John Philips’s alleged aspirations as a gun runner were complicated by the fact that he himself was banned from owning firearms, and therefore had no way to legally acquire the weapons he planned to traffic onto the streets of Chicago. According to a federal indictment, Philips and two fellow defendants followed the lead of untold other felons and found a solution online, buying and selling 90 guns through the unregulated gun markets on Armslist and Facebook.
According to a criminal complaint filed in the Northern District of Illinois, three men were accused of buying guns through private sales near Louisville, Kentucky, and reselling them in Chicago, where the weapons were linked to violent crimes. Along with Philips, Christopher Henderson and Jaiqail Wright were charged with dealing firearms without a federal license. Philips was also charged with possession of weapons as a felon.
The case is the latest instance in which mainstream digital platforms have been used to facilitate illegal gun sales.
Illinois forbids private sales to anyone without a Firearm Owners ID card, a credential that demonstrates the buyer is legally allowed to own a weapon. But just south of the Ohio River, individual gun owners can legally sell to others without performing any kind of background check or verification.
That means it’s perfectly legal for a Kentucky gun owner to post a classified ad for a weapon on Armslist, a website that connects gun buyers and sellers, and sell it to someone else without any kind of due diligence to make sure the buyer isn’t legally prohibited from owning a firearm.
In September 2016, the criminal complaint alleges, an unnamed individual residing in Louisville sold a 9mm Glock pistol to Henderson and Phillips after connecting on Armslist. At the time of the deal, Phillips had a record of multiple felony convictions, including aggravated battery and illegal possession of a firearm. Because Armslist doesn’t ask for any kind of information about buyers’ criminal histories, the seller never knew that Phillips was prohibited from buying a gun.
In several past cases, Armslist has allowed individuals who are legally prohibited from buying guns get their hands on weapons. In 2012, a Milwaukee man subject to a restraining order arranged a gun purchase via the website and used the weapon to kill his estranged wife.
Yet attempts to hold Armslist accountable for connecting dangerous people with weapons have failed: a lawsuit brought by the family of an Illinois woman murdered by a man who had illegally purchased a gun on the website was dismissed, the judge ruling that the company was not responsible for the conduct of its users.
Back in Chicago, Phillips posted pictures on Facebook of guns he and Henderson had bought during various trips to Kentucky. He then exchanged private messages with Wright, who knew interested buyers. The postings were dated from September 2016 through August 2017.
Facebook officially banned private gun sales in January 2016, but its attempts to enforce the rule have been haphazard. The social media platform relies entirely on user reports to identify gun sales, and does not proactively monitor profiles or private messages for evidence that the rules have been broken.
“Our Community Standards make it clear that buying, selling or trading firearms, ammunition and explosives between private individuals is not allowed on Facebook. Anytime we become aware of activity that facilitates firearm sales, we remove it immediately and have worked to minimize the opportunity for these activities to take place on our platform,” a Facebook spokesman said in an emailed comment. “Further, we routinely respond to law enforcement requests for information in compliance with applicable law and our terms, including those related to activity like the illegal sale of firearms. We promptly responded to law enforcement’s requests in this case.”