Is Facebook doing enough to stop private gun sales?

Generic stock picture of gun Image copyright iStock

In January 2016, Facebook responded to calls from gun control advocates and vowed to clamp down on potentially dangerous gun sales on its site. Legitimate gun dealers with Federal Firearms Licences - carrying out necessary background checks - are allowed to go about their business. But private sales are prohibited and, in theory, should be taken down immediately. But is this happening?

Not exactly. While Facebook did initially shut down numerous groups dedicated to gun sales, many of those looking to buy and sell armaments simply moved elsewhere on the site.

One such group is FSU Craigslist, a Facebook classifieds created for Florida State University students. While most of the posts advertise mundane everyday items such as furniture, the occasional gun adverts have been posted. According to an investigation by Vocativ, in the space of a week three guns were put up for sale, with two subsequently removed.

BBC Trending carried out a search for guns being sold by private individuals in other Facebook groups, and they were readily available.

Image copyright Facebook
Image caption Gun for sale on Florida based gun trading Facebook page

So are private gun sales legal in the US? According to Ladd Everitt, a spokesperson from the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, "It varies from state to state, in some states it is legal, and background checks are not required". So those privately selling guns on Facebook are not necessarily breaking the law, only Facebook policy.

Further to this, the rules of The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, engrained in federal law, state: "It is unlawful for either licensed or unlicensed sellers to sell firearms to persons they know or have reasonable cause to believe cannot lawfully possess them." Much of the concern surrounding unlicensed sales of guns on Facebook, is that sellers may know very little about the buyer's background.

Image copyright Facebook
Image caption Pistol for sale on a Florida based gun trading Facebook page

The introduction of Facebook's new rules came after gun safety campaign groups such as "Everytown" and "Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense" applied pressure. A spokesperson from "Everytown" referred Trending to instances where unlicensed Facebook sales had led to fatal shootings - including one case in Ohio where convicted felon Brian Harleman used such a weapon to murder his ex-girlfriend's 10-year-old daughter.

Facebook's community standards "prohibit any attempts by unauthorised dealers to purchase, sell or trade prescription drugs, marijuana, firearms or ammunition." The social network currently relies on a reporting system, similar to one used to monitor pornography. But is this enough?

Despite applauding Facebook's initial promises back in January, "Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense" have since asked questions about Facebook's enforcement of the policy change. According to founder Shannon Watts in a recent statement "The next step is enforcing the change. Our supporters are flagging posts and groups that break Facebook's rules against unlicensed gun sales with no questions asked, but it's also critical for the innovators at Facebook to develop the systems necessary to make their new policy a reality."

A Facebook spokesperson told Trending; "We prohibit people from using Facebook to offer and co-ordinate private sales of firearms. Any content that violates this policy will be removed - whether it is in groups, on profiles, or on pages. We rely on our community of 1.6 billion people to help us enforce this policy by making it easy for anyone to report any piece of content including posts, photos, videos, and messages."

Blog by Alex Dackevych

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