Hiding in Plain Sight

Investigating Illegal Online Gun Sales in Vermont

January 21, 2015

This investigation set out to determine how many unlicensed gun sales are taking place online in Vermont, and what risk law-abiding Vermont gun owners run by participating in this marketplace. By placing ads on websites where Vermonters sell or trade guns and sampling the would-be gun buyers who responded, this investigation yielded first-of-its kind findings about the volume of these transfers and the threat they posed to public safety.

Executive Summary

Vermont has a proud tradition of responsible gun ownership. More than two of five households in the state own a firearm.Centers for Disease Control, Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, 2001, available at: http://1.usa.gov/1DN0Sup Of the hundreds of thousands of firearms in Vermont, less than one tenth of one percent are involved in a crime and recovered by police each year.The U.S. Census Bureau calculates there are 257,004 households in Vermont (http://1.usa.gov/1DDI0AJ). Assuming that 42 percent of these households possess firearms and the average gun owners has 5.0 guns (http://bmj.co/1z6AtZy), there are more than 500,000 firearms in Vermont. In 2013, 262 firearms (0.05 percent) were recovered by ATF (http://1.usa.gov/1xXl3Fr). Whether at the shooting range, in the wilderness, or at home, responsible Vermonters take care to ensure their weapons do not cause unnecessary injuries or fall into dangerous hands.

But in the 21st century, gun-owning Vermonters also go online — to a growing number of websites where anonymous buyers and sellers exchange firearms. As this investigation shows, they are more likely to imperil their fellow citizens in this virtual marketplace than perhaps anywhere else: when a Vermonter lists a gun for sale online, they have a 1-in-24 risk of transferring it to a criminal.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The bedrock of firearm safety in the U.S. is the background check system. Felons, domestic abusers, and other dangerous people are prohibited from buying guns, and federal law requires all licensed gun dealers to conduct background checks and deny gun sales to anyone that meets these criteria.

This system keeps guns out of dangerous hands, including in Vermont. Between 1998 and 2014, gun dealers in the state ran background checks for 371,564 gun sales — and blocked 3,034 of them because the prospective buyer had committed a felony, a domestic violence crime, or was otherwise prohibited from possessing guns.

But the system in Vermont is flawed by a fatal loophole: individuals selling guns in “private,” unlicensed sales — often online or at gun shows — are exempt from the background check requirement. Today, numerous websites function like Craigslist, connecting anonymous strangers that want to meet offline to buy or trade for guns in unlicensed transfers. This gives criminals and other dangerous people an opportunity to obtain guns with no background check, no questions asked.

This investigation set out to determine how many of these unlicensed gun sales are taking place online in Vermont, and what risk law-abiding Vermont gun owners run by participating in this marketplace. By placing ads on websites where Vermonters sell or trade guns and sampling the would-be gun buyers who responded, this investigation yielded first-of-its kind findings about the volume of these transfers and the threat they pose to public safety:

  • Vermont’s online market for guns is vast. Each year in the state, an estimated 3,000 guns are transferred in unlicensed online sales on just three websites — as many as 24 percent obtained in trades for other goods rather than purchased outright.
  • One in 24 people in Vermont trying to buy or trade for a gun online is prohibited from possessing firearms, including convicted domestic abusers and illegal drug traffickers profiled later in this report.
  • This is six times higher than the share of Vermonters who try to buy a gun at a licensed dealer and fail a background check, which suggests that criminals may be intentionally exploiting this loophole.
  • The share of domestic abusers trying to illegally buy or trade for guns online in Vermont is 32 times higher than the share of Vermonters who try to buy a gun at a licensed dealer and fail a background check due to a domestic violence record.
  • At this rate, in a single year, just three websites in Vermont put an estimated 121 guns into the hands of felons and domestic abusers.
Introduction: Preventing Dangerous People from Getting Guns

Federal law prohibits certain narrow classes of dangerous people from possessing guns including felons, people convicted of misdemeanor acts of domestic violence, and the severely mentally ill. And with good reason: when convicted felons or convicted domestic abusers obtain guns, they pose an elevated danger to the public.

