Online access to gun dealing triggers fears

Sales: Weapons increasingly are advertised and bought over the Internet -- with potential to circumvent laws.

July 10, 2000|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

Looking for an Uzi? Try the Internet.

"GORGEOUS," reads one of hundreds of online ads for the Israeli-made submachine gun, this one on a site called the Firearms Trading Post. "Brand new, unfired, unchambered. ... Israeli military green. Contact Larry."

More than 4,000 Web sites offer guns for sale -- from BB guns to AK-47 assault rifles -- and anti-gun lobbyists claim the Internet has become a worldwide munitions store that is becoming too huge to regulate.

"The Internet is the gun show of the future," says Brian Morton, a spokesman for Handgun Control Inc., a Washington lobbying group. "The biggest danger is you can have anybody selling guns to anybody with no face-to-face interaction whatsoever. Whether you're a child, a criminal, or mentally unstable, it doesn't matter. You can find a place on the Internet to buy a gun."

Legislators are trying to craft bills addressing Internet gun transactions and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is considering a new unit devoted to online sales of firearms and explosives. Meanwhile, business is skyrocketing at large Web sites such as, which lists thousands of weapons and expects $12 million in sales this year.

Critics of the online gun trade fear that the global outreach of the Internet will enable criminals or others banned from buying guns to find someone -- whether it be in Maryland, South America, or anywhere else in the world -- who is willing to illegally sell them weapons.

In most cases these cyber-sales are legitimate. Federal regulations governing the buying and selling of guns still apply to online transactions, which means that no private individual can legally buy a gun without the approval of one of the country's 106,000 federally licensed firearms dealers. The dealer, in most cases, runs a background check on the potential buyer and must send a freshly signed approval form to the seller before the sale can be made.

Law-abiding gun dealers say the system works in both the electronic and real worlds. But critics say the danger of abuse comes from private dealers and buyers who want to cut out the licensed firearms dealer -- and hence, the required background check -- from the gun sale.

For instance, many Web sites offer e-mail addresses of people selling handguns or military-style submachine guns. In such cases, critics argue, an illegal buyer who wants to disobey the law can send out dozens of e-mails to sellers until he or she finds one willing to make the sale without the participation of a licensed dealer.

Even so, federal firearms agents say they haven't had significant trouble from Internet gun sales. A new investigative unit, backed by a $850,000 federal grant, will help the ATF look more closely at the issue, but so far there have been few prosecutions involving electronic gun trading.

"We haven't seen a whole lot of problems from it yet," said Mike Campbell, an ATF spokesman. "Basically, people still have to follow federal firearms laws, whether they're on the Internet or not."

Campbell said some guns will invariably end up in the wrong hands, noting a New Jersey case in which two teen-agers posed as a gun dealer to illegally purchase semiautomatic handguns through an Internet site in May. The teens had forged a firearms license to persuade the dealer to make the sale, but a United Parcel Service driver refused to deliver the guns after seeing the recipients were minors.

"Computers can be used to help someone make counterfeit licenses, and that may require a little greater diligence on the part of everyone involved in doing the checking," Campbell said. "The legitimate gun dealers will have to keep an eye out for those kinds of things."

Dale Blankenship, a Virginia firearms dealer who operates a Web site called, said he doesn't think the Internet will flood the world with illegal guns. But he does get occasional e-mails from potential buyers asking him if he'd be willing to sell them a gun without doing a background check.

"I don't even respond to them," Blankenship said. "I've heard all kinds of stories, and had people beg me to send them stuff. I've had people say that they're police officers and that they don't need to be checked. It doesn't matter who they are, they have to have a background check."

Blankenship, who has been in the gun business more than 15 years, said Internet gun sellers are subject to tighter regulation than sellers at approved gun shows, where unlicensed dealers can legally sell weapons.

There are about 4,400 gun shows across the country each year, and they are often criticized by gun-control advocates for being lax.

"The Internet is just a shopping network for gun dealers, and it's very safe," Blankenship said. "I can't see where the problem is. I can't send just anybody on the Internet any guns, I have to ship them to a licensed dealer and the buyer has to pick them up from that dealer."

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