Surfing to shoot

Federal law loophole and thousands of arms listings make it easy to buy guns online

Glocks on Craigslist? True story.

Somewhere in rural Southern California, a Craigslist user is offering a Hi-Point 9mm carbine, a kind of semi-automatic rifle, for "straight trade" in exchange for a quad or dirt bike. A post from Craigslist in San Mateo screams "i NEED AMMO" — in bulk, for various kinds of rifles. And across the state, Craigslist ads for Glocks, Berettas and other handguns commonly turn up in the mix, often instructing prospective buyers to respond by text message only.

Selling guns is explicitly prohibited on the world-famous website with the signature purple peace sign. Firearms, ammunition, and less-lethal weapons hover near the top of Craigslist's prohibited items roster — but a cursory search reveals dozens of firearms-related ads in various US cities. Meanwhile, the San Francisco-based classifieds forum is just one of thousands of websites where people who want to obtain guns can make discreet connections with private sellers.

Gun listings on the Internet make it extremely easy for people to buy firearms with the click of a mouse and no questions asked. But in many cases, this activity is perfectly legal, website terms-of-service notwithstanding.

Federally licensed firearms dealers are obligated by law to conduct background checks on all buyers, whether they're selling at a gun show or online. But that's not the case for unlicensed individuals who aren't officially in the business of dealing weapons. And these private transactions — which are increasingly initiated online — account for an estimated 40 percent of U.S. gun sales, according to estimates by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Under federal law, there's nothing barring an unlicensed individual from advertising a gun for sale online and then selling the weapon to a person living in the same state without the involvement of a licensed dealer. California law does go further to require the involvement of a licensed dealer in firearms sales, but the proliferation of Internet ads shows how difficult that is to regulate.

As long as the seller isn't knowingly selling to someone who's prohibited from gun ownership due to a violent criminal conviction or some other reason, federal law imposes no obligation to perform a background check for in-state transfers. This leniency, combined with the unprecedented availability of weapons online, is a focal point for legislative reform efforts.


The Guardian recently heard from a distraught Craigslist user from Illinois who'd launched a one-person crusade against a persistent string of gun ads posted in his hometown. "It's an anything goes, no-holds-barred, 24/7 gun show," he charged, adding that he'd flagged posts for AK-47s, AR-15s, high-capacity magazines, and other combat-style weapons listings for removal.

He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. "The gun crowd outnumbers other folks around here," he explained, and forwarded some profanity-laden responses he'd received after calling attention to the issue in an online forum and urging other community members to help him flag the posts.

Craigslist staff members were responsive to emails alerting them of the posts, he said, but the measures they took weren't always effective. Ads were removed a few days after being flagged, but many just cropped up again later. Online chatter suggests that sellers remain undeterred. "The liberal whiners flag the ads, then you just repost it," one user advised in an online message board.

In 2011, New York City authorities conducted an in-depth, undercover investigation of online gun sales. In 45 days, they discovered 1,792 unique Craigslist posts advertising guns in 49 states. In that time, just 584 — about 33 percent — were flagged for removal, investigators reported.