Frontier days seem distant in Nevada, where the rugged landscape has recently acquired a 21st-century sheen. Cities have sprouted in its deserts. Technology companies like Tesla Motors and Faraday Future vie for the state’s workforce.
But invisible to most Nevadans, an unregulated commerce in firearms continues. And it’s facilitated by the same digital platforms driving the economic boom.
The explosive growth of the internet, which has profoundly altered commerce for most everyday goods, has also changed gun sales. Numerous websites now function like Craigslist does for furniture and concert tickets, connecting anonymous strangers who want to meet offline to buy or trade guns in person-to-person transfers.
Some of these sales are conducted by licensed gun dealers, who adopt the same common-sense safety measures for online sales as they do for those they arrange in their brick and mortar stores. Federal law requires these dealers to conduct criminal background checks on their buyers and deny sales to anyone barred from having guns, including convicted felons, domestic abusers, and people with severe mental illness. In the last three years, Nevada gun dealers ran criminal background checks for more than 400,000 gun sales, whether arranged in-person or online, and blocked more than 5,000 sales to dangerous people prohibited by law from possessing guns.
But under current law, unlicensed “private” sellers, who only offer guns occasionally or from their personal collections, are not required to conduct background checks on their buyers—and these sellers have increasingly moved online. Online gun commerce is not in and of itself a threat to public safety, but the fact that these guns are offered for sale without background checks is—and Nevada’s criminals know it.
This investigation—the first of its kind in Nevada—shows that unlicensed internet gun sales are arming Nevada’s criminals, and perpetuating rates of gun violence that outpace the nation by many measures.
The research proceeded in two phases. First, to measure the number of unlicensed gun sales originating online in Nevada, investigators monitored the volume of ads that Nevadans posted to four major websites where guns are sold or traded. These included websites designed for this purpose like Armslist, and those where gun sales are just a part of a much wider range of communications, such as Facebook.
Second, to estimate the number of people shopping online for firearms in spite of criminal or domestic violence histories that barred them from buying guns, investigators placed ads on some of these websites and sampled the would-be gun buyers who responded.
Our research revealed that:
- Nevada’s online market for guns is vast. On just four websites in Nevada, unlicensed sellers post an estimated 35,862 unique gun ads annually.
- Nearly one in 11 people in Nevada shopping online for a gun without a background check (8.7 percent) is prohibited from possessing firearms, including convicted felons profiled later in this report.
- The share of prohibited online gun buyers is almost seven times higher than the share of Nevadans who try to buy guns at licensed dealers and fail background checks, which suggests that criminals are flocking to online gun sales to take advantage of this loophole.
- At this rate, in a single year, just four websites in Nevada could put over 3,100 guns into the hands of felons and domestic abusers.
While this data show the risk that unlicensed online gun sales pose for public safety in Nevada, the problem is not unique to the state. Dangerous people can buy guns without background checks from unlicensed sellers in over thirty states. But a growing number of states have closed this loophole by extending their background check requirements to all gun sales, and those states have lower rates of domestic violence gun homicides, law enforcement shot in the line of duty, and gun trafficking.
Introduction: The Toll of Gun Violence in Nevada
Federal law prohibits certain narrow classes of dangerous people from buying or possessing guns including felons, people convicted of misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence, and certain people with severe mental illness. And with good reason: when convicted felons or convicted domestic abusers obtain guns, they pose an elevated danger to the public.
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 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 pay an especially high price for weak gun laws. An Everytown analysis of people who shot and killed law enforcement officers in Nevada between January 1980 and October 2015 showed that more than half were likely prohibited from possessing guns.Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, “Nevada Law Enforcement Deaths and Illegal Guns,” November 9, 2015, available at: every.tw/1PcBuBR.
And the cost of firearm violence is not limited to those injured or who pay with their lives: Nevadan taxpayers pay tens of millions of dollars each year for hospitalizations of people with firearm injuries. An Everytown analysis of Nevada inpatient hospital data showed that between 2005 and 2015, hospitalizations for firearm injuries resulted in costs of almost $246 million — over $40 million in the most recent year alone.Everytown for Gun Safety, “The Healthcare Costs of Gun Violence In Nevada,” December 2015, available at http://every.tw/1PtNKyp More than half of the costs of hospitalizations for firearm injuries were charged to public insurers, such as Medicare and Medicaid, or absorbed by the health system, costing taxpayers more than $13.3 million in an average year.
