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[Daniel Nass / The Trace]

The Business of Guns

Facebook Users Continue to Thwart Site’s Ban on Gun Sales

The Trace found 20 recent listings in which sellers posted gun cases or packaging as a way to hawk firearms.

Gun sellers continue to conduct business on Facebook Marketplace, despite repeated pledges by the platform to snuff out firearm sales.

To remain undetected, the sellers are employing a simple tactic to conceal the true identity of their wares. Instead of listing guns or gun parts for sale, a violation of Facebook policy, they advertise gun cases or boxes. Using the platform’s private messenger, the sellers then offer complete firearms.

The practice was first revealed in an investigation published by The Wall Street Journal in August 2019. In response to the report, Facebook reiterated that selling guns on its marketplace is against company policy, and said that it would remove violating content.

Nearly five months later, however, the problem persists.

The Trace contacted 34 sellers, located in nine states, who had posted listings for gun cases or packaging on Facebook Marketplace. In private messages, 20 of those sellers immediately offered a variety of firearms, including pistols, assault-style rifles, and antique shotguns.

While none of the sellers’ listings explicitly advertised firearms for sale, they did provide a clue to prospective buyers: deflated pricing. This is a slight deviation from the strategy identified by the Journal, in which sellers listed gun cases for sale at the value of the guns they are designed to carry.

Facebook did not respond to requests for comment about the ongoing sale of firearms on its online marketplace or about its strategy to stop the practice.

The sellers offering guns on Facebook Marketplace, all of whom spoke with The Trace on the condition of anonymity, said their listings had garnered significant interest. One Facebook user from Tennessee said that his listing for a gun case had received roughly 150 inquiries in just over a month. When contacted by The Trace, the seller offered a pair of assault-style rifles for $2,100.

After The Trace contacted one user about a case for sale, they indicated via private messenger that a rifle was included.

The sellers offered a range of weapons, mostly under listings including the keyword “case.” In Ohio, a posting for a generic rifle case turned out to be a sniper rifle, available for $1,250; in Florida, a posting for a handgun case turned out to be a 9mm handgun for $400; in South Carolina, a listing for a $10 rifle case was really an advertisement for more than $2,000 in wares that included a handgun, two long rifles, a scope, and a short-barrel rifle.

Several of the users interviewed by The Trace said the practice of hosting coded gun listings on Facebook Marketplace was widespread. The Tennessee-based seller said he had used the platform to sell firearms in the past, and suspected Facebook had an idea of what was going on. He was ambivalent about whether or not the company would take action.

“I understand Facebook’s right to enforce or overlook certain policies. We’ll see if they stay inactive or try to enforce [this ban],” he wrote.

Regulating the sale of guns online, and the proliferation of gun-related content, has proven extremely difficult for technology companies. As The Trace has reported, Facebook, along with peers like Twitter, YouTube, and Reddit, have struggled to limit the spread of 3D-printed gun files on their platforms. Similarly, Google has had trouble screening prohibited gun accessories like high-capacity magazines from its shopping search results.

While many of the world’s largest technology platforms prohibit the sale of guns on their sites, federal law does not prohibit the practice. The legality has spawned several online brokers of used guns. The most popular — Gunbroker.com and Armslist.com — have hosted millions of listings since their inception in 1999 and 2007, respectively. Laws prohibiting certain individuals from purchasing guns and banning private sales across state lines still apply, but are difficult to enforce.

The Tennessee-based seller interviewed for this story said he had also listed his weapons on Gunbroker and Armslist, as well as at a local pawn shop. Using Facebook Marketplace, he said, was just about enlarging his market. Another person in West Virginia said he thought his listing would get more exposure on Facebook Marketplace than on gun-focused sites.

Anthony Coulson, a former Drug Enforcement Administration agent who helped manage a task force in Arizona charged with improving the state’s background check reporting for the FBI’s national database, said that if companies don’t have a legal responsibility to avoid facilitating private sales, they still have a moral one.

“You can see how those folks who have knowledge about being prohibited purchasers have ample ability to go acquire a weapon from any source,” he said. “Facebook should really shut down anything that has to do with any type of firearm or accessory to a firearm because [sellers] bundle these things up… It’s become a black market of harm.”

Such concerns are not lost on some Facebook Marketplace sellers interviewed for this story. A seller in West Virginia was candid when asked about the possibility that his gun could end up in the hands of someone legally barred from owning it. “I don’t want to sound like a hypocrite, but yes, I do [worry about that],” he said. “I’m desperate for the money, but honestly, I feel terrible.”