Should We Be Policing The Internet For Content About Guns?

Now that Google and Facebook are finally admitting what we always knew, namely, that they sell personal user information to any quick-buck scam artist selling on the web, just about every organization which uses those sites for communicating with their membership is jumping on the bandwagon to make sure that nothing offensive, illegal or immoral is allowed to move through the cloud.

armed citizen            The latest effort in this respect by Gun-control Nation was a decision last week by a Federal judge to suspend the go-ahead received from the State Department by Cody Wilson to upload the plans of his 3D gun (which doesn’t work, btw) and issue an injunction preventing any website from hosting the plans.

The internet has always been a sore spot for Gun-control Nation ever since Bloomberg’s gun-control group first began talking about how easy it was for criminals, nut jobs and other bad guys to buy guns over the web. The fact that the same ads for private gun transfers on the internet can be found in the classifieds of just about every weekly shopper published throughout the United States is never mentioned by Bloomberg because those weekly shopping publications don’t circulate in New York. But because of pressure by Bloomberg and others, websites like Amazon, Craigslist, eBay and other online shopping sites began to police and remove advertisements for guns.  Okay, fair enough.

The problem with going beyond gun advertisements per se and trying to eliminate gun-related content, as opposed to selling an actual gun, is that the ox could be gored both ways. Let me give you an example which I happen to know very well.

I currently sell a book on Amazon entitled The Myth of the Armed Citizen. The book discusses in detail the argument about whether guns are a risk as opposed to protecting us from violence and crime. I come down very clearly on the former; i.e., gun ownership is definitely less of a benefit and more of a risk.  How much of a risk remains to be understood, but this book in no way promotes concealed or open carry of guns. And believe me when I say that I have received God knows how many nasty emails from members of Gun-nut Nation who accuse me of actually promoting violence because I believe that people shouldn’t be able to defend themselves with guns.

Now what would happen if a whole bunch of pro-gun folks would send a message to Facebook telling them that my book promotes violence and should be removed? How would this be any different from Gun-control Nation spamming Google or Facebook and telling them that they have found various pro-gun content that should be taken down? Here’s the official statement from YouTube on what they allow and don’t allow in search terms: “we want to help you get to the information you are looking for as quickly as possible, but we also want to be careful not to show potentially upsetting content when you haven’t asked for it. For these features, we have developed policies to exclude things like porn, hate speech or violence from appearing.”

And who is to say whose definition of ‘violence’ we are going to accept? I happen to share many of the goals and objectives of Gun-control Nation and have promoted those goals and objectives in  the daily columns that I write. I also happen to be the co-founder of a national, gun buyback organization which connects buybacks to medical centers so that medical residents can get first-hand exposure to discussions with community residents about their guns. So I don’t need to justify my views about guns or gun violence to anyone at all.

Be that as it may, I’m still not persuaded that anyone should have veto power over any content that I or anyone else puts out online. I’m sorry, but I’m somewhat of an old-fashioned guy, and I want to decide for myself whether something I am reading is hurtful, or wrong, or even worse.

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Can You Still Buy A Gun On Facebook? Yup, You Sure Can.

            Matt Drange has just published an article that should be required reading for everyone in GVP.  Because basically what Matt did was the follow up on Facebook’s decision to ban private gun sales from the perspective of wanting to see whether, in effect, the ban has made any difference at all.  And while it is virtually impossible to quantify how many Facebook pages were devoted to gun sales either pre or post the January ban, it is clear that many of the Facebook sellers have managed to continue selling internet guns either explicitly on Facebook or through other, somewhat disguised means.

 ar           I happen to be a member of a private Facebook gun group which I joined not because I wanted to buy or sell guns, but as one of many resources I use to check the ups and downs of the gun market as a whole.  I never felt all that comfortable using the monthly FBI-NICS numbers as a guide to overall gun sales, in particular because NICS obviously doesn’t catch many private transactions, plus the 4473 NICS form doesn’t distinguish between the sale of new and used guns.  But I find that a much more sensitive barometer for the ebb and flow of gun commerce (true of all commerce) is price, so when the selling price of AR-15 rifles dropped by more than 30% between 2013 and 2015 I knew that the tactical gun craze had come to an end.

            What Drange discovered by joining more than two dozen Facebook gun groups was that most of the groups are still doing business as usual simply by making it more difficult for Facebook viewers who aren’t members of the particular group to identify the group’s page.  And the easiest way to do this is to change the page’s name so that a search for pages using terms like ‘guns’ or ‘AR’ or something else relevant to Gun Nation won’t come up.  The administrator of my group simply took the name, replaced every other letter with a symbol and that was the end of that.

