Earlier today, Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, responding to the terror in Orlando, launched a filibuster in the hope of pushing Congress to work toward meaningful gun control. Fellow Democrats joined him throughout the afternoon and said all the things you’d expect lawmakers to say. Then Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts took the floor.
“We need to ban gun sales on sites on the Internet like Facebook and Instagram,” he said. “Right now, anyone can do a search for ‘AK-47’ or ‘AR-15’ or even ‘guns for sale’ on Instagram and find guns for sale.”
He’s right. Even now, years after the issue of gun sales on social media platforms came to light, you can still find plenty of them available. We searched #gunsforsale on Instagram minutes after Markey’s comments and got nearly 8,000 results. The listings ranged from handguns of every description to a Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine gun.
But then, in real time, the results began to shift for people throughout the WIRED office. The number of results dwindled with subsequent searches, then disappeared entirely before reappearing a short time later with the addendum “Recent posts from #gunsforsale are currently hidden because the community has reported some content that may not meet Instagram’s community guidelines.” Instagram, and its parent company Facebook, didn’t say so, but it appeared that Markey illuminated an unintended use of the platform and the company was struggling to keep it in check.
Instagram’s guidelines specifically state that the platform “is not a place to support or praise terrorism, organized crime, or hate groups. Offering sexual services, buying or selling firearms and illegal or prescription drugs (even if it’s legal in your region) is also not allowed.” That may sound like a prohibition on listing guns for sale, but it’s not that simple. And while more recent #gunsforsale posts may be hidden, older ones still appear—and may even be legit.
Back in March 2014, Facebook issued a statement that users “will not be permitted to specify ‘no background check required,’ nor can they offer to transact across state lines without a licensed firearms dealer.” Essentially, that means no backroom deals, but posts about legitimate sales are fine.
In a statement to WIRED, a Facebook representative said, “When we are made aware of content that promotes the private sale of regulated items whether in groups, on profiles, or on pages, it will be deleted. The same policies and enforcement apply to Instagram. We don’t allow people to advertise gun sales on Facebook or Instagram. We also do not allow people to post offering to buy, sell, or trade firearms. We do allow stores or online retailers to post about a sale that would take place off of Facebook.”
The Armory, located in Woburn, Massachusetts, does exactly that. Store director Matt DeVito says The Armory started posting items for sale on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter two years ago. “It’s free marketing. The gun community is very active on lots of forms of social media,” he says. “It allows us to open up our clientele from just here in Massachusetts to sell across the entire country.”
To complete a sale online, a licensed dealer like The Armory receives a direct inquiry from a buyer via contact information listed in the social media post. The store then ships the gun to a licensed dealer near the buyer, who must prove their identity before receiving the firearm.
But a cursory search of “#gunsforsale” or combinations including “#guns,” “#forsale,” “#ak47,” or “#ar15” yielded results from users who clearly are not licensed firearms dealers, and who specifically offer to conduct business through direct messages within Instagram. That violates the platform’s user agreement and terms of service, but unless they are reported by other Instagram users—or mentioned, say, on the Senate floor—those posts may never get removed.
Instagram is not intended to be a marketplace. But having users police ads that violate guidelines suggests there is an acceptable amount of content that evades detection. It’s time for social media platforms to stop relying on users and start looking for these things themselves.
Additional reporting by Charley Locke and Angela Watercutter
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