“Hiding in Plain Sight,” a first-of-its-kind investigation in Vermont by Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, reveals that criminals are flocking to the state’s vast online gun marketplace to evade background checks and arm themselves. Everytown’s investigation into three top websites for gun commerce – including Armslist.com, the self-described Craigslist for guns – found that the percentage of prospective gun buyers who are prohibited from possessing guns is six times higher online than the percentage at Vermont licensed gun dealers (4.1 percent, compared to 0.69 percent).
The investigation identified convicted drug traffickers and domestic abusers who would be denied guns if they attempted to buy them at licensed gun dealers, but instead turned to unlicensed sellers advertising guns for sale online, without background checks required. In total, the investigation found that more than 3,000 guns are sold or traded on these websites each year in Vermont, and an estimated 126 guns a year are transferred to criminals. This means that an unlicensed seller has a 1 in 24 chance of selling his or her gun to a criminal online.
Since 1998, federal law has required licensed gun dealers to conduct a background check for every firearm purchase. Dealers screen would-be buyers against the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), which blocks gun sales to dangerous people who are prohibited from possessing firearms under federal law – including felons, domestic abusers, and the dangerously mentally ill. But guns offered in unlicensed sales or trades – which account for the majority of transactions in Vermont’s vast online marketplace for firearms – do not require background checks. This gives criminals an open door to evade the public safety measures designed to keep guns out of dangerous hands.
“This report should be a wake-up call for Vermont,” said Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger. “We have a background check problem. It is not consistent with Vermont’s tradition of responsible gun ownership to allow felons, drug traffickers, and domestic abusers to obtain firearms with no questions asked. Criminal background checks on all gun purchases will help make Burlington and our neighbors around Vermont and outside our state safer.”
“This research demonstrates that felons and domestic abusers are aware that a background check will stop them from buying a gun, so they’re going online where background checks are easily sidestepped,” said Montpelier Mayor John Hollar. “Over the last two decades, more than half of Vermont homicides were a result of domestic violence. If we want to keep domestic abusers in our state from arming themselves, we need to make sure criminal background checks are completed on all gun sales.”
ONLINE GUN SALES: THE BASICS
In Vermont, numerous websites each host hundreds of gun ads posted by unlicensed sellers and provide a forum for strangers to connect and arrange offline gun transfers, just like Craigslist does for furniture sales and concert tickets. Would-be buyers and sellers can post ads to these websites offering guns “for sale” or to announce their interest in obtaining a firearm with a “want-to-buy” ad. When a person seeking a gun identifies a seller – or a person selling a gun identifies a buyer – the two typically negotiate the transfer and arrange to meet offline to complete the transaction. More details on the process for online gun sales are available here.
The process makes it easy for guns to reach the hands of dangerous people. For example, in September a 32 year-old male responded to an ad for a Glock 30 semiautomatic handgun. The man had been in trouble with the law more than a dozen times between 1999 and 2013, and as a convicted domestic abuser and fugitive from justice, he is prohibited from possessing firearms. Shopping on Armslist on September 19, he texted investigators: “Hello, my name is __and I am interested in the Glock that you have for sale if it is still available.”
METHODOLOGY: “HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT” DATA COLLECTION
Researchers identified three websites catering to Vermont residents where self-described unlicensed sellers post ads seeking or offering firearms. Once each day from June 12 to October 22, 2014, investigators ‘scraped’ (a software technique for extracting online data) all firearm ads posted by self-described “private sellers.” Scraped ads were manually reviewed and those with duplicated title or body text, and ads that featured ammunition, accessories, or other goods – but did not include a firearm – were removed. More details on data collection are available here.
To sample the population of would-be gun buyers, investigators also posted ads offering firearms for sale on Armslist.com. Between July 28 and October 9, investigators posted 24 ads. Using the name, phone number, and/or email address provided by respondents to the ads, and comparing it to reverse lookup phone data and other sources, investigators identified 169 unique Vermont residents seeking guns online in unlicensed sales. Investigators then conducted criminal record checks on each individual by searching court records in the geographic area where the individual was known to have a current or past address.
• In total, investigators scraped 1,106 ads featuring firearms for sale over the 132-day period. At that rate, unlicensed sellers in Vermont would post 3,058 firearm ads to just these three websites each year.
• Of the gun buyers seeking guns in this market that were identified by investigators, more than four percent (7 of 169) had been convicted of crimes that prohibited them from possessing firearms. This rate is six times higher than the rate at which prohibited gun buyers attempt to buy guns from licensed gun dealers in Vermont (0.69 percent).
• At this prevalence, gun sales transacted on just three websites will put an estimated 126 guns into the hands of felons and domestic abusers in Vermont this year alone.
HOW VERMONT’S ONLINE GUN SALES AND DRUG TRADE ARE CONNECTED
As Vermont Public Radio has reported, “Vermont’s loose gun laws and a high demand for drugs make a lucrative market for drug dealers who accept guns in return for the drugs they sell.” In fact, just weeks ago, convicted opiate drug dealer Christopher Pappano was arrested at his home in Milton, where police found a .45 caliber pistol. As a convicted felon, Pappano is prohibited under federal law from purchasing or possessing firearms.
The investigation’s findings – combined with previous research that showed the share of background check denials for unlawful drug use tripled between 2008 and 2013 – paint a disturbing picture of how the lucrative market for guns and drugs is fueled. At licensed gun dealers, the background check system is effectively blocking gun sales to convicted drug traffickers, but as “Hiding in Plain Sight” demonstrates, an immense unregulated market for guns is just a mouse-click away.