anonymity of the
Internet makes it an
ideal means for
to obtain illegal
firearms,' according to
The American Spark
Internet Firearm Purchases Lack Legal Oversight, Says GAO
By Cliff Montgomery - Dec. 31st, 2017
“The relative anonymity of the Internet makes it an ideal means for prohibited individuals to obtain illegal
firearms,” according to an eye-opening study released last month by the U.S. Government Accountability
That‘s because “the current federal legal framework governing [the] buying and selling of firearms does not
specifically address the use of the Internet to facilitate these transactions,” added the Office report.
The study further revealed that GAO agents ran a covert operation, in which they posed as prohibited
individuals who were attempting to buy firearms from Internet marketplaces.
The agents’ findings exposed dangerous problems with America’s current legal guidelines for Internet firearm
Below, the Spark quotes the ‘Highlights’ of the GAO study:
Why GAO Did This Study
“The current federal legal framework governing [the] buying and selling of firearms does not specifically
address the use of the Internet to facilitate these transactions.
“Additionally, private transactions involving the most-common types of firearms between individuals who are
not licensed to commercially sell weapons and who are residents of the same state, including transactions
facilitated by the Internet, are generally not subject to federal background-check requirements.
“Congressional requesters asked that GAO assess the extent to which ATF is enforcing existing laws and
investigate whether online private sellers sell firearms to people who are not allowed or eligible to possess a
“This report describes (1) techniques ATF uses to investigate and enforce generally applicable firearm laws in
instances where the firearm or firearm-component transaction is facilitated by the Internet and (2) results of
GAO’s undercover attempts to buy firearms on the Dark Web and Surface Web.
“GAO analyzed documents and interviewed officials to identify actions ATF has taken to prohibit illegal firearm
“GAO also attempted to purchase firearms from Dark Web and Surface Web marketplaces. The results of
the testing are illustrative and non-generalizable.
What GAO Found
“The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is responsible for investigating criminal and
regulatory violations of firearms statutes and regulations that govern firearms transactions, including sales
that are facilitated by the Internet.
“Two components of the Internet may be used to facilitate Internet firearm sales: the Surface Web and the
“The Surface Web is searchable with standard web search engines.
“The Dark Web contains content that has been intentionally concealed and requires specific computer
software to gain access.
“ATF created the Internet Investigations Center (Center) to investigate buyers and sellers who use the
Internet to facilitate illegal firearms transactions. The Center uses several tools to provide investigative
support to ATF, which has resulted in the arrests of individuals using the Internet to facilitate illegal firearm
“ATF officials with the Center also [have] noted that investigations might involve both the Surface Web and
the Dark Web. For example, to identify an anonymous user on the Dark Web, the Center works to establish a
user’s ‘digital footprint’ on the Surface Web.
“In 2016, the Center also issued a report about Internet firearm transactions. This and other ATF reports
highlighted the following about Internet-facilitated firearm transactions:
- The relative anonymity of the Internet makes it an ideal means for prohibited individuals to obtain illegal
- The more anonymity employed by a firearms purchaser, the greater the likelihood that the transaction
violates federal law.
- Firearm transactions that occur on the Dark Web are more likely to be completed in person or via the
mail or common carrier, versus through a Federal Firearm Licensee.
“GAO agents attempted to purchase firearms from Dark Web and Surface Web marketplaces.
“Agents made seven attempts to purchase firearms on the Dark Web. In these attempts, agents did not
disclose any information about whether they were prohibited from possessing a firearm. Of these seven
attempts, two on a Dark Web marketplace were successful. Specifically, GAO agents purchased and received
an AR-15 rifle and an Uzi that the seller said was modified so that it would fire automatically.
“GAO provided referral letters to applicable law-enforcement agencies for these purchases to inform any
ongoing investigations. [...]
[However,] covert attempts to illegally purchase firearms on the Surface Web were unsuccessful. [...] Tests
performed on the Surface Web demonstrated that private sellers GAO contacted on gun forums and other
classified ads were unwilling to sell a firearm to an individual who appeared to be prohibited from possessing
“Of the 72 attempts agents made to purchase firearms on the Surface Web, 56 sellers refused to complete
a transaction: 29 sellers stated they would not ship a firearm and 27 refused after the disclosure of the
undercover identities’ stated prohibited status.
“Furthermore, in 5 of these 72 attempts, the accounts GAO set up were frozen by the websites, which
prevented the agents from using the forums and attempting to make a purchase.”
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