The December 2013 report In the Business Outside the Law by anti-gun group Mayors Against Illegal Guns (MAIG) is a fitting successor to its November 2011 predecessor, Point, Click, Fire: An Investigation of Illegal Online Gun Sales.
Both have a breathless quality, intended no doubt to provoke the reader to rise up immediately out of his or her chair to declare “this is out of control — something must be done!”
But neither report is long on balanced treatment of the world of Internet-based sales of guns. Both, through purposeful omission of substantive discussion of the Internet’s largest site for online gun sales, GunBroker.com, and through use of hand-picked and poorly explained statistics, cumulatively result in an extremely misleading picture for the reader.
First, the statistics. Both reports, the first on the subject of illegal online gun sales and the second focused on abuse of the system by private sellers (i.e. sellers without federal firearms licenses, or FFLs), use the statistic that “an estimated 40 percent of gun transfers – 6.6 million transfers in 2012 – are conducted by private sellers with no background check.”
Neither report provided a citation for this assertion, but it was possible to track it down to a 1997 report by the National Institute of Justice, entitled “Guns in America: National Survey on Private Ownership and Use of Firearms.”
This NIJ report relied wholly on Chilton Research Services’ 1994 survey of some 2,500 adults by means of telephone calls. The 40 percent figure appears to derive from the polling query: “Where did you get your gun?” The responses were: gun stores (43 percent), pawnshops (6), other stores (11), gun shows (4), through the mail (3), member of the family (17), friend or acquaintance (12), and other (4). Where to start? The 40 percent figure is obviously the result of adding together the three first figures, leaving the rest as the “private seller” number, representative of the “gun sale Wild West” as not being subject to background checks.
But should transfers among family members be included in a figure for suspect transfers? Clearly not, bringing us up to 77 percent non-suspect transfers. Then, what percentage of that 12 percent is truly “friends,” who would likely provide each other with firearms from time to time regardless of whether universal background checks were to be enacted?
“In the mail” is another oddity, as it may include many transfers through FFLs if the firearm were mailed originally from seller to the FFL for transfer. Finally, the omission of an “I don’t remember/not sure” would seem to make their entire result rather questionable, given norms of modern polling and the human memory.
A more honest rendering of this survey would seem to lead to a better answer of 4 percent (gun shows), plus 4 percent (1/3 of friend/acquaintance), plus 4 percent (other), for a grand total of 12 percent of transfers, conservatively estimated.
The next fuzzy statistic was in the 2013 report, where that 40 percent was reflected as “6.6 million transfers in 2012.” This number too is clearly not correct; the FBI reported that the NICS background check procedure, used by all FFLs, was used 19,592,303 times in 2012, an all-time record.
It would appear the writers of the report derived the 6.6 million from another uncited source, as another 40 percent on top of 19.6 million would yield a total transfer number of 32.6 million (or, for 40 percent of this, 13.4 million instead of 6.6 million).
Nonetheless, using a more realistic figure of 12 percent, we get a far lower number of 2.6 million transfers without background checks for 2012 – and this in a record-setting year. Thus, we see that the MAIG inflated their percentage of transfers without background checks at least by a factor of three, and their raw number of 6.6 million by another factor of three, all for attempted shock value.
Now, turning to the online marketplaces for guns, we see that MAIG spilled a lot of ink on Armslist.com and its ilk, as their investigations led to a conclusion that “private sellers” (non- FFL holders) are routinely exceeding the bounds of the law on that and many smaller Web sites, by selling a variety of firearms on a continuous basis without a dealer license.
First, it must be said that law-abiding firearms owners and dealers have always supported more brisk enforcement of the existing laws regarding licensure of true firearms dealers, regardless of the media involved. But beyond that, the portrait drawn by MAIG in their two reports of the online market for firearms is broadly misleading due to a misplaced emphasis, and indeed due to omission of certain key facts.
The 2013 MAIG report portrays the online market for firearms as basically a lawless zone, stating that “in January 2001 … the Justice Department estimated that 80 firearms auction sites and around 4,000 other sites featured guns for sale. In the dozen years since, the number of such sites has grown immeasurably.”
If the 2013 report were a securities disclosure document, its writer could be indicted for misleading the public. A more accurate portrayal would state that since its inception as “first mover” after eBay’s exit in 1999, GunBroker.com established itself as the Internet’s dominant gun sales and auction site, having by its own estimates over 75 percent of the market for online firearms auctions and third party sales in 2014.
GunBroker.com usually has at any given time over 660,000 unique items for sale or auction, while GunBroker’s own surveys of Armslist.com and its other competitors have disclosed that, like the classified ads found in newspapers 15 years ago, many listed items have already been sold, rendering meaningless the statistics in the 2013 report and elsewhere regarding number of firearms being sold on these sites.
Perhaps the dominance of GunBroker.com would not be meaningful in the context of the 2013 reports but for the key characteristics of the site: GunBroker.com not only requires procedures in excess of the requirements of law for transactions on its site, it applies industry-leading identity verification as an anti-fraud measure for all its users, and has established an online “culture of compliance.”
Unlike its major competitors (as well as the various upstart sites, which come and go on the Internet), GunBroker.com requires universal background checks for any firearms transaction among its users, even where not required by applicable federal law as intrastate transfers among non-dealers.
Of course, this would have been the result of the bill passed by the U.S. Senate in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy if it had become law – do the writers at MAIG not know that this rule is already in effect on the “go-to” site for firearms sales and auctions in America?
It is also notable that these rules are not only enforced by technical measures on the site designed to detect non-compliance, but given that over 80 percent of sellers on GunBroker.com are FFL holders, interested in strict compliance with the law, the odd would-be rule-breaker is commonly reported and terminated as a user on GunBroker.com.
All told, the two reports of the MAIG provided a very misleading picture of the state of the online marketplace for firearms. There will always be fly-by-night lawbreakers, but in point of fact, the majority of buyers and sellers in this thriving marketplace are not only complying with U.S. law, but complying with rules in excess of the requirements of U.S. law.
While lawful supporters of the Second Amendment have no objection to appropriate prosecution of lawbreakers on online marketplaces and elsewhere, it is far from clear that the Internet gun marketplace represents the menace portrayed by MAIG and others.