Preventing Dangerous People from Getting Guns
Because of the outsized risk that certain narrow categories of dangerous people pose when they have access to firearms, Congress established the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) in 1998. Federal law requires licensed firearms dealers to conduct an instant check on every buyer, and when a person prohibited by law from buying firearms attempts to make a purchase, the background check stops the sale. The process takes just minutes, and each year tens of millions of lawful gun purchasers complete them without incident.Federal Bureau of Investigation, “NICS Firearm Background Checks Month/Year,” January 16 2016, available at: http://1.usa.gov/1OVxB8E But tens of thousands of prohibited people also attempt to buy guns from dealers and are stopped from doing so. In Nevada alone, background checks blocked more than 5,000 gun sales to prohibited people between 2012 and 2014, according to an Everytown analysis of FBI data, including 1,226 sales to felons and 959 sales to people convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors or subject to domestic violence protection orders.Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, “Gun Violence and Background Checks in Nevada,” August 27, 2015, available at: every.tw/1RmKbA1.
But neither federal law nor Nevada state law requires background checks for guns transferred in unlicensed sales, including those between strangers who meet online. These sales take place with no paperwork and no questions asked, which means they make up an unknowable share of total firearm sales in Nevada, 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 checkPhilip 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. — a share that forthcoming research appears to confirm.Kate Masters, The Trace, “Just how many people buy guns without a background check? Fast-Tracked Research is set to provide an answer,” October 21, 2015, available at: http://bit.ly/1GvXiej And an Everytown analysis of gun sales nationwide over one year on a single website, Armslist.com, found that self-described unlicensed gun sellers posted more than 644,000 unique ads offering guns for sale.Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, “Business as Usual: How Unlicensed High-Volume Gun Sellers Fuel the Criminal Market and How the President Can Stop Them,” November 2015, available at: every.tw/1OkvV78.
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 under federal law.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 subsequent Everytown investigations in Washington StateEverytown for Gun Safety, Online and off the record; Washington State’s Vast Internet Gun Market, September 2014, available at: http://washington.everytown.org. and OregonEverytown for Gun Safety, No Questions Asked: How Oregon’s Meth Users and Domestic Abusers Shop Online for Guns, April 2015, available at: every.tw/1OtnYKO showed that as many as 1 in 10 people seeking firearms online in some states are prohibited under state or federal law. In the wake of those reports, Washington residents voted resoundingly to require background checks for all gun sales in their stateJoseph O’Sullivan, “Voters approve measure to expand checks for gun buyers,” Seattle Times, Nov. 4, 2014, available at: http://bit.ly/1xES7SG and Oregon lawmakers followed suit,Jeff Mapes, The Oregonian, “Kate Brown signs background check bill as gun violence groups claim landmark victory,” May 11, 2015, available at: http://bit.ly/1ZrBd3M making it the 18th state to go beyond federal law to require criminal background checks for all handgun sales.Mayors Against Illegal Guns, Gun Background Checks Fact Sheet, available at http://bit.ly/1otOnuS.
The weight of evidence shows that closing this loophole saves lives. In states that require criminal 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. Controlling for population, in states that require background checks for all handgun sales, there were 52 percent fewer mass shootings between January 2009 and July 2015.Everytown for Gun Safety, “State background check requirements and mass shootings,” available at: http://every.tw/206G90c And when Missouri repealed a requirement that gun buyers undergo a background check before obtaining a handgun in an unlicensed sale, the share of likely trafficked guns doubled and the gun homicide rate ballooned by 18 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). Updated, “Permit-to-Purchase Licensing for Handguns,” November 2015, available at: bit.ly/1layWwa.
These are not abstract questions in Nevada. Between 2005 and 2014, the last decade of available data, 1,019 residents of the state were murdered with guns and an additional 2,849 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 January 2016).
To assess the role that unlicensed online gun sales play in arming dangerous people in Nevada, this investigation attempted to answer two critical questions:
- How many unlicensed gun sales are taking place online—and without background checks—across the state of Nevada?
- What share of Nevada residents seeking guns in these unlicensed online sales have committed felonies or domestic violence crimes or are otherwise prohibited under law from buying guns?
How Many Guns are Exchanged in Unlicensed Online Sales in Nevada?
The online market for guns is vast and growing. Dozens of websites host tens of thousands of ads for unlicensed gun sales and provide 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 allow unlicensed sellers to sell guns directly to residents of other states, 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. Users may delete a posted ad once the offered firearm has been sold (or the sought-after firearm obtained), but often leave the ad online as long as 90 days, depending on the website. This electronic trail creates a unique opportunity to measure the scale of the online firearm market and to assess the individuals using websites to buy guns.
For this investigation, Everytown identified four websites catering to Nevada residents where self-described unlicensed sellers post ads offering firearms: Backpage, Armslist, Gunlistings, and Facebook, where unlicensed sellers in Nevada use dozens of dedicated pages to arrange gun sales.
