Internet gun sales have become a new flash point in the gun control debate, raising concerns that the web’s anonymity and reach make it easier for criminals to avoid federal background checks and illegally buy firearms.
Ohio had more guns advertised on Armslist.com than any other state, according to a Dayton Daily News tally of the 104,424 guns for sale or trade on the popular classified ad website in late August.
That snapshot of guns available on the website found that nearly all of the 8,879 Ohio guns — 86 percent — were offered by private sellers. Under federal law, private sellers can sell guns anonymously with no background check involved unless the buyer is from another state.
“It truly is the wild, wild west and that is a concern,” Dayton Police Chief Richard Biehl said.
“I can tell you that from my perspective that any transaction of a firearm that is not subject to a background check is problematic and presents a risk to law enforcement and public safety.”
Opponents of stricter gun control measures say background checks for private online sales won’t deter criminals from getting guns and will inconvenience law-abiding citizens who want to buy and sell firearms.
“I have not seen a proposal for expanding background checks that made sense either for the citizen or the license-holding dealers,” said Evan English, a licensed gun dealer and president of Olde English Outfitters in Tipp City.
“Show me a way to do that without denying people their rights or completely invading their privacy and I will look at it with an open mind.”
The National Rifle Association, which opposes additional gun control measures, and Armslist.com founder Jon Gibbons did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.
Mental illness issue
The 1993 Brady Law requires background checks for all guns sold by the nation’s 138,186 federally licensed dealers, but in-state private sales do not require a background check in most states. People are prohibited from purchasing or possessing firearms for a variety of reasons, including having felony or domestic violence convictions, serious mental illness and restraining orders for harassing, stalking or threatening an intimate partner or child.
University of Dayton Law Professor Thaddeus Hoffmeister said some people have called for tightening the prohibitions, particularly for people with mental illness, which has figured in multiple mass shootings including the Sept. 16 Navy Yard tragedy in Washington.
In that case, gunman Aaron Alexis was able to pass a federal background check and buy the shotgun he used in the killings despite his apparent mental illness because the law only prohibits those who have been legally declared “mentally defective” or involuntarily committed to a mental institution.
Alexis, who bought the gun in person from a dealer on Sept. 14, did not meet that criteria even though he had filed a police report in August claiming to hear voices in his head.
John Irvine, chairman of the Buckeye Firearms Association, said there ought to be a better way to identify mental problems in the existing background check system, which currently doesn’t prohibit weapons purchases by someone who has voluntarily sought mental health treatment. But, said Irvine, illnesses such as schizophrenia do respond to medication, so it raises for him the question of “when should they get their guns back” and be able to defend themselves?
Irvine said it is possible that the internet makes it easier for criminals to buy guns, but he argues that criminals use all kinds of weapons to kill and wonders if the next law would require background checks for such things as knives.
“I think people overestimate the kind of damage that guns can do,” Irvine said. “So should we do all this stuff with knives? No, because the rapist wouldn’t follow the rule. But a knife cut is not as emotional as guns.”
John Thyne, owner of Peabody Sports in Warren County, said he would consider the idea of expanding background checks to internet sales if he thought it would do any good. But Thyne said it would be impossible for the government to police and he doubts people who are determined to get a gun would follow the rules.
“I don’t think it’s going to change one bit what they are after: They are after reducing gun violence,” said Thyne, a licensed gun dealer. “If you want to save lives, let’s go after the real cause. Number one, let’s focus on the real culprit in violent crime, which according to the federal statistics is repeat felons. So go after the repeat felons.”
Gun violence down
In 2011 there were 478,400 cases of criminal firearm violence, resulting in 11,101 homicides, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Firearms homicides have declined 39 percent since 1993 and overall criminal firearm violence is down 69 percent since then. Firearms criminal violence are cases in which a firearm is used to commit homicide, robbery, rape, sexual assault and aggravated and simple assault, according to federal data.
Gun show sales once dominated the debate about expanded background checks, and remain a concern for gun control advocates. But there has been phenomenal growth on the web, with more than 219,000 guns for sale or trade on a recent day on just two of the larger sites — Armslist.com and Gunbroker.com.
Two years ago, a New York City investigation of online sales found fewer than 14,000 active gun listings on Armslist.com.
“Because background checks aren’t required, it is an easy venue for dangerous people to get guns,” said Brian Malte, senior national policy director for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “The dangerously mentally ill, felons, those domestic violence abusers get guns and evade a background check. Cash and no questions.”
Gun control advocates acknowledge that expanding background checks won’t solve the problem of gun violence, just as other laws haven’t eliminated crime. But they say stronger gun laws would make it harder for criminals to find guns and deter impulse buys.
“It doesn’t mean there’s not going to be an illegal market in guns,” Biehl said. “It will continue to exist, but the question is how easy will we make it for people to acquire guns through an illegal market.”
There are multiple online gun sites and it is not always possible to determine how many weapons are being offered on the sites, which include traditional classified ads, auctions, brokers and retail store websites. Craigslist, Amazon and eBay — as well as this newspaper and its web sites — do not accept firearms ads.
Armslist.com is one of the larger sites offering free classified ads, with about 85 percent of those offering firearms for sale or trade coming from private parties, according to a Daily News analysis of the site. It appears that some of the ads could be duplicates.
This newspaper’s analysis of online sales at Armslist.com found:
- Ohio, which has the country’s seventh-largest population, ranks first in sheer numbers of guns for sale or trade.
