A simple search on the increasingly popular photography app, which Facebook bought in April 2012 for $1 billion, reveals a web of semi-anonymous private and professional dealers who are advertising, negotiating, and selling firearms over Instagram.
Users of Instagram, which has no explicit policy prohibiting the sale of firearms, can easily find a chrome-plated antique Colt, a custom MK12-inspired AR-15 tricked-out with “all best of the best parts possible,” and an HK416D .22LR rifle by simply combining terms like #rifle or #ar15 with #forsale. These are handguns, shotguns, assault rifles, and everything in between being sold in an open, pseudo-anonymous online marketplace. With no federal law banning online sales and differing, loophole-ridden state laws, many gun control advocates are concerned about the public safety consequences of this unregulated market.
A typical gun-toting Instagram post goes something like this: “‘LWRC 10’ SBR FOR SALE!!! Come get it! Includes AAC suppressor tip, ergo grip, 3 magpul pmags, 2 40 round mags, bungee sling, and about 500 rounds of .556. Message me if interested."
The negotiation then unfolds in the comments.
"Great setup," a user says, indicating his or her interest. "Asking $3000 for everything," the seller replies. "I'm really trying to get a package deal. Don't need want to part it all out."
From there, the conversation leaves Instagram’s public-facing comments, and commences over more private channels, such as through email or a phone call, where background checks, license verifications, and age confirmations are left to the whims of the seller.
Not being a commerce site like, say, Craigslist, which has a policy prohibiting the sale of firearms, Instagram has no stated policy against gun sales. It isn’t in the business of monitoring every user-to-user conversation on its platform. Without demonstrating a clear intent to harm, or otherwise attracting the attention of the site’s community moderators, the posts are permitted to stay. Plus, while the laws around online gun sales are complicated, Instagram users trying to sell their guns really aren’t doing anything illegal.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ (ATF) authority doesn’t extend to the private sale of guns between private persons, which are largely permitted by law (as long as said persons aren’t making transactions on a regular basis). The ATF encourages the involved parties to finalize the sale through a licensed gun dealer who can run a background check, but whether or not this step is required depends on the state. While individuals are largely permitted to freely sell guns to other private citizens within their state, it is a crime to sell a firearm to any individual known to be prohibited from possessing such items (such as convicts, fugitives, and drug addicts). Federal law also prohibits so called “straw purchases,” when a buyer is purchasing the firearm from a federal firearms license holder for somebody else—as long as it isn’t a bona fide gift.
Even so, gun-control advocates—as well as some federal officials—are concerned by the possible consequences of private transactions not explicitly governed or prohibited by the law.
“We are definitely concerned about the public safety implications of unregulated online gun sales, primarily the ability of sellers to skirt background checks and trafficking in firearms—both legal and illegal guns—to prohibited persons,” says Sam Hoover, a staff attorney with the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing comprehensive legal expertise in support of gun violence prevention & smarter gun laws, who expressed an unfamiliarity with the specific firearms sales happening on Instagram.
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