The websites vary in scale, with a volume of gun ads ranging from just a handful to over ten thousand annually. Slightly different techniques were employed to estimate their respective sizes. For the websites Armslist and Gunlistings, all ads posted by self-described “private sellers” that offered firearms for sale or trade were “scraped” (a software technique for extracting online data) on a daily basis from November 1, 2014 to October 31, 2015. For Backpage, all firearm and firearm accessory ads were scraped on a daily basis from August 13 to October 31, 2015, a period of 80 days. To gather data from Facebook, Everytown hired an investigative agency to manually review posts on 27 pages dedicated to gun commerce over a period of four weeks, from December 25, 2015 to January 21, 2016, documenting posts offering guns for sale.
After the data was collected, Everytown employed a variety of techniques to eliminate ads that appeared to be duplicates, “want to buy” ads seeking guns rather than offering them, ads offering ammunition or accessories but no firearm, and ads that included language suggesting they were not posted by unlicensed sellers in Nevada.Everytown used the software program Excel to eliminate 246 ads that included the terms “want to buy”, “wtb”, “looking to buy,” “like to buy,” “want to purchase,” “dealer,” “FFL,” “license,” and “retailer,” which indicated the seller might be licensed or was seeking a gun for sale rather than offering one. Everytown then used the software program Paxata to identify ads that shared 99 of the first 100 characters and thus appeared to be duplicates posted by the same seller, removing 5,910 of 24,234 ads for this reason. Everytown also identified and removed 192 ads that, based on their content, were likely posted by sellers out-of-state. Finally, Everytown used Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service to identify and remove 3,362 remaining ads that had been categorized as offering a firearm for sale but appeared to only firearm accessories or non-firearm goods, leaving 13,570 ads
To assess the accuracy of this procedure, Everytown reviewed a random sample of five percent of the ads (608) to ensure they had been posted by sellers in Nevada and offered firearms for sale. Ninety-seven percent of the ads had been classified correctly; 1.5 percent sought rather than offered firearms and one percent offered only non-firearm goods for sale.
Backpage and Facebook do not require the ad-poster to indicate whether he or she is an unlicensed seller, as Armslist and Gunlistings do. To control for the possibility that some of those offering guns for sale are licensed, investigators randomly contacted sellers from each of these websites under the pretext of seeking to buy firearms until a sample of 40 respondents was reached for Facebook, and 43 reached for Backpage. In those conversations, 95 percent of Facebook sellers and 81 percent of Backpage sellers verbally confirmed that they did not have licenses. Estimates of the number of ads posted by unlicensed sellers on each of these websites were adjusted accordingly.
In total, investigators scraped or manually identified 13,570 unique ads posted featuring firearms for sale. At this rate, unlicensed sellers in Nevada would post a total of 35,862 firearm ads to just these four websites each year.
The vast majority of sellers appeared to post just one or two ads during the period of observation, but a small number of sellers offered guns in higher volumes, an indicator that they may be illegally “engaging in the business” of selling firearms without a license. On Armslist, six sellers posted 25 or more ads over the course of a year including one seller who posted 157 ads. These six unlicensed sellers accounted for more than five percent of the ads posted on Armslist by unlicensed sellers in Nevada during this period of observation.
A small group of sellers on Facebook also offered large volumes of guns, even in the briefer period observed. One unlicensed seller posted 13 unique ads over four weeks (if that rate remained constant, he would list 169 guns over the course of a year) and nine other sellers each offered six or more guns. This handful of sellers accounted for almost nine percent of gun ads posted by Nevadan sellers (81 of 962 ads), and if they continued to offer guns at this pace they would each advertise over 75 guns annually.
Who is Seeking Guns in Unlicensed Online Sales in Nevada?
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 criminal background check. But the same is not true of gun sales by unlicensed sellers, who are not required to conduct a background check under current law. The large volume of these unlicensed sales occurring in Nevada—more than 35,000 annually across just four websites—provides an open door for dangerous people to avoid the background check system and buy guns.
To characterize the group of would-be gun buyers in Nevada, investigators posted 19 ads offering firearms for sale on the websites Armslist and Facebook between August 24, 2015 and September 17, 2015. Investigators received 394 responses to the ads and used information the would-be buyers voluntarily provided, including their names, phone numbers, and/or email addresses, to identify them using reverse lookup phone data or other sources. Investigators ultimately identified 224 unique Nevada residents seeking guns in online, unlicensed sales. Ninety-eight percent of identified respondents were male.
Investigators then searched court records in the geographic areas where each individual was known to have maintained a current or past address. Any felony convictions, domestic violence misdemeanor convictions, bench warrants, orders of protection, or other records that could be linked to the individual were analyzed to determine if they prohibited possession of firearms under state or federal law.
