Suspected Colorado movie theater gunman James Holmes purchased more than 6,000 rounds of ammunition on the Internet in the space of 60 days, according to police reports. He also purchased four guns, including a military-style AR-15 assault rifle, from local stores. All of his purchases — both online and in-person — were legal, authorities said.
"It's a wide-open marketplace," Tom Mauser, a gun-control advocate in Colorado whose son was killed in the 1999 Columbine shootings, told reporters. "The Internet has really changed things. You don't have to show your face. It's anything goes."
But is it? That depends in part on whether you buy from a store or an individual.
By federal law, when buying from a licensed dealer — in-state or out-of-state, in-person or online — you are subject to a background check. Purchasing from an online retailer triggers a face-to-face meeting with a licensed local gun dealer and a background check that can be completed over the phone. If passed, the documentation is sent to the online seller who ships the order to the local dealer, where buyers pick up their purchases.
"Is it easier to buy a gun online than in-person?" DamnCheapGuns.com spokesperson "Tommy" said in his "How to Buy a Gun Online" YouTube tutorial. "Surprisingly, no. They both require a background check."
Conditions are far more lax when individuals sell guns to each other.
When a transaction takes place between individuals who live in the same state — in-person or online such as through a classified ad — the Federal Gun Control Act of 1968 does not require any recordkeeping, according to the Federal Government's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).
But a handful of state laws do. California, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey and New York have passed much stricter laws that include one or more of the following: requiring paperwork, banning private sales of guns, imposing a waiting period between purchase and receipt and outlawing fully automatic assault weapons.
In other states, handguns and assault rifles can be locally purchased from individuals within the state and without a background check as long as they are 21 years old or older.
For instance, KSL.com, the most popular online classifieds in Salt Lake City, Utah, shows more than 2,500 handguns and rifles for sale out of 6,352 listings for "Firearms and Hunting." The site publishes guidelines for buyers and sellers that are consistent with federal law.
Sellers are advised not to sell a firearm to a person that they know or have reason to believe is a fugitive, addicted to any controlled substance, has a court order that restrains the person from harassing, stalking or threatening a partner or has been convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence, among others. Federal law also prohibits the sale of guns to people who have been hospitalized for mental illness.
And here's where the ability to buy firearms online could make a difference. Online, a potential buyer could be just a name and an email. The seller would never see an incoherent, shaking buyer or otherwise suspicious behavior and have the opportunity to decline a sale.
Major online sites are cracking down of their own accord, however. Craigslist prohibits the sale of guns across its city-based sites, regardless of prevailing state laws. Ebay's policy conforms to California state law, viewed as the most restrictive in the country, including no sales of assault weapons, parts or directions on how to convert a semi-automatic weapon to a fully automatic one. No guns or ammunition are sold on Amazon.com.
Google in May banned sales of guns, gun parts and ammunition from its shopping site and for years has not accepted advertising from gun sellers.
"This appears to be a calculated political statement by Google," the National Rifle Association last month said in a statement.
The NRA has been silent on both Facebook and Twitter since just before the shooting.
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