Report|Social Issues   33 Minute Read

The Virtual Loophole: A Survey of Online Gun Sales

Published August 5, 2013

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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, 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.

Armslist

In 1993, Congress passed the Brady Law requiring that anyone buying a firearm from a gun store must undergo a criminal background check first. This law was designed to exclude prohibited buyers—such as those with felony convictions or drug addiction histories, perpetrators of domestic violence, those who were severely mentally ill, and others—from purchasing firearms.

Even after the Brady Law passed, there were always narrow avenues for those prohibited by law from owning a gun to obtain a firearm without undergoing a background check. That is because federal law only covers the sale of firearms from gun stores, not from private individuals who live within the same state as the buyer. This private sale exemption was designed to allow family members, friends, and neighbors to buy and sell guns with one another without needing to run background checks. As time went by, certain venues, like gun shows, allowed both licensed sellers and private sellers to offer firearms for sale in a commercial platform. Even though these sales occur in a commercial location, private sellers are not required to perform background checks on buyers. This is known as the “gun show loophole,” and it has been widely discussed in Washington, D.C., and nationally.

Less has been said about internet sales because they are so new. When the Brady Law was passed, the internet was home to 130 websites.1 By 2012, there were 634 million.2 This study focuses on only one, Armslist.com. Armslist.com is one of several websites that links private sellers of firearms with prospective buyers to effectively avoid federal regulations concerning sales of guns, specifically regulations requiring criminal background checks for gun purchasers. 

The Magnitude of Online Gun Sales

This survey presents a snapshot of the number of gun sale listings on Armslist.com across 10 states on several random summer days.3 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.)

Policy Recommendation 

The magnitude of these sales occurring without a background check may be disturbing, but they are not illegal under current law. In April of this year, the Senate attempted to close this loophole through legislation authored by two gun rights stalwarts, Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA). Both Senators had received an A rating from the National Rifle Association in the past, but both bucked the gun lobby to propose bipartisan legislation to close the loophole that allows strangers to sell guns without background checks over the internet and at gun shows. An avid hunter, Senator Manchin called his legislation “gunsense.”

The Manchin-Toomey legislation had the support of 55 Senators but fell short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a Senate filibuster—in part thanks to some of the Senators representing the states in this survey. The bill simply would have applied the same rules that already apply to sales at gun stores to online commercial sales like those facilitated by Armslist.com. It is worth noting that it is easy and convenient to do a background check for gun sales: 

  • There are almost five times as many licensed gun stores in this country as there are McDonald’s—and 22,896 of them are located in these 10 states.4 
  • In 2012, 2,783,958 people went through a firearm background check in these 10 states, and 25,501,571 have done so since the instant background check system was established in 1998. Across the country, more than 170 million people have gone through a firearm background check at a licensed dealer.5 
  • Between mid-July and the end of this year, these 10 states will host 185 gun shows.6 Every licensed dealer participating in one of these sales will run a background check, on the spot, for every gun sale. Those who are not licensed dealers will be able to sell no questions asked. 
  • 92% of background checks are completed within minutes.7

The Manchin-Toomey background check bill is expected to come up for a second vote later this year. The bill’s authors are hoping to make minor modifications to convince some Senators, like those from these 10 states, to re-think their position. This snapshot shows that each of these Senators should seriously consider doing so to keep guns out of the hands of criminals in their state.

Appendix: A Snapshot of Online Gun Sales from June-July 2013


State or City

Number of for sale listings by
private sellers

Number of semiautomatics for sale by private sellers

Number of want ad listings for
private sellers

Number of people selling 4 or more guns

Largest quantity of guns being advertised by single seller

Alaska

124

54

6

9

12

Anchorage 

56

15

2

4

12

Fairbanks

24

7

3

0

3

Juneau

22

19

0

1

4

Arizona

979

345

116

72

14

Tucson

177

50

18

21

14

Phoenix

573

162

61

30

13

Arkansas

1182

421

77

93

22

Little Rock

366

135

16

20

14

Fort Smith

157

37

7

9

22

Fayetteville

412

157

35

24

20

Georgia

1960

781

96

66

18

Atlanta

819

278

82

23

10

Augusta

104

35

?

3

6

Columbus

131

52

17

2

6

Montana

544

176

90

34

13

Billings

80

21

8

2

12

Missoula

141

35

16

9

12

Great Falls

21

6

11

0

3

Nevada

844

314

111

39

21

Las Vegas

317

85

42

16

19

Reno

451

143

64

20

21

New Hampshire

574

209

125

35

9

Manchester

96

32

18

5

7

Nashua

60

19

16

3

5

Concord

111

35

17

10

7

North Dakota

49

21

17

7

11

Fargo

23

5

1

3

6

Grand Forks

13

6

3

1

11

Ohio

6192

1840

940

225

21

Cincinnati

1135

330

132

40

13

Columbus

1134

351

155

34

21

Cleveland

1176

325

171

63

15

Tennessee

3320

975

350

438

14

Memphis

263

79

37

14

12

Nashville

1079

300

86

161

14

Knoxville

1007

267

137

134

9

  1. “How We Got from 1 to 162 Million Websites on the Internet,” Pingdom, April 4, 2008. Accessed July 19, 2013. Available at: http://royal.pingdom.com/2008/04/04/how-we-got-from-1-to-162-million-websites-on-the-internet/.

     

  2. “Internet 2012 in Numbers,” Pingdom, January 13, 2013. Accessed July 19, 2013. Available at: http://royal.pingdom.com/2013/01/16/internet-2012-in-numbers/

     

  3. State-level data on the number of for sale listings by private sellers, the number of semiautomatics for sale by private sellers, and the number of want ad listings for private sellers was collected on June 13, 2013 for all states except Arkansas and Tennessee. State-level data on the number of people selling 4 or more guns and the largest quantity of guns being advertised by a single seller was collected between June 4 and June 7, 2013 for all states except Arkansas and Tennessee. All city-level data was collected between July 10 and July 12, 2013 except for those cities in Tennessee. Arkansas state-level data was collected on July 10, 2013. All Tennessee data was collected on July 18, 2013.

     

  4. "McDonald’s,” Entrepreneur. Accessed January 28, 2013. Available at: http://www.entrepreneur.com/franchises/mcdonalds/282570-0.html; See also United States, Department of Justice, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, “Report of Active Firearms Licenses - License Type by State Statistics,” July 10, 2013. Accessed July 18, 2013. Available at: http://www.atf.gov/content/statistics-listing-federal-firearms-licensees.

     

  5. United States, Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigations, Criminal Justice Information Services Division, “Total NICS Firearm Background Checks by State: Nov. 30, 1998 -June 30, 2013.” Accessed July 18, 2013. Available at: http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/nics/reports; See also United States, Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigations, Criminal Justice Information Services Division, “Total NICS Firearm Background Checks: November 30, 1998-June 30, 2013.” Accessed July 18, 2013. Available at: http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/nics/reports

     

  6. “Gun Shows,” Gun Shows Today. Accessed July 11, 2013. Available at: http://www.gunshowstoday.com; See also “2013 North Dakota Shows,” American Gun Shows. Accessed July 11, 2013. Available at: http://www.americangunshows.com/GunShows/ND-GunShows.htm

     

  7. United States, Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigations, Criminal Justice Information Services Division, “National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) Operations: 2011,” Report. January 14, 2013. Available at: http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/nics/reports/2011-operations-report/operations-report-2011.

     

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