WASHINGTON, January 4, 2018: The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) has released their November 2017 GAO report on “Internet Firearm Sales – ATF Enforcement Efforts and Outcomes of GAO Covert Testing.” The new GAO report provides the following background:
“ATF created the Internet Investigations Center (Center) to investigate buyers and sellers who use the Internet to facilitate illegal firearms transactions. The Center uses several tools to provide investigative support to ATF, which has resulted in the arrests of individuals using the Internet to facilitate illegal firearm purchases. ATF officials with the Center also noted that investigations might involve both the Surface Web and the Dark Web. For example, to identify an anonymous user on the Dark Web, the Center works to establish a user’s ‘digital footprint’ on the Surface Web. In 2016, the Center also issued a report about Internet firearm transactions.
“This and other ATF reports highlighted the following about Internet-facilitated firearm transactions:
• The relative anonymity of the Internet makes it an ideal means for prohibited individuals to obtain illegal firearms.
• The more anonymity employed by a firearms purchaser, the greater the likelihood that the transaction violates federal law.
• Firearm transactions that occur on the Dark Web are more likely to be completed in person or via the mail or common carrier, versus through a Federal Firearm Licensee.
“GAO agents attempted to purchase firearms from Dark Web and Surface Web marketplaces. Agents made seven attempts to purchase firearms on the Dark Web. In these attempts, agents did not disclose any information about whether they were prohibited from possessing a firearm. Of these seven attempts, two on a Dark Web marketplace were successful. Specifically, GAO agents purchased and received an AR-15 rifle and an Uzi that the seller said was modified so that it would fire automatically.
“GAO provided referral letters to applicable law enforcement agencies for these purchases to inform any ongoing investigations.
“How easy is it to buy a firearm from a complete stranger without a background check?
“In an analysis of internet gun sales in 10 states from a single website during the months of June and July, the independent web site Third Way found more than 15,000 guns—one-third of which were semi-automatics—available for sale without background checks at any given moment. In 2,000 web ads in these states, buyers were intentionally seeking private sellers where background checks are specifically exempt from federal law. This report focuses on online sales in the 10 states where Senators were initially targeted but failed to support bipartisan legislation to close this virtual loophole.”
For gun control advocates, the GAO report goes contrary to the general assumption that the Internet, including the so-called Dark Web, is a place for illegal gun sales that ultimately have disastrous result. In fact, the GAO report states that the agency was unable to purchase a single weapon from internet sellers during the covert program.
They did have at least some success on the Dark Web, however:
“Agents made seven attempts to purchase firearms on the Dark Web. In these attempts, agents did not disclose any information about whether they were prohibited from possessing a firearm. Of these seven attempts, two on a Dark Web marketplace were successful. Specifically, GAO agents purchased and received an AR-15 rifle and an Uzi that the seller said was modified so that it would fire automatically. GAO provided referral letters to applicable law-enforcement agencies for these purchases to inform any ongoing investigations.”
In August of 2013, Third Way published The Virtual Loophole: A Survey of Online Gun Sales by Jim Kessler and Sarah Trumble. The authors write:
“While Armslist.com operates in every single state, for the purposes of this study, Third Way analyzed the listings in Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, and Tennessee—10 states that are home to Senators who voted against expanding background checks to these online sales in April. Here’s what we found:
- 15,768 for sale ads listed by private sellers of firearms.
- 5,136 of these ads were for semi-automatic weapons, including assault weapons.
- 1,928 ads were from prospective buyers asking to buy specifically from private sellers (thereby ensuring that no background check is required).
- 1,018 private individuals were selling four or more firearms simultaneously.
- Many listed numerous weapons for sale at the same time. One person had 22 separate guns listed for sale in Arkansas, while another listed 21 in Nevada, and a third listed 21 in Ohio.
“(The full list of online gun sales from these 10 states is available in the Appendix.)”
Picking up on that story, Philip Rucker’s article on the GAO report in the Washington Post, “Study finds vast online marketplace for guns without background checks” references the Third Wave article, stating:
“The marketplace for firearms on the Internet, where buyers are not required to undergo background checks, is so vast that advocates for stricter regulations now consider online sales a greater threat than the gun-show loophole.
“A new study by Third Way, a center-left think tank with close ties to the Obama administration, found that thousands of guns, including so-called assault weapons, are for sale online and that many prospective buyers were shopping online specifically to avoid background checks.
“The study focused on Armslist.com — a popular classified site similar to Craigslist.org that facilitates private sales of firearms and ammunition based on location — and analyzed listings in 10 states where senators voted against a background-check compromise this spring.
“At any given time, more than 15,000 guns were for sale in those states, according to the study, and more than 5,000 of them were semi-automatic weapons. Nearly 2,000 ads were from prospective buyers asking to purchase specifically from private sellers, where no background checks are required.
“‘At this point, this is the biggest loophole in the background check system,’ said Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, director of social policy and politics at Third Way, an organization that has been active in the gun-control movement for years.”
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is responsible for investigating criminal and regulatory violations of firearms statutes and regulations that govern firearms transactions. This includes online or internet sales.
The GAO report ultimately concludes
“Tests performed on the Surface Web demonstrated that private sellers GAO contacted on gun forums and other classified ads were unwilling to sell a firearm to an individual who appeared to be prohibited from possessing a firearm. Of the 72 attempts agents made to purchase firearms on the Surface Web, 56 sellers refused to complete a transaction: 29 sellers stated they would not ship a firearm and 27 refused after the disclosure of the undercover identities’ stated prohibited status. Furthermore, in 5 of these 72 attempts, the accounts GAO set up were frozen by the websites, which prevented the agents from using the forums and attempting to make a purchase.”