“Online and Off the Record,” a first-of-its-kind, Washington-specific investigation by Everytown for Gun Safety, reveals that criminals in Washington are flocking to the vast online gun marketplace to evade background checks and arm themselves. Everytown’s investigation of five major Washington classified websites—including Armslist.com, the self-described Craigslist for guns— found that of the identified individuals seeking guns in unlicensed online sales in Washington, nearly one in ten (8 of 81) had been convicted of crimes that prohibited them from possessing firearms. The investigation also found that 44,000 guns are posted for sale online each year, and more than 4,000 guns will be transferred to prohibited people via these websites alone. County-specific data is available here.
Everytown’s findings come in the final weeks of the Yes on 594 Campaign, Washington State’s background check ballot initiative that would close the loophole in Washington law that allows dangerous people to get guns. If implemented, I-594 would close the online loophole and help prevent prohibited purchasers from buying guns in the online market.
“As Mayor of Tacoma, the safety and well-being of the people I represent is my highest priority—and today’s findings only reinforce that we must do more to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people,” said Mayor Marilyn Strickland of Tacoma. “It’s unconscionable that a convicted felon, a domestic abuser, or anyone else who is legally prohibited from buying guns can go online and get a gun with no background check, no questions asked. Passing I-594 is essential to making our communities safer because it will close this online loophole and help keep guns out of dangerous hands.”
“Today’s findings are troubling—and not just because they show how easy it is for criminals to buy guns without a background check, but because these online sales leave no records behind, making it much harder for law enforcement to catch criminals,” said David Chipman, former ATF Special Agent. “Initiative 594 is an effective, efficient background check measure that would block criminals and help law enforcement track down the origin of firearms used in crime—which in turn would help law enforcement do their jobs and keep communities safer—and without burdening law-abiding citizens.”
“In Washington State, 44,000 ads for guns are posted online by unlicensed sellers each year, and one out of ten of the people seeking to buy them is prohibited from owning guns. This is a vast and dangerous marketplace that allows convicted felons, domestic abusers and the dangerously mentally ill to get their hands on guns, no questions asked,” said Brina Milikowsky, Chief Strategy Officer at Everytown for Gun Safety. “We know that background checks are the single most effective way to reduce crime and help save lives—and I-594 will implement common-sense safeguards that will close the online sales loophole and help keep guns out of the hands of those dangerous people.”
“This investigation highlights something we’ve known for a long time—that the online market for guns leaves a gaping loophole for criminals and other dangerous people to buy a gun without a background check,” said Zach Silk, Campaign Manager for Initiative 594 in Washington State. “Our broad coalition is made up of faith leaders, law enforcement officers, prosecutors, survivors and responsible gun owners from all walks of life and every corner of the state. We have come together to pass Initiative 594, a comprehensive background check initiative, because we know it will close this online sales loophole and help prevent crime and save lives.”
ONLINE GUN SALES: THE BASICS
The online market for guns is vast and growing. Nationally, dozens of websites — like Armslist.com, the self-described Craigslist for guns — each host tens of thousands of ads for unlicensed gun sales 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. Because federal law does not permit unlicensed sales across state lines, most websites serve a defined geographic area (“Washington Gun Trader”) or allow users to search for ads by state. 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.
METHODOLOGY: “ONLINE AND OFF THE RECORD” DATA COLLECTION
For this investigation, Everytown identified five websites catering to Washington residents where self-described unlicensed sellers post ads seeking or offering firearms. The websites range in size, with anywhere from hundreds to tens of thousands of firearms listed at any given time. Once each day from February 25 to July 12, 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 that featured ammunition, accessories, or other goods—but did not include a firearm—were removed. More details on data collection are available here.
In total, investigators scraped 16,739 ads featuring firearms for sale over the 138-day period. At that rate, unlicensed sellers in Washington would post 44,273 firearm ads to just these five websites each year. Geographic information that unlicensed sellers provide in the firearm ads indicates where guns are being bought and sold in Washington. Ad-posters usually include a city or county where they would like to conduct the exchange. Of the 16,739 firearm ads identified, 14,610 (87 percent) included geographic information that could be matched to one of Washington’s 39 counties.
Twenty-six percent of the firearm ads posted by unlicensed sellers were listed in King County, Washington’s most populous county. But controlling for population, a cluster of counties in the west of the state posted the largest number. Clark County had the highest prevalence of for-sale firearm ads listed by unlicensed sellers (518 per 100,000 residents), followed by Thurston County (423) and Pierce County (376). For detailed information and county-specific results, visit the interactive “Online and Off the Record” investigation here.
Research shows that background checks like those proposed in Initiative 594 prevent crime and help save lives. In states with background checks on all handgun sales, there are 39 percent fewer law enforcement officers murdered with handguns in the line of duty, 38 percent fewer women shot to death by their intimate partners and 48 percent less gun trafficking.