The Corner

Politics & Policy

A Pointless Investigation of Private Gun Sellers

A few days before Christmas, the Government Accountability Office publicly released the results of an audit it had conducted at the request of three congressional Democrats. The point, I imagine, was to show that the Internet makes it super-easy to buy a gun illegally and have it mailed to you. It’s hilarious how badly the gambit failed — 72 attempts on the “Surface Web” (i.e., not the anonymous “Dark Web”) netted zero guns — but one must admit that the GAO’s little experiment proves basically nothing of any importance to the gun debate.

Here’s a quick primer on the background-check system. If you sell guns for a living, you have to get a license and conduct checks on your buyers. But if you sell a gun from your own private collection once in a while, no check is required. It’s illegal to knowingly sell to (for example) a felon or someone who lives in a different state, but you don’t have to take any steps to investigate the person you’re selling to. With a long gun, the seller can even mail the weapon, intrastate, to the buyer.

The typical concern is that, with no background-check requirement, a felon can buy a gun from a stranger and simply not divulge any problematic information. Such a transaction is illegal for the felon buying the gun (who clearly does not care about following the law) but not the seller (who probably does).

The GAO did not test the typical concern. On the Surface Web, its fake buyers explicitly told the sellers that they had characteristics that would make the transaction illegal. Presumably these overtures were followed by “I’m not a cop, I swear!” It’s really not too surprising that none of the transactions happened — though two apparent scammers took the money without sending a gun — and it says nothing about how easy it would be for a felon to buy a gun, online or off, without confessing first.

The sting also involved the Dark Web, but for some reason it was conducted differently there; the fake buyers didn’t reveal themselves as prohibited purchasers. Seven attempts produced two weapons: an AR-15 with the serial number obliterated, which was shipped across state lines, and an Uzi advertised as being fully automatic. (The report is cagey about whether it really was.) Per the report, “in the five attempts where we did not ultimately purchase a firearm, the prospective seller stopped responding to our inquiries, stated the firearm was no longer for sale, refused to use an escrow account for payment, or experienced technical problems using the Dark Web marketplace.”

Basically, the report shows that outside of the obscure Dark Web, gun sellers overwhelmingly refuse to participate in flagrantly illegal sales. Which should not shock anyone.

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