On Armslist, The Craigslist For Guns, 1 in 30 Buyers Already Has A Criminal Record

A new report offers a disturbing look at who is using the shadowy online arms marketplaces that–like gun shows–bypass the background check system.

On Armslist, The Craigslist For Guns, 1 in 30 Buyers Already Has A Criminal Record
[Image: M4 Carbine via Shutterstock]

Forget the so-called “gun-show loophole.” To buy a gun without a background check, all you have to do is go online, where websites connect gun buyers and sellers in “private sales” exempt from scrutiny.


Gun control advocates have previously speculated that these kinds of markets are ripe for exploitation, but a new investigation from Mayors Against Illegal Guns provides the best evidence yet. Out of a sample of prospective buyers on, “the ‘Craigslist’ for guns,” one in 30 had a criminal record that would have prohibited them from buying a gun if they hadn’t been exempt from the background check.

“If 1 in 30 people on a Boeing 747 were on a terrorist watch list, the plane would have 22 suspected terrorists on it,” Mayor Bloomberg said in prepared remarks, delivered next to a seat map of a plane. Watch lists have their own problems, but the comparison to airline security is a stark one. If you’re barred from getting on a plane, there’s a mechanism for keeping you off: the TSA. If you’re barred from buying a gun–the only person preventing you from buying a gun online is the seller, who obviously has skin in the game. As long as the seller is in the same state and not a licensed dealer, no background check is necessary.

The report brings to life the result of such a sale with a worst-case scenario:

In October 2012, a Wisconsin state judge issued a restraining order to protect Zina Daniel from her abusive husband, Radcliffe Haughton. The order prohibited him from buying firearms, so he would have failed the background check a licensed dealer is required to conduct. Instead, he turned to the popular gun classifieds site, where tens of thousands of guns are listed for sale and 90 percent are offered by private sellers. In a matter of hours, he located a nearby seller and bought a .40 caliber semi-automatic Glock handgun with no background check. The next day, he drove to Zina’s workplace, murdered her and two of her co-workers, and injured four others before killing himself.

The report is a small light shined on a large, shadowy market and represents yet another argument for why such private sales should be brought into the background check system. Armslist had 83,000 active ads last month, according to the report, up from 12,000 in December 2011. Mayors Against Illegal Guns looked at a tiny fraction of that: 607 people who had placed “want-to-buy” ads with enough personal information that they could be cross-checked against court records and criminal background checks.

The report argues this narrow slice is actually a conservative estimate. It considered only criminal records in the buyer’s jurisdiction and didn’t check other factors that can make purchasing a gun illegal, like serious mental illness or drug abuse. It also seems intuitively more likely that someone seeking to flout the law would remain anonymous or use the contact information of a friend. The fact that so many would choose instead to post identifying information online is what Bloomberg said most surprised him.

“They just must feel that there’s no enforcement, and there’s not going to be any enforcement,” he said. “And it’s a sad commentary.”

About the author

Stan Alcorn is a print, radio and video journalist, regularly reporting for WNYC and NPR. He grew up in New Mexico.