Just How Easy Is It To Buy Firearms Online?

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A few weeks before the high-school shootings in Littleton, Colorado, Senator Charles Schumer (D-New York) and a colleague in the House introduced a bill to regulate the sale of firearms over the Net. “There are two glaring loopholes that allow kids and criminals to get guns–and those are gun shows and the Internet,” he said. “If you are 14 years old and you want to buy a gun directly through the Internet, right now, no one is going to know your age.” If passed, Schumer’s bill, known as the Internet Gun Trafficking Act of 1999, would require that every Web site dedicated to gun sales be run by a federally licensed firearms dealer.

But just how big a loophole is the Net, really? How quickly could, say, a kid with a few bucks buy guns online? Could he just skip the waiting periods and background checks? Some news reports claim it’s as easy to buy a gun online as it is to order a book from

In search of an answer, I hit the Net for a week straight trying to get a gun. This is what I discovered.

Finding guns online was about as hard as finding PAC money in Washington. In less than 10 seconds, a Web search hit the bull’s-eye on hundreds of sites, offering thousands of firearms, from pistols to M-16s.

I focused on six areas where anyone could find available guns quickly and with little Net experience: online gun stores, gun auctions, gun classifieds, general classifieds, foreign sites, and newsgroups (some of these overlap).

The online gun stores and gun auction sites were responsibly tough, applying an honor system (there’s no one to regulate them, remember) of strict rules to anyone selling guns on their services. One typical site, which billed itself as a place where “law-abiding sellers and buyers of firearms …can get together…in an auction house setting,” compels you to agree as part of the registration process that “under no circumstances shall transfers of firearms be conducted without the use of a valid FFL holder.”

This is a key point. FFL stands for “federal firearms license,” and essentially refers to gun-store owners and others legally qualified to dispense weapons. According to federal law, if you’re buying a gun from a private individual, or a store, in another state, the seller has to send it first to an FFL holder in your state, who will run a check on you before you’re allowed to pick up the item.

Did the sellers I tested live up to this honor system? Yes. The stores I tried and the individuals I contacted never wavered from compliance with the law.

Indeed, when I attempted to find a shortcut, I was thwarted at every turn. A foreign site refused to ship without an import license. I e-mailed 50 individuals who were hawking guns through newsgroups, explaining in my most responsible-citizen prose how I needed their particular gun pronto for my son-in-law’s birthday. Not one responded.

Even the gun-oriented classified ads on the sites I visited failed to turn up anybody willing to ship a gun straight to me. That’s the good news.

The bad news, though, is that there are other loopholes big enough to push a machine gun through. If you sell a gun, or buy one from a private seller, in your own state, you don’t necessarily have to go through an FFL middleman–or anyone else, for that matter. It can usually go straight to you, no questions asked.

Checking an online local classified-ad service in my state (Alabama), I found a handy list of more than 40 guns for sale by private owners. I called five sellers, and all of them were eager to unload their hardware, even though they had no way (nor any legal obligation) to find out whether I might belong to one of the groups forbidden to own a firearm, such as fugitives, drug users, and those under a restraining order of any sort. They wouldn’t necessarily know if I was 14 or 40, either.

I settled for something a teen might go for: a nice semiautomatic rifle, for the minimum wage-friendly price of $125, in cash. But the seller didn’t send it to me. As a courtesy, he insisted on driving it 100 miles to my door.

What does my little exercise prove? That Schumer and other Net alarmists are probably firing at the wrong target. Yes, you can get a gun online, but it ain’t easy. Before we go blasting away at the Internet, we might want to take our finger off the trigger and think a bit harder about where our troubles really do come from: our own backyards.