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Facebook and Instagram Crack Down On Illegal Online Gun Sales

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Guns that were purchased by undercover police officers are displayed during a news conference in New York on Dec. 7, 2010. Seth Wenig / AP file

Facebook does not “Like” illegal gun sales.

On Wednesday, the company announced that it was taking steps to curb illegal firearm sales, including taking down posts that offer to sell guns without background checks.

Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, also made a commitment to crack down on illegal sales.

“Responsible social media sites know that it is in no one’s interest for their sites to become a 21st-century black market in dangerous and illegal goods that place our families and communities at risk,” New York State Attorney General General Eric T. Schneiderman said at a press conference on Wednesday.

Is This Really A Problem?

One thing is for sure: People are using Facebook and Instagram to find customers for licit gun purchases, which was legal before the announcement, and is still legal now. The Facebook group “Guns for Sale” offers exactly what it advertises. It currently has more than 213,000 “Likes,” with people selling everything from revolvers to semi-automatic rifles. There are plenty of other national and local groups as well, such as Guns for Sale in SC and Ohio Guns & Ammo (Buy-Sell-Trade).

Recently, however, concerns over illegal sales were raised after technology website VentureBeat published an article about a 15-year-old student in Kentucky who allegedly met a gun buyer through Facebook, bought a gun from across state lines and then brought it to school, according to the story.

Guns For Sale Facebook Group
Facebook

On Instagram, a search for hashtags like “guns4sale” will bring up photos of guns with contact information.

It’s not clear how many illegal sales are happening on either site, especially since the sales happen offline, with people using Facebook and Instagram simply as a tool to connect, and not to actually make purchases.

“You can’t get an accurate count, because illegal sales happen without background checks,” John Feinblatt, chairman of the gun-control advocacy group Mayors Against Illegal Guns, told NBC News. Still, he said, the popularity of the Internet has helped create a new “illegal marketplace” for guns.

“Buyers who want to break the law and sellers who want to avoid the law are drawn to it like moths to a flame,” he said.

What Has Changed?

Facebook has always banned the sale of contraband items, from drugs to illegal weapons. The difference now is that posts from users offering to sell otherwise legal guns will be taken down if they suggest that the firearms will be sold across state lines without a licensed dealer or to someone without a background check. Posts will only be taken down if they are flagged by concerned users.

Members the group Moms Demand Action, which is in favor of tighter gun controls, will be among those looking for inappropriate content, Feinblatt said. Still, many of the smaller, local Facebook communities where guns are sold are “Closed Groups” that only admit approved members, meaning that outsiders won’t be able to keep an eye on the merchandise.

Groups in which guns are posted for sale, Facebook spokesperson Matt Steinfeld told NBC News, will have to post information about what is and isn’t legal in their “About” section. Facebook users who are under 18 years old will be prevented from seeing any gun sales posted by individuals or groups.

On Instagram, a pop-up warning will appear whenever someone searches for hashtags known to be used for gun sales, much like what already happens when people search for "self-harm" hashtags, Steinfeld said.

What Is The Reaction?

Gun control groups and many Democratic politicians, such as Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., praised the move. The NRA, however, opposed it.

"The NRA enjoys 150 times more support on Facebook than Michael Bloomberg's Mayors Against Illegal Guns," Chris Cox, executive director of the NRA-ILA, said in a statement. "That's why Bloomberg and the gun control groups he funds tried to pressure Facebook into shutting down discussion of Second Amendment issues on its social media platforms."

On Facebook, many of the groups that provide a place for people to buy and sell guns expressed support for the move, including Guns For Sale.

Bob Crisman, 38, of Longview, Wash., claimed that he was already weeding out shady gun sellers as an administrator for a gun group in Washington State. He told NBC News that he even warned other Facebook groups when he heard of a man, claiming to be looking for a gift for his son, who was asking to buy a gun without a background check.

He claims that he has never seen an illegal sale online and always requires a written bill of sale with every gun he sells or trades.

While he is wary of more regulations impacting gun owners' Second Amendment rights, he said, he found nothing wrong with Facebook requiring what he was doing anyway.

"We don't need to, by law, do what we do with private arms sales" Crisman said, "but we do it because it’s the right thing to do."