Image from Facebook gun swap
As far as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is concerned, Facebook groups with the sole purpose of buying, selling and swapping firearms and accessories are well within their rights to do so.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not an ongoing issue. Many closed and open groups and the people they’re comprised of use the social media site to link up with other people with similar interests — talking shop and trading guns.
A quick rundown through the posts, which total sometimes several a day with comments and questions under most, reveal quick access to a variety of pistols, rifles, and shotguns, antiques and never-fired models, with all the ammunition and accessories a gun enthusiast could want.
From Glocks to camouflage weapons and everything in between, many varieties are readily available. One poster was willing to trade both a Saiga .410 shotgun with a 30-round drum and a Russian-style AK-47 for a jet ski. Another is trading a World I and World II-era German Luger and another was selling his friend’s Colt M4A1.
Though they’re still in operation and popular, a March statement made by Facebook went on the record that swap groups like the “Tri Cities Gun Swap” and “Johnson City, Buy, Sell, Trade” might not be directly in line with its policies.
“While we’ve recently heard specific concerns from people about offers for the private sales of firearms, this is one of the many areas where we face a difficult challenge balancing individuals’ desire to express themselves on our services, and recognizing that this speech may have consequences elsewhere,” the March 5 statement read, put out by Monika Bickert, head of global policy management.
The statement went on to list ways in which one would come out of compliance with Facebook’s policies, including not following rules concerning the private sale of commonly regulated items (to which Facebook will send a message), pages that don’t have specific information in regard to reminding members the importance of staying in compliance with laws and regulations and those who willfully evade or help others evade laws. An example of the latter would include displaying something to the effect of “no background check required.”
Neither the open “Tri Cities Gun Swap” group, with its 163 members as of Wednesday evening, nor the closed 1,574-member “Johnson City, Buy, Sell, Trade” group have background check requirements listed in their respective description sections.
Special agent and public information officer Michael Knight with the ATF says this is where groups fall into the technically legal gray area of Facebook and law enforcement standards. There’s a great risk that illegal activity is happening, often in the realm of bypassed background checks that miss relevant information for potential gun owners, as could be the case with people like the poster who was selling his friend’s gun.
The question with posts about selling someone else’s firearms would be why wouldn’t the friend post it themself, potentially letting laws and regulations fall through the cracks.
“The background checks are a resource, but they’re not 100 percent,” Knight said about online firearm transactions, pointing out some websites don’t technically require a person’s legal name to be used to make a deal.
With many of these transactions taking place within Facebook and the ATF’s gray area, Knight said it’s not something they tackle frequently.
“We know how expansive the Internet is,” he said. “It’s an issue that hasn’t taken the backseat at all.”
J.C. Harrison, who heads a local Facebook page titled “2nd Amendment Enforcer,” which has nearly 1,300 followers, says he knows background checks well, because he offers handgun classes for people interested in attaining their permits.
He’s wheeled and dealed and is a member of gun-swapping groups, saying he and 99 percent of the people he comes across in the groups have high standards for those with whom they do business. A good start, he said, is people who also have their handgun permit, which shows a certain level of responsibility.
Because the background check to get a permit is so strict, he said, having one shows a necessary level of aptitude. Without one, he won’t conduct business. With a permit and a clean bill of sale, Harrison says it’s OK to proceed. One time a person offered him $50 more than the $150 he was asking for a pistol he had for sale if they could expedite the deal, but he wouldn’t do it because it didn’t seem right.
“I’ve never seen a post of an illegal weapon,” Harrison said about the groups.
Some groups being closed, only letting people in if they’re trustworthy, he said, adds even another layer of protection from sketchy sellers and buyers, though it could be seen as a cloak against people seeing potentially illegal activity.
Knight says the ATF isn’t an enemy of legal gun owners and says the group’s mission isn’t to go after gun transactions like those made on Facebook groups.
“When it comes to our agency, we’re not looking to take away everyone’s firearms,” he said. “We’re just trying to take them away from violent criminals.”
Moving forward, Facebook said in the statement that it plans to work with complaints of users and implement and enforce an approach for the private sale of firearms, using the advice given by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, Americans for Responsible Solutions, Sandy Hook Promise, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, Moms Demand Action and the Facebook Safety Advisory Board
Shane Taylor, the administrator of “Johnson City, Buy, Sell, Trade,” agreed to speak to the Johnson City Press, but did not return phone calls before press time.
Follow Tony Casey on Twitter @TonyCaseyJCP. Like him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tonycaseyjournalist.