Among people incarcerated in state prisons for firearm crimes, nearly half were prohibited from obtaining guns before their offense.Katherine A. Vittes, Jon S. Vernick, and Daniel W. Webster, “Legal Status and Source of Offenders’ Firearms in States with the Least Stringent Criteria for Gun Ownership,” Injury Prevention, June 23, 2012, doi:10.1136/injuryprev-2011-040290. Domestic abusers who acquire guns represent an especially potent threat. When a domestic abuser has access to a firearm, his partner has five times the risk of being murdered.Jacqueline C. Campbell, Daniel Webster, and Jane Koziol-McLain, “Risk Factors for Femicide in Abusive Relationships: Results from a Multisite Case Control Study,” American Journal of Public Health 93, no. 7 (July 2003).

Law enforcement officers pay an especially high price for weak gun laws. Of fatal shootings of law enforcement officers in 2013 where the shooters were known, more than half were prohibited from possessing guns, according to an Everytown analysis.Everytown for Gun Safety, “Law enforcement deaths and illegal guns,."

The National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) was established in 1998 to block dangerous people from accessing guns at the point-of-sale. Federal law requires licensed dealers to conduct an instant check on every buyer. The checks take just minutes to complete, and each year millions of lawful gun purchasers complete them without incident. But tens of thousands of prohibited people also attempt to buy guns from dealers, and the system effectively denies those sales.

Background checks in Vermont have blocked over 3,000 gun sales to criminals and other dangerous people

In Vermont alone, the background check system has blocked more than 3,000 gun sales to prohibited people, including over 350 gun sales to people convicted of domestic violence crimes or subject to restraining orders, according to an Everytown analysis of FBI data. As an epidemic of heroin and prescription opiate abuse sweep the state, the background check system also prevents drug traffickers from getting guns: the share of denials as a result of illegal drug use tripled between 2008 and 2013.Everytown for Gun Safety analysis of FBI data, February 12, 2014, available at: http://every.tw/1AfxzNp

But Vermont state law does not require a background check for guns offered in unlicensed sales, including anonymous transactions initiated online and at gun shows. These sales take place with no paperwork and no strings attached, which means they make up an unknowable share of total firearm sales in Vermont. But it is certain the number is significant. National surveys in the early 1990s and 2000s found that about 40 percent of gun owners obtained their firearms in transfers that would not require a background check.Philip J. Cook & Jens Ludwig, Guns in America: Results of a Comprehensive National Survey on Firearms Ownership and Use, (Police Foundation: 1996), available at http://bit.ly/1p862I4; Matthew Miller, “National Firearm Survey,” Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research, 2004, available at http://bit.ly/WV6eDY.

This loophole creates an open door for criminals and other prohibited people to obtain firearms — and research has repeatedly shown that criminals are increasingly reliant on these sales to obtain guns. A national survey of prison inmates found that 77 percent of those incarcerated for a crime committed with a handgun obtained the weapon in a transfer that would not be subject to a background check.U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Survey of Inmates in State and Federal Correctional Facilities, 2004, Feb 28, 2007 In 2013, Mayors Against Illegal Guns conducted a first-of-its-kind investigation of unlicensed online gun sales which showed that 1 in 30 people seeking firearms on the website Armslist.com had a felony or domestic violence history that prohibited them from possessing a gun.Mayors Against Illegal Guns, Felon Seeks Firearm, No Strings Attached, September 2013, available at http://bit.ly/1nllhRb. And a subsequent Everytown investigation in Washington State showed that 1 in 10 people seeking firearms there was prohibited under state or federal law.Everytown for Gun Safety, Online and off the record; Washington State’s Vast Internet Gun Market, September 2014, available at: http://washington. everytown.org In the wake of that report, Washington residents voted resoundingly to require background checks for all gun sales in the state.

