Gun Sellers, Licensed or Not, Find a Marketplace on Facebook
Russell Reel lays his Browning Buck Mark .22 across his finished wooden table. There’s plenty of light dancing across the dark metal to see its features: Browning’s logo featuring a buck with its head turned away from the trigger, a “MADE IN U.S.A.” proclamation etched into the barrel and a “DANGER” disclaimer slapped on the laser sight to warn against peering into its red projection.
Reel pulls out his iPhone 7 and snaps a picture of the pistol, hoping to entice potential buyers. Then, he opens up the Facebook app and begins typing.
Hundreds of phones ping across the state of Missouri. A blue icon flashes across their screens; yet another Facebook notification. “Russell Henry Reel posted in 417 gun pics,” it says.
Despite Facebook’s ban on firearm sales on Jan. 29, 2016, group pages on the platform persist in facilitating gun and ammunition transactions among private sellers throughout America. As of last week, there are at least six groups with similar gun postings for Missouri residents alone, with a total membership of approximately 2,600. Still, there is likely more activity going on in secret groups such as Reel’s “417 gun pics” that aren’t visible to anyone except the members. Like many private gun sales, in most cases no background checks are required by law.
Facebook has reacted to the continued sales. The site removes groups and posts all the time.
But, Facebook’s personnel don’t want to overstep into its users’ privacy. So, Missourians continue their gun transactions on Facebook, in private.
Many Missouri citizens have taken a lax stance on guns both culturally and legislatively, making it impossible for Facebook to eradicate the private gun sales conducted on its platform.
“This is trading country”
In many ways Facebook is an electronic extension of life. In much of Missouri, deals are not made with cash.
“This is trading country. No one has the cash sitting around to be buying whatever,” said Tim Smith, a member of one of the groups Facebook deleted before this publication. “Say I have a car that’s worth $10,000 and I can’t get rid of it. No one has $10,000 sitting around to buy that. Maybe somebody finds that car on a sale site and says ‘Hey, I’ve got 10 guns.’ If their value is equal to or more than my car, it could be a good deal. You can sell off the guns until you get your money back. Or, you could keep them.”
The trades don’t strictly involve guns. Items like deer stands and crossbows often find their way into the mix. Sometimes, guns are thrown in as an extra item to sweeten the pot. Trades are influenced by hunting seasons as well. For example, one would be more willing to make an unbalanced trade for a Marlin 336 rifle the week before deer season.
While the Missourians interviewed for this story agreed that sometimes a gun or two could slip into the wrong hands, they said they feel background checks are just an extra, unnecessary step that makes online transactions more difficult to coordinate.
“ People don’t have time and money to waste to do something when they’re not doing anything wrong,” said Smith, a Marine Corps veteran. “We’re just hillbillies trying to build or sell a car or make the next electric payment,” Smith said.
Background checks in Missouri are carried out by Federal Firearms Licensees. They use the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check (NICS) system. Results come almost instantaneously, but Reel says the extra coordination with a third party’s schedule turns people away.
In Missouri, NICS checks are only required when one is purchasing from a Federal Firearms Licensee (FFL). The 1986 Firearms Owners’ Protection Act describes one who is legally required to obtain a federal license as “a person who devotes time, attention, and labor to dealing in firearms as a regular course of trade or business with the principal objective of livelihood and profit through the repetitive purchase and resale of firearms.” Missouri citizens buying guns from people in other states must have their weapons shipped through a federally-licensed dealer, who performs a NICS check.
People making individual deals can perform background checks, which usually cost $30 or less, but distance can deter people from carrying out background checks. Background check forms have to be filed in person. Darrell Phillippe, a resident of rural Missouri, said people living in remote areas don’t want to take a half-day to drive to meet a federally-licensed dealer when it’s not legally required.
However, a federally-licensed dealer search on GunsAmerica.com, another site that brokers deals between private sellers, showed eight dealers within 50 miles (or a one-hour drive) of northwest Missouri’s Worth County, the lowest-populated county in the state at 2,024 persons, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. A similar search yielded a result of six federally-licensed dealers within a 50-mile radius of the 10,789-person Oregon County in southern Missouri.
If schedule coordination and distance don’t stop private sellers in Missouri from doing background checks, then a distrust in the federal government might.
