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Andrea Stone Headshot

Illegal Gun Sales Run Rampant On Internet

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A New York City undercover investigation heralded as the first of its kind has found a "vast and largely unregulated market for illegal guns" on the Internet, and the worst offender is a website that has gotten mixed up with the law before: Craigslist.

In the report released Wednesday, entitled, "Point, Click, Fire: An Investigation of Illegal Online Gun Sales," investigators found that sellers on Craigslist agreed 82 percent of the time to sell guns to a purchaser who admitted they probably couldn't pass a background check. Not that anyone is supposed to be selling guns on Craigslist. The website, which depends on self-policing, claims to ban firearms sales yet thousands of guns were found listed for sale there, according to the report.

In contrast, investigators were unable to find a single firearm for sale on eBay, which prohibited gun sales in 1999 and "appears to effectively enforce its policy" by removing weapons listed for sale and threatening to restrict or suspend accounts that violate the rules.

The results of the report are set to be announced Wednesday by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a long-time gun control advocate who co-founded Mayors Against Illegal Guns, as well as Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and other officials.

More than 4,000 websites offer guns for sale, according to the Department of Justice. As the new report illustrates, the anonymity of the Internet has spurred huge growth in online sales.

"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," it said.

Federally licensed firearms dealers are required to conduct background checks on all buyers, whether in person or online. But unlicensed "private sellers" are exempt from conducting background checks. This so-called "gun show loophole," along with the Internet, now accounts for about 40 percent of U.S. sales, fueling what law enforcement officials say is a huge black market for illegal guns.

One online gun dealer was linked to both the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre that killed 32 people and the mass mass shooting at Northern Illinois University in 2008 that left five dead. Guns purchased illegally online also have been linked to police shootings, gun trafficking and sales to minors.

The report's findings could give new meaning to the term "Craigslist killers," a category of criminals who in recent years have found and lured their victims on the popular classified advertising website.

In the New York investigation, a team of 15 undercover agents surfed the Internet over a period of 18 days to capture audio and video recordings of online gun sellers blatantly skirting the law that bars the sale of firearms to felons, the mentally ill, domestic abusers and other prohibited buyers. The investigators examined 125 private sellers in 14 states who advertised on 10 different websites. They found more than 25,000 guns for sale on those sites alone.

City investigators posing as illegal purchasers asked five sellers to meet in person to exchange cash for guns. All five agreed, selling investigators four handguns and a semi-automatic assault rifle while being recorded with hidden cameras.

Among the findings:

  • 62 percent of private gun sellers -- 77 of 125 online sellers contacted -- agreed to sell a firearm to a buyer who said he probably couldn't pass a background check.
  • Besides Craigslist, unlicensed sellers also offered arms at alarmingly high rates with no questions asked at Armslist, Gunlistings, Glocktalk and the classified section of Utah news website KSL.com.
  • Sellers in five Southern states -- Tennessee, Kentucky, Louisiana, South Carolina and Virginia -- were the worst offenders, followed closely by dealers in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Texas.
  • Midwest sellers have the best record, with 48 private sellers refusing to make illegal sales.

The report recommended Congress pass a long-stalled bill that would close the online and gun show loophole to allow background checks for all gun sales, a measure the National Rifle Association has fought for years.

It also said the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives should conduct sting operations against online websites that do not require buyers or sellers to identify themselves, and urged the Bureau to better track guns bought online that are later used to commit crimes. Websites such as Craigslist, it said, should tighten self-policing policies.



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