Online and Off the Record

Washington State's Vast Internet Gun Market

Using data from ads that were publicly posted on major Washington websites where guns are bought and sold, this five-month undercover investigation attempted to determine just how many people were put in danger by gaps in Washington state’s gun laws, and the results are deeply concerning.

Executive Summary

Monique Williams did not have to die.

She was 29 years old, working as a nurse in the Tri-Cities areas of Washington, and dating Aaron Joe Newport.

There were indications Newport was dangerous. He had been briefly married to another woman and when his wife separated from him, he broke into her house, raped and threatened to kill her. Ultimately convicted of domestic violence assault, he was prohibited from buying firearms under both state and federal law.State of Washington v. Newport, No. 07-48149 (Super. Ct. Dec. 22, 2007).

According to one of Newport’s friends, he did try to buy a gun again from a licensed dealer — but the dealer conducted a background check, discovered Newport was prohibited, and denied the sale. The system worked: as a domestic abuser, Newport posed an elevated danger with a firearm, and the background check efficiently screened him from getting one.

But the system is flawed by a fatal loophole, and Newport knew it. Federal law requires licensed gun dealers to conduct background checks, but individuals selling guns in “private,” unlicensed sales — often online or at gun shows —  are exempt. This allows criminals and other dangerous people to buy guns with no background check, no paperwork, no questions asked.

With the click of a mouse, Newport went online and found a .40 caliber Springfield XD handgun listed by an unlicensed seller. According to a friend who accompanied him, Newport arranged to meet the seller in a parking lot, where he bought the gun with cash and without a background check.Pasco Police Department, State of Washington, Incident/Investigation Report no. 14-19727 (Pasco, WA: 19 May 2007).

There were no witnesses to how it ended. On May 13, 2014, Williams left her relationship with Newport. The police speculated that some time the following weekend, Newport broke into her house through the dog door, assaulted her, and shot her in the head before taking his own life.

It is clear that the online sales loophole in the gun background check system failed Williams. But until now, it has not been clear how many other Washington residents the system is endangering. Using data from ads that were publicly posted on major Washington websites where guns are bought and sold, this five-month undercover investigation attempts to answer that question, and the results are deeply concerning:

  • Each year, more than forty thousand guns are posted for sale by unlicensed sellers on just five websites in Washington, no background check required.
  • Criminals are flocking to this market to evade the background check system and arm themselves. Nearly 1 in 10 people seeking a firearm in an online unlicensed sale in Washington is prohibited from possessing a gun — including people charged with rape, domestic abusers, and people convicted of assaulting police officers.

It is too late to save Monique Williams’ life, but her story can save others. Extending the background check system to ensure that unlicensed sales are subject to a background checks will help prevent convicted felons and domestic abusers from buying guns with no questions asked.

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 prohibited people obtain guns, they pose an elevated danger to the public.

Prohibited people who obtain guns are responsible for a disproportionate share of firearm crime. Of 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’s risk of being murdered rises fivefold.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 are among the groups that pay the highest price for weak gun laws. In Washington, prohibited people who obtained guns were responsible for 61 percent of law enforcement gun murders over the last thirty years, an Everytown analysis of FBI data has shown.“Officers Down: The Loophole That’s Killing Cops in Washington,”Everytown for Gun Safety, available at http://bit.ly/1CSTYEQ

Federal law requires licensed dealers to conduct an instant background check on every prospective gun buyer. The National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) was established in 1998 to block gun sales to dangerous people. The checks take just minutes to complete, and each year millions of lawful gun purchasers complete them without incident.

Tens of thousands of prohibited people also attempt to buy guns from dealers, and the system effectively denies those sales. Since its inception, the background check system has blocked more than 40,000 gun sales to prohibited people in Washington, including over 6,000 gun sales to people convicted of domestic violence crimes or subject to restraining orders, an Everytown analysis of data from the FBI has shown.“40,976 Reasons to Expand Background Checks in Washington State,” Everytown for Gun Safety, available at http://bit.ly/1tL2oeM

However, Washington state law does not require a background check for guns offered in unlicensed sales — most notably, anonymous transactions initiated online and at gun shows. These sales by unlicensed “private” individuals take place with no paperwork and no strings attached, which means they make up an incalculable share of total firearm sales in Washington. 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. And 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.

