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In 2007, US Air Force Academy graduate Jon Gibbon saw a television interview about Craigslist that got him thinking. The online classifieds site had decided to reject ads for firearms, and Gibbon thought he had spotted an opportunity. “When I heard them say that they decided to ban all gun-related ads because a few users cried out for it, it inspired me to create a place for law-abiding gun owners to buy and sell online without all of the hassles of auctions and shipping,” he told Human Events in 2010.
So Gibbon hooked up with his academy buddy Brian Mancini, and two years later the pair launched a website they thought was destined to fill a natural void in the online marketplace: Armslist, a website devoted specifically to the private sales of guns and related gear. The site allows private sellers to offer guns for sale to other private purchasers. Buyers can contact sellers via phone or email to set up the sale, and avoid going through a federal background check or even leaving a paper trail. Such transactions are more anonymous than purchasing a weapon at a gun show, where people who canâ€™t pass a background check can buy large quantities of guns.
Armslist quickly took off. By 2011, it was one of the largest online gun sites in the country, with more than 13,000 active listings for firearms. The site also had another, more dubious distinction: Weapons obtained through the site have been tied to the murders of four people and one suicide. An undercover New York City investigation (PDF) found that the site likely was a major conduit for illegal gun sales. Investigators discovered that 54 percent of the sellers they contacted through the site were openly willing to sell firearms to people who admitted they couldn’t pass a background check (which is a felony, incidentally).
Armslist isn’t the only online gun site in the country, but it’s by far the biggest, especially after KSL.com, a news site owned by the Mormon church, stopped taking gun ads after the Newtown shooting. These sorts of online operations are a primary target of proposals from President Obama that would require background checks for every gun sale, even private ones. When New York City took a look at the online gun marketplace in 2011, it found more than 25,000 weapons for sale on just 10 websites, making the internet a significant component of gun industry. The report suggested that the internet sales were likely tied to a fair amount of crime.