PRIO Network


Posted by Raisa Sharmin on Tue, 08 April 2014 13:33

​I spend more time on the internet than I would like to admit and a lot of that time involves looking at funny pictures of cats or cool science facts on Reddit and other social media websites. This is why I was really taken aback when I heard that Reddit has a legal, flourishing gun market where users, you’ve guessed it, make online purchases from other Reddit users. One may even say it more than passively endorses gun sales as Reddit has allowed its logo to be engraved in some of the firearms being exchanged But how is this possible, especially with gun control debate dominating US domestic policy in the past year? Surely someone has been running background checks on the online buyers? The answer to those questions, unfortunately is not encouraging as some legal grey areas are becoming more apparent.

A lot of people did indeed notice the gaping loophole in current online gun sales laws in the U.S. and have taken advantage of the seemingly lax online firearms policy. So long as the gun sale meets the requirements of a “private transaction” between two people from the same state, the transaction is no longer under the authority of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Some states do not require that the transactions go through licensed firearms dealers who can run background checks.
Reddit is just one of many websites that allow such transactions.US site made headlines recently by reaching a record $3 billion in electronic sales of firearms. Such sales are have gained attention from gun control groups since April 2013 after Senators in failed to advance a measure mandating background checks for private firearms transactions. The legal loophole, according to gun control lobbyists, is massive and should not be ignored. Apart from the legal vacuum that online markets enjoy, buyers can also benefit from a degree of anonymity which is often difficult to avail with physical store purchases. For example, Reddit is very particular about protecting its user’s privacy and it can be difficult to know whether or not some licensed sellers have sold their items to other Reddit users without a background check Again, the law is on Reddit’s side as licensed sellers can advertise and sell their private collection of guns without background checks, one just has to make sure the firearm isn’t coming from a business inventory.
Some US companies have though taken a clear stance against online gun sales and purchases. Google officially banned the sale of firearms in 2012.The ban, effective from July, 1 2012 meant that users could no longer search for firearms in Google’s shopping channel.  E- Commerce sites Amazon and Ebay too have established their own anti-firearms policies in their websites which mandate that users can no longer advertise or sell firearms and other related items. Amazon is also reported to automatically notify vendors to remove firearms related items from their listings, often warning a possible ban from Amazon if the vendors fail to comply with the website’s policy. China too is looking at a booming online business for firearms and other controversial items. In China, ecommerce is regulated with a set of vaguely defined laws which renders the online market a legal vacuum. Many “grey market” goods such as guns and drugs can be purchased with relative ease on some of the mainland’s popular ecommerce sites. The Chinese government is reportedly revising current laws and regulations in order to curb the online market.
The picture is different with blatantly illegal online marketplaces which are being actively closed down by US and other law enforcement agencies. The most notable one is definitely the seizure of Silk Road, the notorious online black market that used to sell a wide variety of drugs and illegal firearms among many other items.   Interestingly the transactions in the website are done through Bitcoins a form of digital currency that can be bought with real currency. Transaction by Bitcoin makes the buyer anonymous and almost untraceable.  Silk Road had users registered from all over the globe including U.K., Canada, Sweden, Russia etc among many others.
Are online markets, of all types, making cross border purchases easier and more anonymous? If in fact its role is as significant as recent headlines have claimed, monitoring online markets for illegal items, especially those which can be used to commit violent crimes, should be on the agenda for law enforcers and law makers alike. The illicit supply of firearms and associated parts and ammunition can have serious consequences.  Anders Breivik, the perpetrator of the bomb and shooting attacks Norway in 2011 which killed 77 people, is reported to have ordered a high capacity magazine  from a U.S. supplier as regulations in Norway prevented him buyong one there.  The import likely broke, at least, US arms export regulations.