Gun sellers sneaking onto Facebook’s booming secondhand marketplace

An online gun bazaar is taking shape on Facebook Inc. ’s Marketplace, as recent mass shootings have renewed the debate in Washington over access to f

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An online gun bazaar is taking shape on Inc. ’s Marketplace, as recent mass shootings have renewed the debate in Washington over access to firearms.

launched its Marketplace feature four years ago, allowing its more than two billion users to buy and sell almost any secondhand item by clicking a button on their home page. The private sale of many items, including guns, is specifically forbidden by rules.

But sellers are getting around that with a simple trick: They list gun cases or boxes at inflated prices. Those postings have become code for the real thing, while in many instances evading Facebook efforts to screen postings for banned items. Sellers, via private messages, describe the more valuable content, the gun itself, with would-be buyers and hash out a deal.

Earlier this month, one seller in Lincolnton, NC, posted a photo on Marketplace of a hard, gray case with the title “Gun case,” asking $950. A similar case has a retail cost of $30. The seller, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal conducted over Facebook Messenger, said that he was really selling an AR-15 style semiautomatic rifle.

He shared a photo of the rifle, laid out on a bed alongside more than 670 rounds of ammunition, six magazines—and the case. Within two hours of posting the case on Marketplace, he said he received more than 30 inquiries, from as far away as Spartanburg, SC The seller said he found an interested buyer in Charlotte, NC, last week, but a meeting scheduled for the weekend fell through and he has yet to sell the firearm.

The disguised gun postings could raise fresh scrutiny over Facebook’s ability to police the growing e-commerce business. Founder Mark Zuckerberg has big ambitions for the service as Facebook’s primary ad revenues have begun to slow.

A spokeswoman for Facebook said the social-media giant takes immediate action against individuals caught selling guns on the Marketplace platform and removes violating content, but didn’t discuss specifics. She didn’t comment specifically on the gun-case tactic.

“Selling guns on Facebook is a clear violation of our policies,” the spokeswoman said, and “people buying and selling on Marketplace must comply with all local laws.” Facebook uses both humans and machine learning to screen content on Marketplace, according to the spokeswoman.

The spokeswoman said its enforcement of its policy “will never be perfect, but we are always looking for ways to improve our policies and enforcement.”

Ease of access to guns has come under renewed scrutiny by Democratic lawmakers in the wake of recent mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, that killed 31 people and injured dozens more. The Democratic-controlled House passed a bill earlier this year to require universal background checks, but it is unlikely to pass the Republican-controlled Senate. There is no indication that any of the people responsible for the recent mass shootings acquired their guns via Facebook.

While federal law doesn’t require background checks for private sales of firearms, many states do. Firearm sales across state borders are supposed to be funneled through federally licensed gun dealers, who must undergo background checks themselves, though prosecution for private, interstate gun sales are rare.

Individuals barred by federal and state restrictions from owning guns have long turned to the internet—exchanges, chat forums and social-media sites—to arrange one-on-one transactions, allowing them to avoid checks. Now, Facebook Marketplace has morphed into a more mainstream meeting place for buyers and sellers looking to make such deals.

“It’s another internet platform that allows prohibited people to acquire firearms with anonymity,” said David Chipman, senior policy adviser at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a gun-control group.

An analysis of the search term “gun case” earlier this month found dozens of overpriced cases on Marketplace, across 10 major cities in the U.S. The cases were priced in the range of $300 to $2,000 for products that normally retailed at $20 to $50. The analysis was conducted by Storyful, a social-media intelligence agency owned byNews Corp , which also owns The Wall Street Journal.

A search in Atlanta on Aug. 9, for instance, for “gun case” resulted in three matches within 100 miles. Facebook’s recommendations algorithm, which tracks what products people click on to suggest new ones they might like, channeled many more, from Georgia as well as Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky and Mississippi.

When conducting a search for “gun case” in Atlanta, 21 of the first 24 recommended products showing under Facebook’s “You May Also Like” section were overpriced gun cases. For St. Louis, 19 out of the first 24 products recommended by Facebook on the same day were overpriced cases.

A gun seller in Clyde, Texas, said in an interview with the Journal over Facebook Messenger that he had received 70 inquiries over one month for a Remington sniper rifle he wanted to sell. He said it had been viewed 2,000 times as of Aug. 14. The Pelican brand case it came in, which retails new at roughly $270, was listed on Facebook Marketplace for $4,500.

Buying guns online is hardly novel. One of the biggest online sites for buying firearms is Armslist.com, which displays gun listings from private sellers. In theory, arms sellers could use all sorts of online marketplaces for selling guns including eBay and Craigslist, though both sites also ban gun sales.

The Journal didn’t do an analysis of either of these two popular secondhand marketplaces, but cursory searches of both didn’t bring up similar postings of expensive gun cases.

A spokesman for eBay said that the practice of selling gun cases for inflated prices on its site, in the place of real firearms, “does not occur on eBay due to our enforcement efforts.”

A spokesman for Armslist.com said that the vast majority of its users visit the site for lawful activity. The spokesman said that Armslist requires all users to obey federal and local laws on firearm sales, and that it “frequently and prominently” provides contact information for the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives on its website, for users who spot illegal sales.

Craigslist didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Facebook Marketplace is a giant among online secondhand goods marketplaces, with one in three people in the US visiting the site each month, according to Facebook.

Facebook said in early 2016 that it would ban the private sale of guns on its broader social-media platform, after controversy over users selling weapons through its “Groups” feature. Licensed sellers, such as gun stores, were allowed to keep Facebook pages. Later that year, Facebook launched Marketplace, a section of the site where users could buy and sell secondhand goods in a manner similar to Craigslist.

Facebook apologized on launch day after users started posting guns and drugs on the site. The company said it would update its system to remove such postings.

Another seller in Toccoa, Ga., in mid-August described only an “Empty Lock Box,” priced at $20. A photo of the box showed the logo for SIG Sauer, a firearms manufacturer. In a private message exchange, the seller told the Journal he was selling a P220 semiautomatic pistol.

Facebook’s recommendation algorithm can also ensnarl shoppers who aren’t looking for guns. Rob Disner, a sound mixer in Atlanta, first noticed postings for empty boxes that cost hundreds of dollars earlier this year, when he was browsing for guitars.

“I probably saw dozens before asking, ‘Why is a plastic case $650?’” said Mr. Disner. As he started clicking on the boxes out of curiosity, more started to appear on his Marketplace feed. “Now I see gun cases all the time,” he said.

Mr. Disner flagged the posts over the course of several weeks to Facebook. He said about half of the postings he flagged were taken down.


Source: The Wall Street Journal

First Published: Wed, August 21 2019. 01:31 IST

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