Mayor Announces Results of Investigation into Illegal Online Gun Sales

62 Percent of Private Sellers Agree to Sell Illegally - a Felony under Federal Law

More than 60 percent of online private sellers are willing to commit a felony and sell firearms to people who likely could not pass a background check, according to results of the first-ever national investigation into illegal online gun sales.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, joined by Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly and Chief Policy Advisor John Feinblatt announced the results of the investigation last Wednesday, which found a vast and largely unregulated market for illegal guns.

The investigation probed 10 websites that had 25,000 guns available for purchase and investigators contacted 125 private online gun sellers located in 14 states. The investigation included sellers on Craigslist, which prohibits the sale of firearms in its site according to its posted policies. The investigators clearly noted they probably could not pass a background check during each interaction with a seller.

“Over the past decade, we’ve launched a wide-ranging attack on illegal guns – and today, we’re opening a new front in that battle by targeting what has become an increasingly prevalent and dangerous problem: illegal gun sales on the internet,” said Mayor Bloomberg. “Our investigators found that online gun sellers were all too willing to make illegal sales.”

“We’ve been contending with the Iron Pipeline bringing guns into New York City, the last thing that we need is an electronic pipeline,” said Police Commissioner Kelly.

“This investigation – for the first time – takes a snapshot of this new online gun market, and unfortunately it’s not a pretty picture,” said the Mayor’s Chief Policy Advisor John Feinblatt. “Congress has to take action to require background checks of all sales, but the websites who profit off of this dangerous unregulated online market can clean up their acts right now.”

The Investigation

The City hired licensed private investigators supervised by the global investigative firm Kroll to conduct a series of online purchases. Investigators captured audio of telephone calls with private sellers who advertise on websites, and used concealed cameras during in-person interactions.

The investigative team placed telephone calls to 125 private sellers who posted online gun advertisements on 10 websites in 14 states, including Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Mexico, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin.

The Results

A clear majority of the sellers – 77 of 125 private sellers – failed the integrity test by agreeing to sell to a purchaser who said he probably couldn’t pass a background check.  

Private sellers on Craigslist failed the integrity test, despite the fact that the site says that it prohibits the listing of weapons on its server. On the five websites where investigators contacted the most sellers, an illegal sale was agreed to:

  • Craigslist.com: 82 percent of the time
  • Glocktalk.com: 78 percent
  • Gunlistings.org: 77 percent
  • KSL.com: 67 percent  
  • Armslist.com: 54 percent

eBay, which reportedly owns a substantial share of Craigslist, also has a policy prohibiting its users from selling guns, but unlike Craigslist, eBay.com appears to be enforcing its policy. Several reviews of the site by investigators did not identify a single firearm for sale on the site. 

Investigators arranged to meet five of the sellers who failed the integrity test in person and exchange the guns for cash. As a result, investigators purchased four handguns, including one assault-style pistol, and an assault rifle, which ranged in price from $300 - $650.

The 48 private sellers who refused to make illegal sales confirm that some sellers know and obey Federal law governing gun sales to prohibited purchasers. As one seller explained, “because you just told me that, though, I can’t sell it to you…because if you just told me that you can’t pass, it would be a felony for me to sell it to you, so thanks, have a good day.”

Recommendations for Reducing Illegal Online Gun Sales

To ensure the legality of online gun sales, the report says, Congress, Federal law enforcement and websites hosting gun sales should take steps to keep guns out of the wrong hands. Among the recommendations:

  • Federal law should require a background check for every gun sale. Legislation now pending in both chambers of Congress – The Fix Gun Checks Act of 2011 (S.436/H.R.1781 (112th Congress)) – would enact this reform. 
  • The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives (ATF) should improve enforcement of existing laws. ATF should conduct undercover investigations on a variety of websites, track whether guns recovered in crimes were originally sold online and offer online tutorials to train sellers and buyers on federal gun laws governing online sales.
  • Websites should adopt tougher protocols for self-policing. Websites that permit gun sales demand transparency from sellers and buyers and facilitate reporting of suspicious behavior by site users.


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