It was the seventeenth state that went beyond federal law to require background checks for some or all guns offered in unlicensed sales,Mayors Against Illegal Guns, Gun Background Checks Fact Sheet, available at http://bit.ly/1otOnuS. and the weight of evidence now shows that closing this loophole saves lives. In states that require background checks for all handgun sales there are 46 percent fewer women shot to death by their intimate partners,Everytown for Gun Safety, “State background check requirements and rates of domestic violence suicide,” available at: http://every.tw/1Aj9HZj. 48 percent fewer law enforcement officers killed with handguns that are not their own,Everytown for Gun Safety, “State background check requirements and rates of firearm homicide against law enforcement,” available at: http://every.tw/1Aj9JAy. and 48 percent less gun trafficking.Daniel Webster, Jon Vernick, & Maria Bulzacchelli, “Effects of State-Level Firearm Seller Accountability Policies on Firearm Trafficking,” Journal of Urban Health, July 2009. To gauge gun trafficking, the authors measured the ratio of likely trafficked guns recovered from crime scenes to the total of guns recovered. A “likely trafficked gun” was defined as having been recovered at a crime scene and not in the possession of its original purchaser within one year of its last legal sale. When Missouri repealed a requirement that gun buyers undergo a background check and obtain a permit before obtaining a handgun, the share of likely trafficked guns doubled and the gun homicide rate ballooned by 25 percent.Daniel Webster et al., “Preventing the Diversion of Guns to Criminals through Effective Firearm Sales Laws,” in Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013)., Daniel Webster, Cassandra Kercher Crifasi, Jon S. Vernick, “Effects of the repeal of Missouri’s handgun purchaser licensing law on homicides,” Journal of Urban Health 91 no. 2 (March 2014). Daniel Webster, Cassandra Kercher Crifasi, and Jon S. Vernick, “Erratum To: Effects of the Repeal of Missouri’s Handgun Purchaser Licensing Law on Homicides,” Journal of Urban Health 91, no. 3 (June 2014): doi:10.1007/s11524-014-9865-8.h Controlling for other factors, researchers estimate that the change in law associated with up to 68 additional gun homicides.

In states that require background checks for all handgun sales, 46 percent fewer women are shot to death by intimate partners

These are not abstract questions in Vermont. In the last decade of available data, 54 residents of the state were murdered with guns, and an additional 529 died in firearm suicides or accidents.Centers for Disease Control, “WISQARS” (Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System),” available at http://1.usa.gov/VTdKK9 (last accessed June 2014). And the epidemic of heroin and opiate addiction that is drawing drug networks from large Eastern cities to small Vermont towns has a dangerous nexus with guns.Taylor Dobbs, “Straw Buyers Exchange Vermont Guns for East Coast Drugs,” VPR, Feb. 11, 2014, available at: http://bit.ly/1DzoPFr To assess the role that unlicensed online gun sales play in arming dangerous people in Vermont, this investigation attempts to answer two critical questions:

  • How many unlicensed gun sales are taking place online — and without background checks — across the state of Vermont?
  • What share of Vermont residents seeking guns in these sales have committed felonies or domestic violence crimes that bar them under law from buying guns?
How Many Guns are Exchanged in Unlicensed Online Sales in Vermont?

The online market for guns is vast and growing. Dozens of websites—like Armslist.com, the self-described Craigslist for guns—each host tens of thousands of ads for unlicensed gun sales and provides a forum for strangers to connect and arrange offline gun transfers, just like Craigslist does for furniture sales and concert tickets. Would-be buyers and sellers can post ads to these websites offering guns “for sale” or to announce their interest in obtaining a firearm with a “want-to-buy” ad. Because federal law does not permit unlicensed sales across state lines, most websites serve a defined geographic area or allow users to search for ads by state.

When a person seeking a gun identifies a seller (or a person selling a gun identifies a buyer), the two typically negotiate the transfer and arrange to meet offline to complete the transaction. Though users may delete a posted ad once the offered firearm has been sold (or the sought-after firearm obtained), they may also leave the ad online as long as 90 days on some websites. This electronic paper trail creates a unique opportunity to measure the scale of the online firearm market and to assess the individuals using websites to buy guns.

Data Collection

For this investigation, Everytown identified three websites catering to Vermont residents where self-described unlicensed sellers post ads seeking or offering firearms. The websites range in size, with anywhere from hundreds to tens of thousands of firearms listed at any given time. Once each day from June 12 to October 22, 2014, investigators ‘scraped’ (a software technique for extracting online data) all firearm ads posted by self-described “private sellers.” Scraped ads were manually reviewed and those with duplicated title or body text, “want to buy” ads seeking guns rather than offering them, and ads offering ammunition or accessories but no firearm, were removed.

Results

In total, investigators scraped 1,058 ads featuring firearms for sale over the 132-day period. At that rate, unlicensed sellers in Vermont would post 2,926 firearm ads to just these three websites each year.

Geographic information that unlicensed sellers provide in the firearm ads indicates where guns are being sold or traded in Vermont. Ad-posters usually include a city or county where they would like to conduct the exchange. Of the 1,058 firearm ads identified, 866 (82 percent) included geographic information that could be matched to one of Vermont’s 14 counties.

