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The Internet Creates a Gray Market for Firearms

Gun sales facilitated online often skirt gun laws

Gun buyers online might be able to avoid background checks.

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While the debate rages about gun control in America, one issue that hasn't been widely discussed is the so-called "gray market" for firearms online.

Websites like Armslist provide markets for gun buyers and sellers that skirt background check laws in many states. This has many gun control advocates worried that even with stricter laws, it won't be enough to stop the flow of guns to dangerous people. According to many recent studies, as many as 40 percent of all gun sales are facilitated online, without a background check.

"It's illegal to sell a gun to somebody who couldn't pass a background check, but it's very difficult to enforce when these things are arranged on the internet," says Stephanie Mencimer, a reporter for Mother Jones magazine who covers gun violence.

Last month, Mencimer wrote about a situation in 2011 when a Canadian citizen named Dmitry Smirnov brought Armslist to global attention. He had been dating a woman online named Jetka Vesel. When she ended the relationship, Smirnov began stalking her, and purchased a gun from a dealer in Washington state.

"The guy who sold him the gun was freaked out enough by the transaction that he sold him the gun, but no ammunition," notes Mencimer.

Smirnov was eventually able to purchase bullets, and shot Vesel to death in April 2011. He confessed his crime to police shortly afterwards.

Mencimer notes that this case emphasizes the hard-to-trace nature of guns acquired after online communication.

"It is illegal to sell a gun to someone who you know couldn't pass a background check. There was a sting operation in New York a few years ago where they used sites like Armslist and the investigators contacted sellers of guns, and made it clear they could not pass a background check. And they still sold them the guns," says Mencimer. "It's not a strong mechanism for keeping guns out of the wrong hands."

Mencimer notes that the mandatory background check law would require that all sales happen through a registered firearms dealer, which could put sites like Armslist out of business.