Point, Click, Fire: An Investigation of Illegal Online Gun Sales

Dec 14, 2011
  • Description

The internet revolution created extraordinary opportunities for commerce to be conducted at the click of a mouse. Instant access to almost unlimited choices and to vast communities of buyers and sellers is a principal asset of e-commerce. This feature, however, can also pose unique challenges for law enforcement. Over the last 15 years, a significant share of the firearms trade in the United States has moved online. The precise volume of online sales is largely unknown -- and, under current law, unknowable, because many of these transactions create no record that would allow them to be counted. Every day, firearms transactions are conducted on thousands of websites among largely anonymous actors. Criminal buyers who once had to purchase in person can now prowl hundreds of thousands of listings to find unscrupulous sellers. Negotiations can be conducted from the discreet remove of a phone call or an email exchange. Federally licensed firearms dealers are required to conduct background checks on all buyers to prevent sales to felons, the mentally ill, domestic abusers and other prohibited purchasers.4 These screenings are required whether the sale is made on Main Street or over the internet. But unlicensed "private sellers" -- those who are not "in the business" of selling firearms -- do not have to conduct background checks.5 These sales -- which take place in many venues, including gun shows and, increasingly, on the internet -- account for about 40 percent of U.S. sales, and fuel the black market for illegal guns.6 And they leave no electronic or paper trail behind them.