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Unchecked: An Investigation of the Online Firearm Marketplace

2.1.2021
collage with images from the report

Executive Summary

In every year since 2018, there have been more than one million ads offering firearms for sale by unlicensed sellers in states that do not legally require a background check, a circumstance that creates endless opportunities for individuals with dangerous histories to easily acquire guns. Federal law requires a background check of a prospective gun buyer only when the seller is a licensed gun dealer, leaving all other sales—such as unlicensed gun sales negotiated over the internet—unregulated and with no background check required.

For more than a decade, the online firearm marketplace has emerged as a growing market for anonymous gun purchases through websites such as Armslist, the self-proclaimed “largest free gun classifieds on the web.” Everytown has worked to understand the scope and threat of this type of commerce. This report lays out the results of Everytown’s analysis of Armslist ads between 2018 and 2020, and the findings of our prior investigations examining the criminal backgrounds of buyers, how transactions are carried out, and whether unlicensed sellers would require a background check on a private gun sale.

Main Findings

  1. Each year, 1.2 million online ads offering firearms for sale are listed that would not legally require a background check to be completed.
  2. Nearly 1 in 9 prospective buyers who respond to ads from unlicensed sellers would not pass a background check, a rate seven times higher than the denial rate at licensed gun stores or in other contexts where background checks are required.
  3. Following an Armslist online sale, the face-to-face transaction can be completed in under three minutes.
  4. In states that require background checks on all gun sales, 84 percent of unlicensed sellers told prospective purchasers they would need to undergo a background check prior to the sale. But in states without these laws, only 6 percent of unlicensed sellers indicated a background check would be needed.

Introduction

It’s been over 25 years since our federal background check law was written, and since then, the internet has emerged as a go-to place for firearm sales. The rise of online gun sites like Armslist.com has increased the danger posed by a long-standing loophole in federal law that exempts unlicensed gun sellers from the requirement to conduct a background check of a prospective gun buyer. Guns purchased on Armslist have ended up in the hands of convicted felons, domestic abusers, gang members, and gun traffickers—at times, resulting in deadly consequences.1Jason Meisner, “3 Men Charged with Trafficking Dozens of Guns Bought Over Armslist.com to Chicago Gang Members,” Chicago Tribune, May 15, 2018, https://bit.ly/3qoWyPY. While many states have filled this gap by requiring a background check on all gun sales within their borders, 28 states have yet to close this loophole, enabling unlicensed gun sellers to sell firearms to anyone, with no questions asked.

Since 2014, Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund (“Everytown”) has conducted multiple investigations of the unregulated online gun marketplace and its serious threat to public safety. In 2018, our investigation into Armslist, sometimes referred to as the Craigslist of guns, revealed a massive marketplace where unchecked gun sales are taking place between complete strangers meeting online, providing criminals and other prohibited purchasers an easy avenue for access. In the years since that investigation, Everytown has continued to collect and analyze data on Armslist activity. Our findings highlight the urgent need to require background checks on all gun sales.

Key Findings

Over One Million Ads on Armslist Each Year Don’t Require a Background Check

Armslist operates similarly to other online classified platforms such as Craigslist, whereby a seller posts the price, description, and a photo of the item for sale. Armslist allows firearm ads to be listed by both licensed gun dealers (called “premium vendors”)—who are required by federal law to conduct a background check on all gun sales—and unlicensed sellers (called “private parties”), whose sales generally require a background check only if they are selling a firearm in a state that requires background checks on all gun sales.2Interstate firearm sales require firearm sales to be facilitated by a licensed firearm dealer, with procedures varying based on the type of firearm sold. And like buying a piece of furniture on Craigslist, these sales are usually initiated by email, phone, or text, then completed offline, in person.