The U.S. Congress has failed to act on this threat but states have responded. By 2014, 16 states have gone 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 there is evidence that closing this loophole saves lives. In such states there are 38 percent fewer women shot to death by their intimate partners,Everytown analysis of FBI Supplementary Homicide Reports and Florida Dept. of Law Enforcement data, 2010, available at: http://bit.ly/1hAySn8. 39 percent fewer law enforcement officers killed with handguns that are not their own,Everytown analysis of FBI Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted data, 2000-11, available at: http://bit.ly/1hAySn8. 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 doubledDaniel 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). and the gun homicide rate ballooned by 25 percent. Controlling for other factors, researchers estimate that the change in law was associated with up to 68 additional gun homicides.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.

These are not abstract issues in Washington. In 2013, there were 50 percent more likely trafficked guns recovered and traced by law enforcement than there were seven years prior.“Criminals are exploiting loopholes in Washington State Law More and More, ”Everytown for Gun Safety, available at http://bit.ly/1uP9axe. And in the last decade of available data, 1,178 residents of the state were murdered with guns, and an additional 4,449 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/VTdKK (last accessed June 2014)

To assess the role that unlicensed online gun sales play in arming dangerous people in Washington, 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 Washington?

And what share of Washington 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 Washington?

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 (“Washington Gun Trader”) 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. Many websites have internal messaging systems that allow users to reply to ads that catch their eye, but users may also include contact information in the ads they post including their name, phone number, or email address. This electronic paper trail creates a unique opportunity to measure the scale of the online firearm market, and to research the criminal histories of individuals using websites to buy guns.

Data Collection

ChartFor this investigation, Everytown identified five websites catering to Washington residents where self-described unlicensed sellers post ads seeking or offering firearms. The websites range in size with hundreds to tens of thousands of firearms listed at any given time. Once each day from February 25 to July 12, 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 that featured ammunition, accessories, or other goods but did not include a firearm were removed.

Results

In total, investigators scraped 16,739 ads featuring firearms for sale over the 138-day period. At that rate, unlicensed sellers in Washington would post 44,273 firearm ads to just these five websites each year. Geographic information that unlicensed sellers provide in the firearm ads indicates where guns are being bought and sold in Washington. Ad-posters usually include a city or county where they would like to conduct the exchange. Of the 16,739 firearm ads identified, 14,610 (87 percent) included geographic information that could be matched to one of Washington’s 39 counties.

Twenty-six percent of the firearm ads posted by unlicensed sellers were listed in the state’s most populous county, King County. But controlling for population, a cluster of counties in the west of the state posted the largest number. Clark County had the highest prevalence of for-sale firearm ads listed by unlicensed sellers (518 per 100,000 residents), followed by Thurston County (423) and Pierce County (376).

Investigators also analyzed textual content of the gun ads to determine the firearm manufacturers and calibers of guns that were most frequently exchanged. Three-quarters of the ads (76 percent) could be matched to a manufacturer and more than a third (38 percent) could be matched to a specific caliber or design. Notably, the top five calibers of firearms exchanged online in unlicensed sales are the same five calibers of firearms most frequently recovered and traced by Washington law enforcement in 2013.ATF Office of Strategic Intelligence and Information, Firearms Trace Data, 2013, available at: http://1.usa.gov/1rCTYG3.

Who is Seeking Guns in Unlicensed Online Sales in Washington?

Every year, millions of law-abiding Americans shop for firearms at licensed firearm dealers. This volume of firearm sales is not intrinsically 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 Washington state — more than 40,000 annually across just five websites — creates an opportunity for prohibited people to evade the background check system and acquire guns.

Whereas the majority of the firearm ads scraped during the investigation offered guns “for sale,” a notable share of listings were so-called “want-to-buy” ads posted by individuals seeking guns. These ads provide a unique opportunity to measure the share of would-be gun buyers in Washington who are prohibited from buying guns but nevertheless seek them in unlicensed sales, without a background check.

Data Collection

Over the course of the investigation, investigators scraped 1,164 “want-to-buy” firearm ads. Of those, 96 unique individuals publicly posted identifying information such as a phone number or email address. Using reverse lookup phone data and other sources, 78 ads seeking to purchase firearms could be matched to an individual living in the locale where the ad was listed.

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.

To ensure that matches between would-be gun buyers and criminal records were valid, investigators called the phone number posted in each ad to confirm that the subscriber had placed the ad. All buyers reached by phone confirmed that they had placed the ad.

For buyers that had committed prohibiting felony or domestic violence offenses, investigators then checked the court of record where the individuals had committed their crime as well as the superior court in every county where the individuals resided since the conviction to determine if anyone of their name had sought to have their prohibition lifted through the process allowed under state and federal law.See Wash. Rev. Code § 9.41.040(4) (providing for state firearms restoration and specifying proper venue), 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(20)(B) (listing the exceptions to the federal prohibition after felony conviction). In Washington, judges have no discretion to deny these requests for rights restoration as long as the individual meets the requirements.See, e.g., State v. Swanson, 116 Wn. App. 67, review denied, 150 Wn.2d 1006 (2003). Of prohibited gun buyers identified in this investigation, one individual had successfully overturned his prohibition under state law, but the nature of his conviction still prohibited him from possessing firearms under federal law.

