In February 2014, Facebook got in some hot water when gun violence prevention advocates pressed the company to crack down on illegal sales conducted on through its pages. The site was a crucial instrument for a 15-year-old Kentucky boy who bought a gun from an adult in Ohio and was caught with the weapon at his school. In a separate case, a sting operation ensnared a convicted felon who was using the network to flout gun laws. After the incidents came to light, Facebook met with Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and Mayors Against Illegal Guns (a forerunner to Everytown for Gun Safety, a seed donor to The Trace) to talk about how it could prevent its users from dealing guns illegally.
In the two years since, the company has made some changes. But with President Obama now highlighting unregulated online firearms sales in his big push against gun violence, it’s still easy for Facebook members to use the social network to arrange gun sales outside the background check system.
When its policies towards gun commerce came under scrutiny, Facebook had already banned paid advertisements for guns. In March 2014, the company announced it would take some additional measures. Compliance staffers would remind persons reported by other users for selling weapons to comply with state and local laws, and they would block posts in which a user boasts that no background checks would be performed on the buyers of guns up for sale. Facebook groups and pages organized around buying, selling, and trading guns would have to be restricted to members 18 and over and contain notices of relevant laws.
It’s hard to tell if these moves slowed down gun sales on Facebook generally or made a dent in unregulated or illegal deals in particular. The platform still hosts scores of members-only groups that exist solely to facilitate private sales, many with thousands of followers. While some of the groups operate in states with universal background check laws, 32 states don’t mandate such checks for private transfers. So even though members of those groups can’t boast that they won’t conduct checks, they’re under no obligation to actually make sure in-state gun transfers they’ve arranged on Facebook are legal. Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.
Facebook’s approach is similar to those taken by other popular social networking sites, such as Reddit. The self-proclaimed “front page of the internet” bans discussion of baldly illegal activity, but even after outside pressure it remains a pretty easy place to arrange a gun transfer free from background checks. One entire subreddit is dedicated to gun sales. It asks first time visitors if they’re over 18, but there’s no way to verify if a user is answering truthfully. Many sellers on the subreddit offer to meet “FtF,” or face-to-face, where they can make the exchange without running the background check that a licensed dealer would require.