- Ohio ranks sixth for the number of guns available on the site per 10,000 people. By that measure, it also stands out among similar-sized states. Slightly larger Pennsylvania ranks 34th and Illinois ranks 36th. Slightly smaller Georgia ranks 28th and Michigan ranks 26th.
- States with handgun background check laws for private sales also stood out. Seven of those states and the District of Columbia had the lowest number of guns for sale or trade per 10,000 people. Sixteen states and D.C. require background checks for all handgun sales.
Those interviewed say they are not sure why Ohio has so many guns for sale online, but speculate that it could reflects the state’s strong gun culture, multiple urban centers where handguns are popular and the impact of lingering economic troubles that may lead people to sell guns to pay bills.
Some buyers denied
In 2011, the city of New York — where Mayor Michael Bloomberg is a major gun control advocate — published the results of its investigation of online gun sales. The study found 62 percent of 125 online sellers agreed to sell a gun to an undercover investigator who indicated he could not pass a background check. Investigators completed purchases of four guns from those sellers.
In 1998, the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check began operating. Since then 174.6 million background checks have resulted in 1.04 million denials. About 1 million additional gun sales have been denied through state background checks, according to the Bureau of Criminal Justice Statistics.
“I think our opinion is that Ohio law works to keep firearms out of the hands of criminals and it would be up to the legislature to decide to change that or expand it or restrict it,” said Jonathan Fulkerson, deputy chief counsel for Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine. “I think the route to illegal guns comes from criminals transacting with other criminals and they’re not going to get caught up in the background system, generally.”
Federal gun laws are enforced by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Spokesman David Coulson said “it would be very challenging” to enforce background check requirements for private sales, including those that occur online.
“There really is no way to definitively know, first of all, how many of those sales are occurring, much less whether or not the sales are occurring to proper persons, those that are non-prohibited,” Coulson said. “We do what we can with the resources that we have.”
There are periodic calls in Congress for gun law reform, most recently in the wake of a string of mass shootings. Advocates have called for expanded background checks, more regulation of internet and gun show sales and reinstatement of the 1994 ban on semiautomatic assault weapons and large-capacity, ammunition-feeding devices. That ban expired in 2004.
Public opinion varies widely on some proposed gun law reforms, but multiple polls have shown the public is overwhelmingly in favor of expanding background checks. A Quinnipiac poll released in April found that 91 percent of voters support universal background checks, including 88 percent of voters in households with guns. An April Gallup Poll found 83 percent supported background checks for all gun purchases.
“It’s the rare 90 percent issue. But the political power has been entirely with the gun lobby, which has aligned itself with the gun industry,” said Mark Glaze, executive director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns. “Members of Congress cannot take marching orders from them and reject 90 percent of their constituents on a life-and-death issue for very long.”
The mayor’s group held rallies in multiple Ohio cities in August and 89 mayors signed an Aug. 20 letter to Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, urging him to reverse his opposition to expanded background checks.
“I think what is being promoted at these rallies in Ohio is more political than real,” Portman said.
Dayton Mayor Gary Leitzell and Springfield Mayor Warren Copeland signed the letter. Copeland said cities deal with the daily carnage of gun violence and he wants elected officials to act, particularly since background checks are one area of gun control where the public consensus is clear.
“Anytime you respond to people who are misusing something it’s going to inconvenience those who aren’t,” Copeland said. “I understand that’s an inconvenience, but I think it’s the price we pay for trying to reduce the number of people who are getting killed.”
Portman said he is against expanded background checks and argues for support of bills that would fight crime by addressing mental illness, drug addiction, gangs and stiffer penalties for serious felonies.
“We are not going to get at the crime on the streets of Dayton, Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland unless we deal with these underlying problems,” Portman said. “What will help is dealing with the violence in our culture generally.”
Portman was one of 46 U.S. senators who in April rejected expanding mandatory federal background checks to private sales made online and at gun shows. Sponsored by Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., it would have exempted private sales between family members, friends, co-workers and other individuals. Fifty-four senators — short of the 60 required for passage — voted for the amendment to a larger gun control bill that never came to a vote.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, supported the Toomey-Manchin amendment.
“The bipartisan legislation which the Senate recently considered would have provided a reasonable approach to expanding background checks for gun sales,” Brown said. “I’m disappointed that a minority of the Senate prevented action on this issue.”
Middletown Mayor Larry Mulligan Jr. and Sgt. M.D. Hutchison of the Montgomery County Sheriff’s office are not sure if expanding background checks to more private sales would make a difference.
“At some point individuals are going to have to respect and follow the law and police themselves,” Hutchison said.
Mulligan said the issue deserves more study.
“It’s a fine balance and there is certainly a segment that would argue, ‘Is the internet any different than selling it to your neighbor or to a person across town?’ ” Mulligan said.
Irvine sees expanded background checks as a slippery slope toward universal gun registration, and he said law-abiding citizens should not be subjected to the “extra inconvenience” of universal background checks for firearms purchases.
Toby Hoover, executive director of the Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence, said comments like that don’t take into consideration what the victims of gun violence and their families go through.
“I say it’s inconvenient to go have to pick out a casket. It’s really inconvenient to have to explain to a child or a parent that that person isn’t going to be around,” Hoover said. “It’s not inconvenient to have to do a background check.”