How Reddit (and a Lot of Other Sites) Help You Buy Guns Online, Legally

Redditors purchased at least 150 guns over the past few months — including  AR-15s engraved with the Reddit logo — on a section of the site that's become a marketplace for high-powered firearms.

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Redditors have purchased at least 150 guns over the past few months — including AR-15s embossed with the official Reddit logo — through a section of the site that's become a marketplace for high-powered firearms. Mother Jones did some digging into the GunsForSale subreddit on Wednesday, detailing how easy it can be to buy a gun through the message boards. But the story here is less about Reddit than it is about the big gaping hole in America's gun laws that can make the whole internet a great place to legally sell guns, sometimes with no questions asked.

The disclaimer from Reddit's GunsForSale

GunsForSale takes advantage of a well-known loophole in the federal laws covering gun sales. Essentially, as long as a gun sale meets the requirements for a "private transaction" between two citizens in the same state, the sale falls outside of the authority of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. And state laws governing those transactions vary greatly: Some states require those transactions to go through a licensed dealer who can run a background check, but other states do not. This is a loophole Congress tried to close last year, in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut, but failed, despite popular support for background checks reform.

Gun laws in many states simply include statutes banning sellers from "knowingly" doing business with convicted criminals, or with those with a history of mental illness. In some states, the loophole makes it really easy to arrange unregulated "private" sales online, meaning that Reddit is hardly the only site also serving as a gun marketplace. Gun sellers have also used Instagram, for instance, to negotiate private gun sales. However, as Slate noted, Instagram's gun sales are relatively infrequent, despite worries that Instagram's gun marketplace was "booming." Lawmakers have raised questions about whether those transactions are happening on Facebook and Twitter. Meanwhile, actual online marketplaces like Craigslist and Ebay have banned the sale of guns on their sites.

In the case of both Instagram and Reddit, sellers post public listings for their guns [like these], and the transactions are completed elsewhere. In many cases, Mother Jones notes, Reddit gun sellers do use a licensed dealer to complete the transaction and run a background check. Some sellers are themselves federally-licensed to sell guns. The GunsForSale subreddit allows users to verify the completion of gun purchases through the marketplace. According to those verifications, the subreddit arranged 159 verified sales in the past six months. But based on the number of listings — over 1,000 for that same period of time — Mother Jones and others believe that not all transactions are verified on the site, especially those completed face-to-face in states with particularly lax laws governing "private" sales. According to the subreddit's FAQ page, sellers can prefer to do "face-to-face" (i.e. no background check) sales for out-of-state buyers.

There's another question raised by Mother Jones's look at the subreddit: Are licensed gun sellers using the site to (sometimes illegally) arrange for sales without conducting a background check? Because of the way Reddit works — it's very serious about protecting the privacy of its users — that question is very difficult to answer. But Mother Jones found at least one licensed dealer — FirearmConcierge — who said on a now-deleted Reddit thread that he "ha[s] been known not to do a background check on some transactions." In general, a licensed dealer can legally sell guns from his or her personal collection without a background check, but can't do it for anything from a business inventory.

So what about the Reddit-branded guns? This is the part of the story that makes Reddit stand out from the other social networks serving as makeshift marketplaces. It's pretty clear that the law is on the side of Reddit's gun selling subreddit overall, even if some of the users push the boundaries. But Reddit's corporate stance on its use as a staging ground for firearms purchases is a different question. You can't buy a Twitter AR-15, nor can you purchase an Instagram firearm. The Reddit-engraved firearms became a big story months ago, but no one seemed to know the company's exact feelings on the use of its logo. Mother Jones now says that when Condé Nast owned Reddit, the company approved the use of the logo, as long as the firearms included some engraved gun safety language, too.

Although Reddit has stopped short of defending the product itself, the approval arguably reads as an endorsement of the site's gun sellers — and possibly the community's own popular pro-gun forums as a whole. That's unsettled those Reddit users who don't want the site to serve as a marketplace for background check-free gun purchases, who've been tracking the saga of the Reddit-logo firearms for months.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.