"S&W 500! Paid 1200, 25 rounds spent! I'm in Texas and newmexico. Looking to trade for a nice AK or AR of same value," reads a recent Facebook post by a gun enthusiast named Cody, who has included a photo of himself brandishing the Smith & Wesson handgun.
"Suggestion, Keep Your mug Out of Fireams Sales / Trades" reads the top comment, liked 28 times.
Another comment calls the poster an "inmate."
Another comment simply points out that $1,200 is too much for a 500 model when you can get one for $900.
Guns For Sale is a Facebook page with 196,000 likes that invites gun enthusiasts and licensed dealers to procure buyers for firearms through posts like this one from Cody. (Facebook removed this post after a gun control group tweeted it with the message "@facebook allows this guy to sell guns.")
Despite the appearance of the post — with comments recommending you not show your face and the plausible suggestion of wrongdoing by deleting it — what's happening on the Guns For Sale page is most likely totally legal.
Bobby Richards is the owner and operator of Crossfire Arms, LLC, an independent arms dealership in Vermont. For the past six months, Richards has listed new firearms and industry information on online forums, like the Guns For Sale Facebook page. He is still in the process of building Crossfire's online store and sees these pages and sites as "electronic billboards" that allow his independent operation to compete with the industry's big boys.
"Social media has leveled the playing field somewhat and has afforded smaller businesses the opportunity to network with groups that have massive fan bases," he said. "Affiliate marketers have enormous reach and followers on Facebook, numbering in the high six figures."
While Richards said that while Facebook postings are an asset to his business, every gun sale is completed through an in-person, in-store exchange that includes a mandatory background check.
Once a potential buyer expresses an interest in a particular firearm, Richards sets up an appointment for the buyer to fill out the required paperwork and National Instant Criminal Background Check System background check. If the buyer lives in a state other than Vermont, he or she is required to have their local federally licensed dealer send a copy of their license to Richards before he will ship the firearm to that dealer. And then once the paperwork is complete, that local dealer can finalize the sale.
"No firearm transactions are completed through Facebook," Richards said.
David Chipman, a retired Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent, said these types of sales would likely pass muster with the agency.
"I think that's extremely above board. I think that would get sign-off from the ATF," said Chipman, who spent 25 years with the bureau.
The ATF public affairs office confirmed to BuzzFeed that Richards' process is the correct way to obtain a firearm from a Federal Firearms Licensee.
But Chipman disputes the idea that firearms sales are not taking place at all on Facebook.
"I believe Facebook should understand that persons could be using their platform to conduct illegal conduct and they have a moral obligation to do their best to prevent it," Chipman said.
Chipman noted that if sellers are buying guns, posting them online, and selling them for profit without a license, the ATF would consider that to be illegal. However, it would take an undercover investigation to prove if any of these people listing their guns on Guns For Sale are making a profit illegally, he says.
In the past week, there have been more than 100 posts from fans on the Guns For Sale page. Sixty-nine of the posts listed actual guns, gun parts, or ammunition for sale or trade. Every one of the posts includes contact information from the seller; if the post doesn't initially include a name and phone number or email, the page's moderator asks the seller to update the post. Of the 69 posts, 44 were from personal Facebook accounts.
This is not a lot of activity, especially compared with other players in the online gun trade. A study this year by Mike Bloomberg's group Mayors Against Illegal Guns of online gun retail destination Armslist.com concluded that nearly one-third of the activity on the website was by high-volume sellers, selling more than 34 firearms a year without a license, which amounts to an estimated 243,800 guns.
The level of activity on the Guns For Sale Facebook page is more on par with a forum like the r/GunsForSale subreddit, which Mother Jones found had 1,000 posts over six months — about 40 posts a week.
What these regular people in the Guns For Sale Facebook community are doing appears legal, as long as the posters on Guns For Sale are following a few rules if they don't have a dealer's license:
According to U.S. federal gun laws, a person is allowed to buy or sell a firearm from an unlicensed resident of their state if they do not have reasonable cause to believe the person is prohibited from owning guns. If the buyer is out of state, this person is required to go through a licensed dealer to complete the transaction.
But the legality of the deals on Guns For Sale is just another example of why the nation's gun laws need reforming, some say.
"[There is a] huge weakness is our federal gun policy. People on Facebook take advantage of this gap," said Daniel Webster, a professor and the director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.
"It's not a loophole, it's a gaping hole. There's no mechanism of accountability. We need a policy fix."
"Criminals tend to stick to trusted social networks to acquire guns," said Webster. "By creating this network, Facebook is greasing the wheels for the very people we should be most concerned about acquiring guns.
The tweet that put Cody's Facebook post in front of an audience outside the Guns For Sale community came from the gun control group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. It includes the hashtag #endfacebookgunshows.
Last week, Moms Demand Action, which was instrumental in getting a big corporation like Starbucks to alter its in-store firearm carry policy, kicked off a campaign asking Facebook and Instagram to immediately enact a policy prohibiting all sales and trades of firearms on their platforms.
A Facebook spokesperson responded by saying that the company is unable to facilitate gun sales because the site does not have an e-commerce engine, noting that the company already blocks gun ads on the platform.
Moms Demand Action founder Shannon Watts called this argument "misleading and disingenuous." She said Craigslist, another platform used for buying and trading, already prohibits gun sales, and specifically singles out "firearms/guns and components" in its list of content prohibited on Craigslist. Google has a similar policy for Google+, as does eBay.
Facebook's safety policies already prohibit unauthorized commercial communications and ban users from developing apps with content containing alcohol or other mature content without the proper age-gating.
Bobby Richards feels strongly that it would be a mistake for Facebook to ban gun postings, though.
"Facebook already has rules in place against the paid advertising of weapons. I think any further censorship would be unfortunate, and if Facebook were to resort to such heavy-handed measures it becomes a slippery slope."
Michael Hayes is a senior reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Mike Hayes at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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