Expert Commentary

The online gun market: A legal analysis of impacts on gun control

A 2014 study published in the John Marshall Journal of Information Technology and Privacy Law looks at the loosely-regulated internet gun market and its impact on gun control.


A series of devastating mass shootings in 2015, along with recent federal action to enforce more stringent standards for background checks, has once again put the gun control debate in the public eye. In the wake of several high-profile mass shootings, on Jan. 5, 2016, President Obama announced a series of executive actions aimed at reducing gun violence, particularly cracking down on unregulated internet gun sales. In short, Obama has directed the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to require firearms sellers to get a license and conduct background checks, even if the seller operates over the internet or at gun shows—both arenas for thousands of unregulated transactions.

The perils of the vast, loosely regulated internet gun market are detailed in a study, “The Online Gun Marketplace and the Dangerous Loophole in the National Instant Background Check System,” published in the John Marshall Journal of Information Technology and Privacy Law in 2014.

Study author Ann Daniels, who earned her law degree at John Marshall Law School, outlines the legislation that makes up the modern framework of gun control in America, beginning with the Gun Control Act of 1968. The Act identifies categories of people prohibited from purchasing firearms under Section 22—convicted felons, the mentally ill, substance abusers, foreign nationals or people who had renounced American citizenship, and people who had been convicted of domestic violence or were under a restraining order. The Brady Act of 1993 was an amendment to the Gun Control Act and mandated background checks prior to any gun sale by a seller with a federal firearm license. The law only applied to what it defined as “dealers,” however, and did not regulate the activities of private or occasional sellers of firearms. Next, Daniels discusses the online gun marketplace and attempts by Congress at gun legislation reform, beginning in 1999, shortly after the advent of the internet. She concludes by addressing policy implications of gun control advocates and opponents.

Some key findings:

  • Internet classified websites have opened an avenue for the private and anonymous exchange of firearms and ammunition through advertisement posts. Armslist, an internet bulletin board where people can sell firearms, includes some 170,000 listings, 95 percent of which are from private sellers who do not need to comply with the federal background checks required of their federally licensed counterparts.
  • In the last few years, gun sellers have begun tapping into social media websites and smartphone applications to advertise their firearms. The popular photo-sharing application Instagram has become the newest platform for firearm advertisements.
  • The emergence of the online gun marketplace amplifies the “dangerous loopholes” in current federal gun laws. This includes amendments to Section 922 that would contain the following measures, some of which have already been considered under recent executive action:
    • Mandating universal background checks to include all non-licensed dealers.
    • Recognizing the online gun marketplace in the law and adding it to current federal legislation.
    • Including an effective enforcement mechanism through inclusion of a penalty section to federal legislation.
    • Using a “sunset clause” that would force Congress to reconsider laws before they expire and serve as a “democracy alarm clock.”

    The study concludes by stating that since the Gun Control Act and the Brady Act were passed, in 1968 and 1993 respectively, the gun market has changed dramatically with the advent of the internet. “The solution” to the trafficking of guns via the vast, unregulated online market, according to the study author, “is as simple as keeping laws up to date with the times.”

    Related research: A 2015 study, “The Effects of State and Federal Background Checks on State-Level Gun-Related Murder Rates,” used a large, longitudinal data set to determine whether firearm background checks are significantly correlated to gun-related murder rates and found that results were “novel and contrary” to those of much prior research on the subject. A June 2015 research roundup focuses on mass murder, shooting sprees and rampage violence.

    Keywords: mass shootings, unregulated online gun market, firearms legislation, gun control, Brady Act, Columbine, Virginia Tech, Newtown.

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