Summary of National Investigations of Online Gun Sales

by Mayors Against Illegal Guns

June 11, 2014

In 2013, Mayors Against Illegal Guns investigated the website and issued two groundbreaking reports about the growing and unregulated market for online gun sales.

The first report — Felon Seeks Firearm, No Strings Attached — showed that thousands of felons and domestic abusers are evading background checks and buying guns from private sellers online. While federal law requires licensed gun dealers to conduct background checks on prospective gun buyers, private sellers are exempt from this requirement. Armslist facilitates hundreds of thousands of private sales each year, and our investigations show that criminals and domestic abusers are exploiting this gaping loophole and flocking to the online market to arm themselves, with no questions asked.

The second report — In the Business, Outside the Law — showed that Armslist provides a safe haven for private sellers illegally engaged in the business of selling guns without a license, and without background checks. Unlicensed private sellers are using the website to operate as dealers, sometimes selling more than 100 guns a year without conducting the background checks required under federal law.

Armslist is just one of thousands of websites that make up the vast and expanding online marketplace for guns. Congress should take action to close the private sale loophole so that online sales no longer provide criminal and domestic abusers with easy access to firearms.



Click here to read the full report

This investigation of prospective gun buyers on found that 1 in 30 had committed crimes that prohibited them from possessing guns. The website facilitates an estimated 25,000 gun sales each year to individuals who are barred from owning guns.


  • Criminals are buying guns online: 1 in 30 would-be buyers on Armslist have prohibiting criminal records. Armslist hosted an estimated 790,000 firearm ads in 2013. At this rate, the website likely put at least 25,000 guns into criminal hands.

    If 1 in 30 people on a Boeing 747 were on a terrorist watch list, the plane would have 22 suspected terrorists aboard.

  • The loophole appears to be attracting criminals: The share of online gun buyers with a prohibiting criminal record is nearly four times higher than the rate of prospective prohibited purchasers at licensed dealers.

    Other evidence also supports the hypothesis that criminals are wising up and turning from licensed dealers to private sales. The denial rate at licensed dealers fell 43 percent between 1999 and 2012, despite the fact that the national background check database became more comprehensive during that time


Investigators retrieved 13,298 “want-to-buy” ads posted on Armslist between February 11 and May 10, 2014. They extracted phone numbers and/or email addresses voluntarily provided in 1,430 of the ads. Using reverse lookup data, investigators were able to link 607 ads to an individual living in the state where the ad was placed.

Investigators then conducted a criminal record check on each individual for which they had sufficient identifying information. Twenty would-be gun buyers (3.3 percent) had prohibiting felony or domestic violence records.

This methodology likely underestimated the number of criminals buying guns online. Criminal gun buyers are presumably less likely to post “want-to-buy” ads than to browse “for sale” gun ads, which make up more than 90 percent of the ads on Armslist. Criminals are also less likely than lawful gun buyers to divulge identifying information online. Consequently, the share of “want-to-buy” ads with identifying information that were posted by criminals is likely lower than the true share of all online gun buyers who have criminal records.

Additionally, investigators only reviewed criminal and domestic violence records and thus did not identify buyers prohibited from gun ownership due to other criteria (mental illness, immigrant status, etc.). Investigators also limited their criminal record search to the state where the buyer lived, thus omitting individuals who committed crimes outside of their state of residence.



Click here to read the full report

This investigation of showed that high-volume sellers are transferring tens of thousands of guns on the website with no background checks. Nearly 1 in 3 gun ads are posted by high-volume sellers, many of whom are likely engaged in the business of selling firearms without a license, in violation of federal law.


  • High-volume sellers dominate the online gun market: 29 percent of guns advertised by unlicensed sellers on Armslist are attributable to high-volume sellers – people who posted 5 or more guns during the period of observation – many of whom are likely “engaged in the business” of selling firearms.

    At this rate, high-volume sellers would transfer a total of 243,800 guns per year on Armslist alone.

  • In interviews, high-volume sellers gave further evidence they were breaking the law: 58 percent of the high-volume sellers contacted by our investigators volunteered at least one additional piece of information indicating that they were engaged in the business of selling guns without a license.

    Indicators included: selling guns new or in original packaging, selling guns for profit, and/or buying and reselling guns within a short period of time.

  • State background check laws matter: In states where state law requires private sellers to conduct background checks, 73 percent of sellers told buyers they would conduct background checks.


Investigators retrieved all 125,263 firearm ads that private sellers posted on Armslist between August 17 and October 10, 2013.

Because the website allows visitors to browse all the ads posted by any given seller, the investigators were able to assign a unique identification number to each seller and link them to their associated ads.

The data showed that 4,218 high-volume sellers posted 5 or more gun ads during the period of observation – a rate of at least 34 per year.

Investigators then contacted a sub-sample of 400 high-volume sellers to test if these sellers gave other indications that they were engaged in the business of selling guns without a license. They completed conversation with 182.

online gun sales

online gun sales