There Is No Loophole for Guns Advertised Online



Today the Senate is scheduled to vote on several amendments to the Democrats' main gun control bill, including legislation backed by Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) that would require background checks for all sales at gun shows and for all sales initiated through online or print ads. To help push Manchin and Toomey's measure along, today's New York Times has a front-page story headlined "Seeking Gun or Selling One, Web Is a Land of Few Rules: Even Criminals Are Free From Background Checks." I will force myself to ignore the dangling modifier and proceed to an explanation of why that headline is grossly misleading. As a careful reading of the story itself makes clear, there are no special rules (yet!) for guns advertised online. As in every other context, federally licensed gun dealers are legally required to run background checks on buyers, but private sellers—people who do not "engage in the business" of selling firearms—are not, although they are committing a felony if they knowingly sell a gun to a person who is legally disqualified from owning one. As the Times points out, the distinction between a private seller and a dealer can get blurry, but the general idea is that your average gun collector who makes "occasional sales" should not be burdened by the same requirements as someone whose occupation is selling guns. In any case, contrary to what the headline implies, the rules for gun sales are no looser in the "land" of the Web than anywhere else. Interstate sales between private parties are illegal, so buyer and seller have to be from the same state, and they generally arrange a meeting to complete the transaction, just as they would for sales initiated through print ads or word of mouth.

What the Internet does, as in most areas, is make something that was already happening easier to do. Buyers and sellers can connect more readily through sites devoted to gun listings than they can through periodic gun shows or classified ads on paper. Whether you think that's a good or bad thing depends on your perspective. Recycling material that was included in a February 1 Mother Jones story by Stephanie Mencimer, the Times focuses on the classified-ad site Armslist, warning that prohibited buyers can use such forums to connect with private sellers who don't ask questions. How often does this happen? The Times cites two murderers (also mentioned in the Mother Jones story) who bought guns from private sellers with whom they connected online. Both were legally disqualified, one because of a restraining order, the other because he is Canadian. The Times also conducted its own investigation, reviewing "more than 170,000 gun ads on Armslist." It identified two buyers who are legally barred from owning guns: a man in Colorado Springs with burglary, car theft, and misdemeanor assault convictions and a man in South Carolina who is "a fugitive from the Rhode Island police," with "two outstanding felony warrants as well as a misdemeanor warrant." Among the buyers the Times was able to identify through the phone numbers they listed, "most people examined had clean records, or had only misdemeanor convictions that did not disqualify them from having weapons."

Has the Times made a persuasive case for requiring the involvement of a federally licensed dealer in every sale by a gun owner who uses the Internet to find a buyer? That depends on the weight you assign to the burden such a requirement imposes on law-abiding gun owners, who in effect would face criminal penalties for talking online about weapons they'd like to sell. (Talking offline would still be legal, as long as you don't do it in a magazine or newspaper.) Your view of whether such a policy is reasonable will also depend on how likely you think it is that criminals determined to obtain a gun will find other ways to do so.

In the 2004 survey that I mention in today's column, state prison inmates who had used guns to commit crimes said they got them from the following sources:

Friends or family members: 39.5%

Street or black market suppliers: 37.5%

Licensed gun dealers: 11.4%

Theft: 9.9%

Gun shows or flea markets: 1.7%

There was no mention of the Internet, and the private sellers who worry the Times do not exactly qualify as "street or black market suppliers," since they are breaking the law only if they know the buyer has a disqualifying record. Also note that criminals rarely buy firearms at gun shows, which is not the impression you'd get from activists and politicians who bemoan the "gun show loophole." It seems that the "Internet loophole" likewise has been blown way out of proportion, probably because online gun ads, like gun shows, are conspicuous. The data suggest that, as you might expect, criminals prefer to obtain their weapons from sources that are less visible.