sales over the Internet pose the same problem with secondary sales in real life," said Robin Terry, a spokesperson for the National Handgun Control Organization.

So, instead of targeting the


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Internet specifically, her group and others are fighting for stricter regulations of who can and can't buy used firearms, online or off. As the law now stands, authorities say, the Internet is treated exactly the same as any other place where private citizens can exercise their right to buy and sell guns.

"It is no different from the way people would purchase from ads in any other medium. That is, all federal, state, and local laws must be followed," said Phil Reed of Shooters.com.

Federal law enforcement authorities agree. "Individuals often purchase guns from other individuals," said Tracy Heint of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. "It's simply automated now. It happens all the time, and it has happened before the automation of the world."

At the same time, however, others concede that the consequences of the Internet are too new to predict with any certainty.

"It's an area that we simply don't have any experience dealing with," said Gerald Arenberg, a spokesman for the National Association of Chiefs of Police.