Due to the following limitations of this methodology, the investigation’s results may considerably understate the share of prohibited buyers in the online market:

  • Conservative sample: Criminal gun buyers seeking to remain anonymous are more likely to browse for-sale ads and contact sellers directly rather than posting their own ads and divulging their contact information. As a result, the share of want-to-buy ads placed by criminals almost certainly underestimates the total share of online gun buyers who are prohibited from purchasing guns.
  • Limited scope of records reviewed: 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, drug abuse, dishonorable discharge from the Armed Forces, and immigration status.
  • Mismatched records: Criminal gun buyers may have posted ads online but listed the phone number of a friend or family member with a clean record. In such cases, they would not have been identified as prohibited, resulting in an undercount of criminal buyers. Investigators did not make follow-up calls to apparently non-prohibited buyers to ensure that they were, in fact, the person who placed the ad.

Results

Of the identified individuals seeking guns in unlicensed online sales in Washington, one in ten (8 of 78) had been convicted of crimes that prohibited them from possessing firearms.

The share of would-be gun buyers with a history of domestic abuse was especially high: nearly 4 percent of people seeking guns had been convicted of a domestic violence crime or were under a restraining order. In comparison, less than 0.1 percent of people seeking guns from licensed gun dealers in Washington have a prohibiting domestic violence history. In Washington, the share of people seeking guns in unlicensed sales online who have a prohibiting history of domestic violence is over 40 times higher than the share of those seeking guns at licensed gun dealers.

Prohibited would-be gun buyers included individuals with lengthy criminal histories who had committed recent violent crimes:

  • On May 11, 2014, a man who listed his location as “S.E. King County, Washington” posted an ad seeking a Browning Hi Power 9mm handgun, with the explanation that he was “looking to replace a firearm I should’ve never sold.” The email address provided in the ad matched an individual with an extensive history of criminal convictions, beginning with felony car theft in 1976. He had also committed misdemeanor acts of domestic violence against his wife and had been sentenced to 5 years imprisonment for assaulting a police officer. In a request for a restraining order against him, his wife wrote that he had threatened to “go buy a gun so he could knock me off and not have worry about where I was or what I was doing.” He signed a document explicitly affirming that he could not possess firearms.
  • On June 23, 2013, a man who listed his location as “Vancouver, Washington” posted an ad seeking a variety of pistols. The phone number provided in the ad belonged to a 28-year-old male who in 2009 was charged with raping a woman he had intimidated with a handgun and convicted of domestic violence assault, which prohibited him from possessing a firearm.
  • On March 7, 2014, a man who listed his location as “Tacoma, Washington” posted an ad in which he stated he was “always looking for guns.” The phone number provided in the ad matched a 27-year-old male who was convicted of felony residential burglary in 2004. This crime is a “serious offense” under state law, and he was notified in writing and signed a document affirming his ineligibility to possess firearms.
  • On April 16, 2014, a man who listed his location as “Longview, Washington” posted an ad seeking a lower receiver for an assault rifle. The phone number matched an individual who had been convicted of felony robbery, for which he was sentenced to 10 years in prison. This prohibited him from possessing firearms.

At this prevalence, gun sales transacted on just five websites could put as many as 4,400 guns into the hands of felons and domestic abusers in Washington in this year alone. The size of this loophole is overwhelming the protective effect of the background check system: this number of illegal transfers exceeds the number of attempted gun sales by prohibited buyers that licensed gun dealers in Washington successfully denied in 2013.

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 at licensed dealers. In 2013, Washington gun dealers conducted 561,122 background checks; of those, 3,600 were denied due to a criminal offense or domestic violence restraining order — 0.64 percent. In contrast, the share of buyers seeking guns online who are prohibited for these reasons was 10.3 percent — more than 15 times higher. This is a statistically significant difference, meaning it would not have been achieved by chance alone.Based on the sample size of 81 examined buyers, the margin of error is 3.4 percent to 16.4 percent. The confidence interval is calculated as P +/- 1.96*[(P*(1-P)/n) ^.5 = 9.9% +/- 1.96 (.099*.901/81)^.5 = 3.4% to 16.4%.

ChartA 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 private sellers is consistent with the data from the background check system, which shows that the share of gun sales resulting in denial fell more than 50 percent between 2003 and 2013.