Gun Site Allows Felons To Purchase Firearms Online

One proposal in the Senate gun control bill was to extend background checks to gun sales over the Internet. There turns out to be a bustling marketplace for weapons, as the New York Times reported on Wednesday. Robert Siegel talks to reporter Michael Luo about what he and his colleagues found. Then we hear from the president of one Internet outlet for gun sales — Jim McComas from Carolina Gunrunners in Raleigh, N.C.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The Senate has voted down an effort to include background checks to include gun sales over the Internet. The amendment was an attempt to regulate what turns out to be a bustling marketplace for weapons, as The New York Times reports today.

SIEGEL: The Times describes how people with felony records and restraining orders have been able to buy and sell guns and ammunition online, at the website ArmsList.com and elsewhere.

Times reporter Michael Luo joins us now to talk about what he and his colleagues found. Welcome to the program.

MICHAEL LUO: It's good to be here.

SIEGEL: And first of all, do we know how many guns are sold over the Internet each year, and how big a player this ArmsList.com is?

LUO: So, we haven't done a canvas of the entire Internet. That would be almost impossible, I think. What we did was we scraped this website, ArmsList.com, which is the biggest player in terms of free online gun classifieds websites. And so, we got all the ads off of there for three months and put it in a database. And that was over 170,000 ads for guns.

The problem is that a lot of those ads, or some of those ads, are repeats. And so, it's very difficult to actually get a full count of how many distinct guns are for sale at a specific time. I mean, it's definitely in the tens of thousands.

SIEGEL: Well, since background checks for Internet sales has been a big issue in Washington, did you get a sense of how easy it is for someone who would flunk a background check at a licensed gun dealer to buy a gun, say, at ArmsList.com?

LUO: I think it would be very easy is the short answer. We looked for people who are - posted ads about wanting to buy something. And we looked actually for people who seem to post unusual - I don't know - not necessarily suspicious but, you know, they stood out ads. And so, one of the ads that we, you know, we ended up trying to look at was a guy who had posted an ad, saying: I got 250 cash for a good handgun, something reliable.

We trace that phone number and we wound up identifying a guy from Colorado with two felony convictions for burglary, another for motor vehicle theft, and another misdemeanor domestic violence offense. All of these crimes would bar him from having firearms. He was not the only example. We found other people who clearly shouldn't have guns and they were either buying or selling guns on ArmsList.

SIEGEL: Tell us a story of Dmitri Smirnov, which you report in the Times.

LUO: Yeah, so this was a guy who was from Canada. And he went to the Washington state area and responded to an ad of somebody posting a handgun on the site. And told the guy that, you know, I'm from Canada but I'm in the area and I'm a little worried because I was robbed. And so, I'd like a gun.

You know, you're not allowed to sell to sell to somebody across state lines, and not allowed to sell to, you know, somebody from Canada. And so, instead of turning down the transaction, he just charged him $200 more for the gun. And then he drove to Illinois after buying this gun, in an illegal purchase on ArmsList.com, and he killed a woman that he had dated a few years earlier. He stalked her and accosted her in this parking lot and shot her multiple times.

SIEGEL: And then turned himself in. It's not in dispute that he...

LUO: Yeah, he turned himself in. And they also arrested the guy who sold him the gun and charged them with an illegal interstate sale.

SIEGEL: Yeah, there's a big difference here between private parties selling guns within state and across state lines - big deal.

LUO: Right, that's like the one significant restriction that is imposed upon private parties. If you're selling across state lines, if you're posting an ad in Colorado and I'm, you know, trying to buy it from, you know, Missouri or something like that, technically that guy is supposed to - in order to get the gun, to be sent to an FFL, a federally licensed firearms dealer. And that federally licensed firearms dealer is supposed to do a background check on me.

The problem though is, it seemed to us, is there were and there are illegal interstate sales occurring. Like, somebody actually posted: I will ship it to you person-to-private person, you know, FedEx. And, you know, there are a lot of ads also that say, face-to-face transfer only, no questions asked, you know, no paperwork.

And so, in a face-to-face transfer, we don't know what's actually happening and whether they actually are, you know, just doing across state lines and just ignoring that issue.

SIEGEL: Michael Luo, thank you very much for talking with us.

LUO: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Michael Luo of The New York Times.

I went to ArmsList.com and found that this year there have been over 20 ads on the site listed by one private party. Those ads include a phone number in North Carolina and they say: Ask for Casey. I searched the name and the number and came up with Casey Grant at Carolina Gunrunners in Raleigh. Mr. Grant put us onto the owner, Jim McComas.

Mr. McComas is a federally licensed gun dealer. And I asked them why does he advertise on ArmsList as a private party?

JIM MCCOMAS: We do that for a lot of reasons but it's not to bypass anything. All of the firearms that come into the store, when we sell, we sell them through ArmsList. We just don't want - we choose not to be identified as Carolina Gunrunners.

SIEGEL: But if somebody thought that by buying from the private party and it says: Call up Casey, and going to your gun store - if somebody thought they were bypassing a background check, would they indeed be bypassing a background check?

MCCOMAS: Not at all, because we go by the books on everything, otherwise we lose our license. Plus, there's a moral obligation to make sure that things are transferred into the right hands.

SIEGEL: But I'm trying to figure out what's happening here. You know, is there an allure to being on the Internet and being a private party that makes people think it's a better deal than if you just said Carolina Gunrunners - here's an ad for our stock?

MCCOMAS: The market is different on an Internet transaction that it is on a local transaction. So if you're selling a very expensive firearm, that it's - obviously you have a lot more market on an Internet transaction than you do local Raleigh. Selling to people...

SIEGEL: But I mean, I'm not an IT guy but, you know, it took me about a handful of clicks to connect from private party, ask for Casey, and find the Carolina Gunrunners. It's not that secret.

MCCOMAS: That's true. That's true. But a lot of people wouldn't do that research. So, we're not - that was just something that we do. We don't always do it that way but...

SIEGEL: You can get better prices that way?

MCCOMAS: We can get - yes, because the market is better. You know, in other words, there may be a particular gun - a collector's gun is an example. A collector's gun, you know, the local market, there may be three people in Raleigh that would be interested in that. There may be 300 people across the country that would be looking at ArmsList.

SIEGEL: Well, Mr. McComas, thank you very much for talking with us today.

MCCOMAS: I appreciate it. Thank you, Robert. Have a good day.

SIEGEL: Thank you.

That's Jim McComas, who is the proprietor of Carolina Gunrunners in Raleigh, North Carolina. They advertise extensively on ArmsList.com but they advertise there as a private party.

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