            The truth is that the only way internet gun sales can be effectively ended is by making it illegal to sell guns on the net.  But that creates a whole bunch of other issues because most internet gun sales are conducted on legitimate, online websites like Bud’s Gun Shop or Impact Guns, which ship to licensed dealers and do not offer space for private sales.  And even the notorious Armslist which encourages listings by private sellers, is actually utilized more by licensed-dealers who want to avoid the hassle of administering their own site. I can’t imagine any piece of legislation could be crafted that would satisfy all the different issues raised by pro-gun and anti-gun groups.

            But the bigger problem is the degree to which any legislation restricting legal commerce in guns will be effective given the fact that just about everyone in America can legally own a gun.  In that respect, a new study has just been published which evaluates the degree to which state-level laws impact levels of gun violence (homicide and suicide) and the resulting conclusions are somewhat confusing, to say the least.  On the one hand, there appears to be an association between lower gun violence rates and universal background checks both on guns and ammunition sales, but the state laws which appear to have the greatest impact on reducing gun violence are laws requiring ballistic fingerprinting or microstamping, otherwise known as firearms identification. 

            There’s only one little problem. The two states where firearm identification reduced gun violence rates, Florida and Alaska, have no firearm identification laws at all.  Which makes me wonder about any attempt to use regression analysis between laws and behavioral outcomes unless the law in question regulates the behavior itself.  And since the behavior that leads to gun violence is basically the ownership of guns, what difference will gun laws really make?

Is There An Internet ‘Loophole’ For Gun Sales?

Now that the President has moved the issue of an internet ‘loophole’ for gun sales onto the front burner, perhaps it’s time to really figure out what and whether such a loophole actually exists.  As of this morning we have, as usual, John Lott talking for Gun Nation and telling us there is no loophole; on the other hand, The Trace claims there is an internet ‘loophole’ if you live in one of the 32 states that does not regulate private sales. But in fact, of the 18 states that require background checks for private gun transfers, only 8 states mandate background checks for every type of gun; the other 10 states allow for unregulated transfers of long guns which, the last time I pulled out one of my Colt H-BARs, looks like a pretty lethal weapon to me.

bomber              Actually, the ability to use the internet for legal, in-state gun transactions is more an issue of the extent to which the internet and websites like Armslist allow sellers to reach a much wider potential audience than would be the case if we were back in the pre-digital age when selling any personally-owned item was usually done by running a print ad in the local classified news. My state happens to regulate private sales, but there are no private sale regulations in four of the six contiguous states that border the state in which I live.

The reason that I would check the listings in these other states is that if I drive to one of those states and buy a gun from a private seller, I give him the money, he gives me the gun, I drive back home and that’s the end of that. And that’s the end of that because those states do not regulate private gun transfers which, in the case of long guns, happens to be true in more than 40 states. Will the seller of an out-of-state gun ask me to prove that I am also a resident of his state?  He might, but then again he might not.  Remember, if he lives in a state that doesn’t regulate private sales, he’s not breaking any law by selling me that gun.  And since he’s not a licensed dealer, he is under no requirement to ascertain whether I am legally able to own that gun, or even keep a record of the sale.  I’m breaking the law because I can’t bring an unliensed gun back to my home state.  But I didn’t want to submit to a background check anyway, remember?

The situation gets a little trickier with handguns because such transfers tend to be more strictly regulated in many states and folks who sell handguns are generally aware that handguns have a funny way of winding up in the ‘wrong hands.’ So if I want to buy a handgun without submitting to a background check, I probably will stay within my own state, assuming that my state doesn’t regulate private handgun sales.  Which is the real impact of the internet as regards the flow of private guns, because I can drive from one end of my state to the other within 3 hours, but could I know of the desire of some seller in another town within my state to get rid of a gun without going online?  Of course not.

When the internet first started up, you could find gun listings on Craiglist, other online classifieds including eBay, and you could pay for guns if you had a Paypal account. Those sites quickly banned guns because they decided the liability far outweighed the returns.  But I can’t imagine that websites like Armslist or GunsAmerica would voluntarily ban private sales, since that’s their reason for being in business in the first place.  As long as the internet operates as a giant flea market and guns are legal commerce, guns are going to be sold online, it’s as simple as that.