To ensure that the prohibition in each case remained in force at the time the individual was shopping for guns online, investigators checked with the relevant authorities in each state of conviction to confirm that none of the would-be buyers had had their prohibition lifted through a process allowed under federal law. The federal prohibition on firearm possession does not apply if a person has been pardoned for their criminal conviction or had their civil rights and firearm rights restored under state law. 18 U.S.C. §921(a)(20)(B),(33)(B)(ii). To verify that none of the buyers has had a prohibiting conviction pardoned, investigators contacted the governor’s office, clemency board, or other relevant authority in each state of conviction. For individuals with prohibiting convictions in New York and Washington, where restoration of rights is possible, see N.Y. Correct. Law §§ 701-703, RCW 9.41.040(4), investigators verified with the parole board and the relevant courts, respectively, that no such restoration occurred.
This investigation’s results may understate the share of prohibited buyers in the online market. Investigators only examined court records in the jurisdictions where the identified buyer 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 some non-criminal prohibiting criteria including severe mental illness, dishonorable discharge from the Armed Forces, and immigration status.
Of the identified individuals seeking guns in unlicensed online sales in Nevada, 8.9 percent (20 of 224) had been convicted of crimes that prohibited them from possessing firearms. At this prevalence, gun sales transacted on just four websites as many as 3,100 guns into the hands of felons and domestic abusers in Nevada every year.
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 avoid background checks elsewhere. Between 2012 and 2014, Nevada gun dealers denied 1.3 percent of gun sales because the buyer failed the background check.The State of Nevada conducted 409,990 background checks from 2012-2014, of which 5,379 failed the check. See: Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, “Gun Violence and Background Checks in Nevada,” August 27, 2015, available at: every.tw/1RmKbA1. In contrast, the share of buyers seeking guns online who are prohibited was 8.9 percent—almost seven times higher. This is a statistically significant difference, meaning it would not have occurred by chance alone.Based on the sample size of 229 examined buyers, the margin of error is 5.1 percent to 12.4 percent. The confidence interval is calculated as P +/- 1.96*[(P*(1- P)/n) ^.5 = 8.7% +/- 1.96 (.087*.913/229)^.5 = 5.1% to 12.4%
A plausible explanation for this disparity is that the background check system is successfully 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 more than 25 percent between 2000 and 2014.
Dangerous People Shopping for Guns Online in Nevada
In the course of this research, investigators observed the following individuals trying to purchased guns in unlicensed online sales without background checks — despite the fact their prior criminal records barred them from buying or owning guns.
This investigation offers a first glimpse into the vast online market where Nevadans exchange guns in unlicensed sales and provides clear evidence that criminals are taking advantage of these transfers to avoid background checks and obtain firearms—and then committing serious crimes.
There are two straightforward means for addressing this problem. Lawmakers can close the underlying loophole by extending background check requirements to all gun sales, a measure supported by more than 90 percent of the public.Douglas Schoen LLC, “2013 National Poll of Voters’ Attitudes Toward Common-Sense Gun Laws,” 2013, available at: http://every.tw/1TlLyi And until lawmakers act, websites can disallow unlicensed gun sales on their platforms, or at the very least establish safety protocols to ensure that unlicensed gun sales are consummated through gun dealers.
Criminal background checks on all gun sales and transfers, with reasonable exceptions, would go a long way to addressing this very real threat to public safety. Other states have recently amended their laws in similar ways and are already seeing results. In Colorado, which passed a law requiring background checks for all gun sales in 2013, strangers who connect online to sell a gun now meet at a licensed dealer who will run background checks for unlicensed person-to-person sales. Ninety-eight percent of Coloradans live within 10 miles of a gun dealer, who outnumber post-offices in the state three to one.Everytown for Gun Safety, “Licensed gun dealers in Colorado,” available at: http:// bit.ly/1ZQiBdP
In the first 30 months after the law went into effect, dealers in Colorado conducted nearly 40,000 background checks for sales by unlicensed sellers. Background checks for unlicensed sales blocked more than 700 gun sales to criminals or other prohibited people who attempted to buy guns, and likely deterred many others from attempting to obtain guns at all.Colorado Bureau of Investigation, Firearms Instacheck Unit, available at: http://1. usa.gov/1OxmAa4. See also: Ted Alcorn, “Evaluation of Colorado’s Expanded Background Check Law,” March 17, 2015, available at: http://every.tw/co-memo 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. Washington and Oregon extended their background check requirements in the two following years. As of 2016, eighteen states—home to 49 percent of the US population—required background checks for all handgun sales.CA, DE, IL, MA, NJ, OR, WA, CO, IA, MI, NY, PA, CT, HI, MD, NE, NC, RI. For more information, see: http://bit.ly/1niplpa. Everytown analysis of US Census data, December 2015.
While the websites that host gun ads are used predominately for lawful commerce, under current law they are also exploited by criminals who use them to get their hands on guns with no background check and no questions asked. Until legislators close this loophole by requiring background checks for all gun sales, sites could disallow gun listings by unlicensed sellers, or at the very least, they could ensure that the gun sales they facilitate are consummated through federally licensed dealers, who can conduct criminal 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.