Reel said he sees a lot of older men who approach him for sales scoff at the mention of a background check.
“They think the government’s going to show up at their house one day with a clipboard saying, ‘you’ve got 12 guns and we need them.’ It’s absolutely never going to happen,” Reel said.
Gun sales weren’t always outlawed on Facebook. The ban happened gradually.
On Jan. 27, 2014, Moms Demand Action, a gun regulation advocacy group, began a campaign to remove illegal gun sales from Facebook. On March 5, 2014, it announced a nine-step plan to stop sales, including allowing users to report potentially illegal gun sale postings for Facebook’s review.
In January 2016, Facebook banned gun sales completely. According to a spokesperson for Facebook, the company created it with a “catch-all” objective of ensuring its platform fell in line with all local, state, national and international gun laws.
The ban wasn’t the only action Facebook took. The social media site announced in May 2017 that it would be hiring 3,000 additional employees to review content reported by users, bolstering its Community Operations Team to 7,500 employees. A Facebook official confirmed in an email that it’s filled all of these positions.
But in practice, the task has proved near impossible.
The regulation relies on users to report the material — Facebook doesn’t actively monitor its groups. The Facebook official said it wants to respect the private personal matters often discussed in them.
It’s rare that a group member will report a sale. They join the groups because of their vested self-interest in guns, whether it’s for discussion or a transaction. Only those who take stances against these activities will report them. So, group members protect their activity using two common methods.
Group administrators can switch their privacy settings to “secret.” This makes the group invisible unless someone is invited into the group.
Missourians create groups visible to the public eye, too. The groups are typically set as “closed,” meaning anyone can see the group’s name and members, but only members can see its postings.
The group administrators loosely veil the pages with unassuming terminology. Key words such as “discussions,” “enthusiasts” or “show and tell” appear in their titles. Members post pictures of their weapons, which range from handguns to semi-automatic rifles, and say something like, “Looking to discuss.” The rest of the transaction takes place in Facebook’s messaging app.
Reel, a member of several of these pages, said he’ll receive around 20 messages for his posts. Usually, only one or two people are seriously interested.
When contacted for comment, Facebook requested an example of one of these gun sales pages. It subsequently took down the page, “Southwest Missouri Gun Discussion Group.”
It hasn’t resurfaced.
Another group, “East Missouri guns & ammo show & tell no gun sales,” was shut down the same day. It resurfaced two days later with a message from the administrator: “Apparently there’s a snitch in our group. I was just released from Facebook jail so be careful.”
It’s hard to get a true statistical analysis of online gun sales, but Moms Demand Action has carried out a few analyses. One of the studies cited on the organization’s website was carried out by a team of 15 investigators working for the city of New York.
The investigators examined 125 private sellers from 14 different states over 10 different gun sale websites. They found that 62 percent of sellers in their investigation agreed to sell a gun to someone who said they probably couldn’t pass a background check. It’s a felony under federal law to sell to a person you know can’t pass a background check.
Facebook won’t receive much legislative help for its ban in Missouri, which is one of 26 states that allow private firearm sales without any background checks.
The 2017 Missouri General Assembly legislative session saw six gun regulation bills proposed. House Bill 363, sponsored by Rep. Stacey Newman, D-Richmond Heights, required all firearms purchases or transfers to be processed through licensed firearms dealer. The bills were killed in committee hearings and never made it to the House floor.
The most recent legislative action in the gun debate took place on Sept. 14, 2016, when Missouri Republicans overrode former Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of Senate Bill 656. The bill removed concealed carry restrictions and added “stand your ground” rights that stated citizens no longer had to retreat before using deadly force of a weapon. The law took effect Jan. 1.
Almost two years have passed since Facebook banned private firearm sales, yet the sales persist.
Even if the content policy team does manage to find and shut down a page, another will soon surface for sellers to flock to. At least 25 gun listings were posted in one recent week, though the number could be higher due to posts in secret groups.
Larry Wayland, the owner of Modern Arms gun store on Brown Station Road in Columbia, said the platform’s popularity will continue to attract its gun listings. Facebook has over 2 billion users worldwide, making it the most popular social media site on the planet.
“It’s just exposure to a big market. You want a bunch of people at your yard sale? You advertise.”
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