Thirty-seven percent of the firearm ads posted by unlicensed sellers were listed in the state’s most populous county, Chittenden County. But controlling for population, Essex County had the highest prevalence of for-sale firearm ads listed by unlicensed sellers (1,654 per 100,000 residents), followed by Addison County (544) and Chittenden County (537).

Who is Seeking Guns in Unlicensed Online Sales in Vermont?

Every year, millions of law-abiding Americans shop for firearms at licensed firearm dealers. This volume of firearm sales is not a public safety concern because, under federal law, those sales are subject to a background check. But the same is not true of unlicensed firearm sales, and the large volume of sales occurring in Vermont — nearly 3,000 annually across just three websites — creates an opportunity for prohibited people to evade the background check system and acquire guns. This loophole is significant: in a single year, more guns are transferred by unlicensed Vermont sellers on these three websites than there were denials issued by all Vermont gun dealers in the 15 years since the inception of the background check system.

Data Collection

To characterize the population of would-be gun buyers in Vermont, Everytown contracted an investigative agency to post ads offering firearms for sale on the website Armslist.com. Between July 28 and October 9, investigators placed 24 ads.

Using the name, phone number, and/or email address voluntarily provided by respondents to the ads, and comparing it to reverse lookup phone data and other sources, investigators were able to identify 169 unique Vermont residents seeking guns in online, unlicensed sales. The median age was 30 with a range of 18 to 76. Ninety-six percent (162 of 169) were male.

Investigators then conducted criminal record checks on each individual by searching court records in the geographic areas where the individual was known to have maintained a current or past address. Any felony convictions, domestic violence misdemeanor convictions, bench warrants, or orders of protection that could be linked to the individual were subjected to legal analysis to determine if they prohibited possession of firearms under state or federal law.

For buyers that had committed prohibiting felony or domestic violence offenses in Vermont, investigators checked with the Governor’s office to determine that none of the offenders had their prohibition lifted through the process allowed under federal law.None of the buyers had received a gubernatorial pardon. See 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(20)(B),(a)(33)(B)(ii)(listing the exceptions to the federal prohibition after felony and domestic violence conviction, respectively), 12 V.S.A. § 64 (disqualifying a person imprisoned after conviction of a felony from serving as a juror in Vermont unless pardoned), Vt. Const. § 20 (vesting the pardon authority exclusively in the governor). For a buyer who was prohibited as a result of two felonies committed in New York State, investigators consulted with the Executive Clemency Bureau within the New York State Division of Parole to determine that the offender had not had his rights restored.No one with the buyer’s name had received a Certificate of Good Conduct. See 18 U.S.C. 921(a)(20)(B), N.Y. Jud. Law § 510(3) (disqualifying a person convicted of a felony from serving on a jury), N.Y. Penal Law §§400.00(1)(c), 265.01(4) (prohibiting a person convicted of a felony from possessing firearms), N.Y. Correct. Law §§ 701(2), 703-a(2) (specifying that firearms privileges may be regained by Certificate of Relief from Disabilities or Good Conduct), N.Y. Correct. Law §§ 700(1)(a), 703(1) (specifying that a Certificate of Relief from Disabilities is only available to people with no more than one felony conviction).

The investigation’s results may understate the share of prohibited buyers in the online market. Investigators only examined criminal records in the jurisdictions where the subscriber was known to have maintained a residence, so individuals who committed prohibiting crimes in other jurisdictions were not identified. Nor did the investigators examine records of non-criminal prohibiting criteria, including serious mental illness, dishonorable discharge from the Armed Forces, and immigration status.

Results

Of the identified individuals seeking guns in unlicensed online sales in Vermont, one in 24 (7 of 169) had been convicted of crimes that prohibited them from possessing firearms.At its culmination of the investigation, Everytown shared all evidence of potential wrongdoing with the United States Attorney’s Office, District of Vermont. At this prevalence, gun sales transacted on just three websites put an estimated 121 guns into the hands of felons and domestic abusers in Vermont — and likely many more — in this year alone.

More than four percent of online gun buyers in Vermont were prohibited from possessing firearms

The share of would-be gun buyers with a history of domestic abuse was especially high: 2.4 percent of people seeking guns had been convicted of a domestic violence crime. In comparison, less than 0.1 percent of people seeking guns from licensed gun dealers in Vermont have a prohibiting domestic violence history. Accordingly, the share of domestic abusers seeking guns in unlicensed sales online in Vermont is 32 times higher than the share seeking guns at licensed gun dealers.