Everytown’s investigators collected over 9 million posts from Armslist between 2018 and 2020, of which 68 percent listed firearms for sale.3Users can create posts for a wide range of products, including firearms, as well as items such as ammunition, firearm accessories, outdoor gear, and fishing equipment. An analysis of these gun-sale ads revealed that the majority were from unlicensed sellers.4Investigators collected and analyzed all of the postings on the website from January 1, 2018, to December 31, 2020. A statistical software program was then used to identify and remove posts that were exact duplicates. If postings were considered exact duplicates (i.e., all content was exactly the same), then these duplicates were removed—leaving only a single unique posting. Each year, sellers without a license post an average of 1.6 million ads (80 percent of all unique ads for firearm sales) on Armslist offering firearms for sale,5Firearms for this report are defined as handguns, rifles, and shotguns. There were three other categories of firearms posted on Armslist.com between 2018 and 2020: 27,132 of the ads were for “NFA firearms,” 46,547 of the ads were for “muzzle loaders,” and 89,770 of the ads were for “antique firearms.” These categories of firearms are excluded from the analysis as these firearms are not generally regulated by the Gun Control Act—federal law requires background checks of all transfers of NFA weapons and no background checks are required for any transfers of muzzle loaders and antique firearms, including by a licensed dealer. The data on rifle postings were further analyzed to determine the number of rifles that were “assault-style rifles” by using search terms identical to the terms used to define “assault weapons” in recent legislation, including searching for particular models (i.e., AR-15, AK-47, and XM15) and features (i.e., “pistol /2 grip,” “suppressor,” and “removable /2 stock”). Armlist.com permits users to indicate the action of the rifle and the “assault-style” search was limited to “semi-automatic” actions or else when the action field was left blank, excluding firearms identified by their sellers as manual-action firearms (which includes bolt action, break open, lever action, pump action, and single shot). compared to an average of 393,000 ads (20 percent) from licensed dealers. Of the 1.6 million ads from unlicensed sellers, 1.2 million (78 percent) were from sellers in states that do not legally require a background check.6As of January 2021, 16 states and DC require a background check (at the point of sale and/or via purchase permit) for all unlicensed sellers (CA, CO, CT, DE, DC, HI, IL, MA, NV, NJ, NM, NY, OR, RI, VT, VA, and WA), while six additional states require a background check only for handgun sales (IA, MD, MI, NE, NC, PA). MD and PA require background checks on sales of some high-powered rifles and shotguns; this analysis does not calculate which specific sales were covered by the laws in those states. In 2016, Nevada passed a ballot initiative requiring background checks on all guns sales, however, the former Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt argued the law could not be enforced, which meant that, in practice, background checks were not required on unlicensed gun sales in 2018. However, in 2019, the Nevada legislature passed clarifying legislation requiring background checks on all gun sales, which took effect on January 2, 2020. New Mexico and Virginia passed laws requiring background checks on all gun sales in 2019 and 2020, respectively. New Mexico’s law took effect on July 1, 2019, and Virginia’s law took effect on July 1, 2020. Ads listing firearms for sale by unlicensed sellers that were posted after these laws went into place have been excluded from the totals. In addition, Vermont’s law went into effect April 11, 2018; this analysis does not calculate which sales were not covered in that state in 2018.

More than three-quarters of all ads by unlicensed sellers listing firearms for sale do not require a background check

Everytown analysis of posts listed on Armslist.

The staggering number of ads for firearm sales that would not require a background check has remained steady over the past few years. Indeed, there have been more than one million of these ads each year in the period from 2018 through 2020. Consistent with the overall surge in gun sales across the country during 2020, ads by unlicensed sellers offering firearms for sale on Armslist surged from 2018 to 2020, with the largest increases in Arizona (120 percent), Alaska (98 percent), and Utah (60 percent).

Over one million ads listing firearms for sale that do not require a background check are on Armslist each year

Everytown analysis of posts listed on Armslist. Laws requiring background checks on all gun sales went into effect on July 1, 2019 in New Mexico, January 2, 2020 in Nevada, and July 1, 2020 in Virginia.

Everytown’s Investigation Reveals Criminals Are Trying to Buy Guns Online—And Exploiting the Online Sales Loophole Is Easy to Do

Everytown’s investigations found that individuals who are prohibited from purchasing guns turn to the flourishing online firearm marketplace to get armed with no questions asked. In 2018, Everytown’s investigators placed ads on Armslist in four states that do not require background checks on these unlicensed sales—Georgia, Florida, Ohio, and Tennessee.7Everytown investigators did not possess any of the firearms being listed for sale nor did they complete any transactions in this part of the investigation. Investigators then ran public records requests on would-be buyers who responded. Investigators reviewed the records of over 430 individuals who expressed an interest in purchasing the firearms. On average, nearly 1 in 9 of these prospective buyers could not legally possess a firearm—a rate over seven times higher than that of buyers who fail background checks at licensed dealers or in other contexts where background checks are required.8Among all sales nationally where background checks were run from 1994 through 2015 (which includes background checks at dealers and in states where background checks are required on unlicensed sales), only 1.5% were denied. Jennifer C. Karberg et al., “Background Checks for Firearm Transfers, 2015-Statistical Tables,” (Bureau of Justice Statistics, November 2017) https://bit.ly/2uYfUVb.

1/9

Nearly one in nine of these prospective buyers could not legally own a firearm.

Everytown analysis of posts listed on Armslist.

The prohibited individuals looking to buy guns online had criminal histories that included convictions for violent felonies, domestic abuse misdemeanors, drug abuse, and active domestic violence restraining orders.9Using a variety of public records databases, investigators reviewed the criminal histories of each of these prospective buyers. Investigators conducted searches of publicly available court records in jurisdictions that contained current or past addresses associated with each prospective buyer and reviewed their criminal histories using identifiers such as name, address, and birthdate to match criminal records with prospective buyers. Investigators then analyzed their age and criminal histories to determine whether the prospective buyers were prohibited from purchasing firearms under federal or state law. In the course of this investigation, investigators initiated contact with law enforcement in certain instances that involved a potential imminent threat or other ongoing or recent contact with the criminal justice system. In addition, there were youth under the age of 18 who were illegally attempting to purchase handguns.10A total of 11 percent of the sample were prohibited due to criminal history or the federal age prohibitor. An additional 4 percent of the overall sample were found to be between 18 and 21 and were likely prohibited under state law from purchasing the firearm but not included in the 1 in 9 tabulation. The results of this investigation likely understate the problem, because investigators did not have access to records related to some non-criminal prohibiting criteria, such as involuntary commitment to a mental institution.

