This past week Facebook and Instagram announced that they would no longer allow private or person to person gun sales on their platforms. This new update in policy by Facebook only strengthens their existing gun sales restrictions. In the past few years sponsored posts or links to Facebook pages where gun sales could be completed were prohibited, and groups were limited to only local state sales not those that cross state lines. Now even the matchmaking portion of a private gun sale has been added to the list. For now, posts and articles that relate to firearms but do not seek to sell a firearm directly are still allowed.
Most of the current private gun sales happening on Facebook occur in groups centered around a state or metro area. In these groups, sometimes open and sometimes accessed only by invite, one person seeks to sell a used firearm and turns to the group to see if they can find another interested party. Despite what many think, it can be difficult to sell a used firearm in some circumstances, and groups like this arguably function exactly how Facebook was intended to function: bring like minded individuals together based upon a shared interest. There is nothing illegal about the process as long as the buyer and the purchaser are allowed to own firearms. More importantly the transaction does not take place on Facebook or Instagram at all, and in that vein, what right do these sites have to restrict these interactions what so ever?
You can no longer post an image of the gun you want to sell on Facebook or Instagram.
Private gun sales have been the subject of much controversy since the President’s speech where he incorrectly stated that anyone can buy a firearm online without a background check. The fact is many times you cannot, but in a private sale, there is no need for a background check to be completed if the gun is transferred from one private individual to another (with certain exceptions). That said, Facebook’s update to their terms last week seeks to target “illegal” gun sales that are facilitated on their platform. But what percentage of sales are actually illegal and would those bold enough to seek out an illegal sale actually turn to Facebook for it? It’s really hard to say, but realistically the majority of these gun trader groups are not facilitating any illegal sales.
Another Publicity Move?
Perhaps the most interesting part of this announcement is the method that Facebook and Instagram admins will use to police the policy. Instead of programming an algorithm or tasking several employees with auditing groups and posts, Facebook and Instagram are asking users to report abuse if they see any. One could argue this isn’t exactly a crackdown since many gun trading groups create either closed or secret groups on the site. It’s not a stretch to think that this banned activity could still go on under the admin’s noses, especially in groups that would rather ignore this change in Facebook and Instagram policy. It’s still likely enough to deter most sales or prompt sellers to seek another avenue, but no doubt there are other ways around the new policy that still involve Facebook or Instagram posts.
It’s interesting to see Facebook so proudly announce a change in policy that they have no plans to actively enforce on their end (aside from banning users brought to their attention by other users). Already many of the larger gun trading groups have been shut down, and to that effect you can’t say they’ve done nothing, but how extensively this policy really will be enforced remains to be seen. For now, it just looks like they’re doing more than they really are. We can’t imagine Facebook or Instagram will release statistics on how many private gun sales posts they catch anyway, because it is better to look like you’re enacting a total crackdown.
On one hand, a private organization has a right to establish and enforce the policies that they choose, but Facebook and Instagram also advertise their platforms as sites that cater to everyone, which includes all legal activities and hobbies. Private gun sales are, when carried out correctly, legal. Therefore in many ways this move is against the spirit of sites like Facebook. Not everyone pays attention to the friend that posts all the kitten photos, or stick figures, or whatever to their wall everyday. But they are allowed, or better yet they have a right, to post those things on a site that for better or worse connects a good portion of society. You could argue these gun groups have just as much a right to post what they want to post, given that it does not lead to an illegal gun sale. Even so, illegal sales are the business of the ATF and the responsibility of the gun group or the individual, and the majority of firearm owners take this very seriously. However, they are not the business of Facebook and Instagram.
Finally, it is disheartening to see gun sales looped together with other activities like illegal drugs and hateful speech. This is something you see on many sites these days, and Facebook and Instagram just did the same thing with this policy change. This is an insult to law-abiding gun owners, and grouping together legal and unrelated illegal activities is a sloppy way to write any policy.