This is of particular concern because of the well-documented relationship between access to firearms and fatal domestic violence. When a gun is present in a domestic violence situation, the woman is five times more likely to be murdered.J.C. Campbell, S.W. Webster, J.Koziol-McLain, et al., Risk factors for femicide within physically abuse intimate relationships: results from a multi-state case control study, 93 Amer. J. of Public Health 1089-97 (2003). This explains why 56 percent of women shot to death in Vermont between 2000-2012 were killed by intimate partners, according to an Everytown analysis of FBI data.Federal Bureau of Investigation, Supplementary Homicide Reports, available at: http://bit.ly/1bnoHhw

Above and beyond the absolute number of criminals seeking guns online, the high concentration of prohibited buyers is further evidence that criminals may be knowingly flocking to unlicensed sales in order to evade background checks elsewhere. In 2013, Vermont gun dealers conducted 36,135 background checks of which 248 were denied — 0.69 percent. In contrast, the share of buyers seeking guns online who are prohibited for criminal or domestic violence offenses was 4.1 percent — more than six times higher. This is a statistically significant difference, meaning it would not have been achieved by chance alone.Based on the sample size of 169 examined buyers, the margin of error is 1.1 percent to 7.1 percent. The confidence interval is calculated as P +/- 1.96*[(P*(1-P)/n) ^.5 = 4.1% +/- 1.96 (.041*.959/169)^.5 = 1.1% to 7.1%.

A plausible explanation for this disparity is that the background check system is effectively preventing criminals from obtaining guns at licensed gun dealers — but unlicensed sellers who offer an open door for acquiring guns without background checks are attracting them instead. A migration of criminals from licensed dealers to unlicensed sellers is consistent with the data from the background check system, which shows that the share of gun sales resulting in denial fell nearly 50 percent between 2002 and 2013.

Would-Be Online Gun Buyers in Vermont: Drug Traffickers

A Drug Trafficker in Central Vermont with a History of Making Threats Involving Firearms

On September 2, 2014, a 27-year-old male responded to an ad for a Saiga AK-47, and he also expressed an interest in any handguns the seller had to offer. As a convicted drug trafficker with a history of making violent threats, he is prohibited from possessing guns.

A Twice-Convicted Cocaine Dealer in Bennington, VT with a History of Exchanging Guns for Drugs

Between July 29 and October 21, 2014, a 36-year-old male responded to five separate ads for handguns. As a twice-convicted felon with a history of exchanging guns for drugs, he was prohibited from possessing firearms.

Would-Be Online Gun Buyers in Vermont: Convicted Domestic Abusers

A Fugitive from Justice ad Domestic Abuser in Saint Albans, VT

On September 19, 2014, a 32-year-old male responded to an ad for a Glock 30 semiautomatic handgun. As a convicted domestic abuser and a fugitive from justice, he is prohibited from possessing firearms.

Conclusion

This investigation offers a first glimpse at the vast online market where Vermonters exchange guns in unlicensed sales, and provides irrefutable evidence that criminals are taking advantage of these transfers to evade background checks and obtain firearms.

Vermont legislators could address this threat to public safety by passing a bill requiring criminal background checks on all gun sales and transfers, with reasonable exceptions. Colorado adopted a similar law in 2013 and in the succeeding eighteen months, unlicensed sellers there conducted nearly 20,000 background checks and blocked more than 300 gun sales to criminals or other prohibited people who attempted to obtain guns, and deterred countless others from attempting to obtain guns at all.Colorado Bureau of Investigation, Instacheck Unit, available at: http://1.usa.gov/1txbacr. Contrary to predictions by the law’s opponents that this would deter legal gun ownership, the gun market in Colorado — including sales between unlicensed individuals online — continues to flourish.

Websites that host gun ads are currently exploited by criminals who use them to get their hands on guns with no background check and no questions asked. But they could ensure that the gun sales they facilitate are consummated through federally licensed dealers, who can conduct background checks before transferring guns to the buyers. By establishing safety protocols that prevent people from selling guns to strangers without background checks, websites that host gun ads could function as responsible marketplaces in which guns are exchanged between law-abiding citizens, rather than pipelines feeding guns into the criminal market.