Everytown’s investigations of online gun sales

Year of InvestigationStateRate of Prohibited Purchasers Online
2018Georgia1 in 9
2018Ohio1 in 12
2018Tennessee1 in 8
2018Florida1 in 7
2017New Mexico*1 in 1514*New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington now require background checks on all gun sales.
2016Nevada*1 in 1113*New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington now require background checks on all gun sales.
2015Oregon*1 in 1812*New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington now require background checks on all gun sales.
2014Washington*1 in 1011*New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington now require background checks on all gun sales.
*New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington now require background checks on all gun sales.

*New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington now require background checks on all gun sales.

As with sales of items through Craigslist, many firearm sales facilitated through Armslist are completed in person. To better understand how these sales take place, Everytown’s investigators contacted two unlicensed sellers in Ohio—one selling a handgun and another selling an assault-style rifle—and met with them shortly afterward.

Each of these sales was completed in person in less than three minutes, and neither seller attempted to conduct a background check. One seller noted that he would only sell the gun “assuming you haven’t beaten your wife lately, done any drugs, [and] you’re an Ohio resident,” but did not verify any such history since there is no legal requirement to do so in Ohio.

Everytown’s investigators were able to complete sales facilitated on Armslist in under three minutes with no background check

Everytown’s investigation revealed that the presence of a law requiring background checks on all gun sales significantly impacts whether unlicensed sellers will conduct background checks on prospective buyers or not. In 2018, Everytown reached out to sellers in seven states. Four do not require background checks for unlicensed sales (Florida, Georgia, Ohio, and Tennessee); two do require background checks for unlicensed sales (Colorado and Oregon); and one state requires background checks for unlicensed sales of handguns but not for unlicensed sales of rifles and shotguns (North Carolina).

In communications with 150 unlicensed sellers in these seven states, investigators expressed interest in purchasing the advertised firearm and asked the seller to explain the process for completing a sale, including whether the sale would have to be completed by a licensed firearms dealer or otherwise require a background check.11If asked, investigators responded truthfully that they were not prohibited from purchasing firearms and would pass a background check if it were required. In states that require background checks on all gun sales, on average, 84 percent of sellers stated that the buyer would need to pass a background check before the gun was transferred. But in states without these laws, only 6 percent of unlicensed sellers indicated a background check would be required to complete the sale. The lack of a federal law requiring unlicensed sellers to screen prospective gun purchasers to ensure that they can legally possess a firearm makes it easy for prohibited individuals to acquire firearms through the online firearm marketplace.

In states with laws requiring background checks on all gun sales, on average, 84 percent of sellers indicated they would require a background check.

Everytown analysis of posts listed on Armslist.

What unlicensed sellers on armslist.com say about unlicensed sales and background checks

Does Not Require Background Check

Tennessee

Investigator: I own a few guns but I never bought anything from this site before how does it work?

TN seller: “It’s like a newspaper classifieds, without the paper. Just come up with a time and place to meet…. I just take your word that you are eligible.

Requires Background Check

Oregon

OR Seller: “How it goes is we go to a gun store and do a back ground check and what’s it done I give you gun you give me cash.”

Investigator: Perfect

OR Seller: “There’s one near me prolly have the whole process done in 15 minutes tops.

Conclusion

The vast and growing online firearm marketplace provides an easy way for felons, domestic abusers, and other individuals who cannot legally possess firearms to acquire them with no background checks and no questions asked. Everytown’s investigation identified that every year there are over one million ads on Armslist for firearm sales that would not legally require a background check, and determined that nearly 1 in 9 people looking online to buy guns from unlicensed sellers are prohibited from having firearms. Where background checks were required by state law, the vast majority of sellers complied with the law and indicated a background check would be required to complete the sale. However, where there was no state law requirement, sellers by and large indicated that they would not require a background check for the sale to be completed, offering potential access to people who should not have guns.

There is a clear and present danger in the online firearm marketplace, and the only responsible answer is to require background checks on all gun sales in order to block purchases to people with dangerous histories. Elected officials need to update federal and state laws to require background checks on all gun sales, closing the deadly online sales loophole.

Explore Armslist Online Marketplace Activity in Your State

Learn more about Armslist activity in your state:

Everytown analysis of posts listed on Armslist.

Compare Armslist activity by unlicensed sellers in states that have not closed the online sales loophole:

Everytown analysis of posts listed on Armslist.

Everytown Research & Policy is a program of Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, an independent, non-partisan organization dedicated to understanding and reducing gun violence. Everytown Research & Policy works to do so by conducting methodologically rigorous research, supporting evidence-based policies, and communicating this knowledge to the American public.

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