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Trust Your Gut: What Selling Guns Online Is Like

John Pander with the pistol he's been trying to sell online. Such private sales don't require a background check in Georgia.
John Pander with the pistol he's been trying to sell online. Such private sales don't require a background check in Georgia.

In a parking lot in Fayetteville, Georgia, John Pander is about to head into a competitive shooting match. And he’s brought along a pistol he doesn’t shoot anymore. It’s a SIG SAUER P229.

Pander usually buys his guns new, from federally licensed dealers. He keeps them locked up in a safe at home, but sometimes the safe fills up.

“So it all comes down to space,” said Pander. “And yeah, sometimes you want to fund the next purchase.”

So when he’s got his eye on a new gun, he puts an old one up for sale.

“I’ve used Armslist and I’ve sold quite a few,” said Pander. “You just post it up online and people say ‘I’ll take it’ or ‘I’ll offer you this much for it.’”

He’s sold about five guns over the last decade this way, with no problems, until recently.

“It was late in the evening when I finally got the email,” said Pander. “And he says: ‘Well, I’m trying to buy a gun for my girlfriend, and could we meet at 11 o’clock at this place?’”

The buyer wanted the gun immediately, that same night. It was a red flag for Pander. So was the fact that this is a person trying to buy a gun for someone else.

“There’s two different schools of thought on a person buying something for a wife or spouse or girlfriend,” said Pander. “Some say that they can do it because it’s like a gift to them.” Others, he said, would argue it might indicate a straw purchase.

Personally, Pander said he believes people should buy their own guns. He often voluntarily asks buyers to fill out a firearms transaction record, though he doesn’t insist on it if the buyer doesn’t want to.

Pander asked the guy if he has a Georgia Weapons License, which would mean he’s passed a background check at some point in the past five years. By asking that, he was going above and beyond his legal obligation.

That’s because when it comes to private sales, federal law says simply that you cannot knowingly sell a gun to someone who’s prohibited from having one. You don’t actually have to check.

Turns out, the guy doesn’t have a license. So Pander offers to meet at a federally licensed dealer, who can run a background check for a fee of roughly $25.

The guy doesn’t want to do any of that.

“So at that point I’m not going to sell him,” said Pander.

More Questions Than Answers

Researchers think millions of gun transactions take place without a background check every year. So what do we know about how common careful sellers like Pander are?

The answer, as with many questions involving gun data, is: not a lot.

Duke University economist Philip Cook has studied how guns make their way from the legal market to the criminal world.

“What we know about is quite a bit about where offenders get their guns,” said Cook. “And also we can find out something about the first transaction that that gun was involved in.”

The two main sources of information researchers have to draw from are trace data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and anonymous surveys of both gun owners and inmates.

Cook says we know that most people buy their guns new, from licensed dealers who do require background checks. And we know that most people in prison on gun charges say they got their guns privately. But there’s no data about what happens in the middle.

A diagram of gun transactions by legal status. Courtesy of Philip J. Cook, ITT/Terry Sanford Professor Emeritus of Public Policy Studies at Duke University. Featured in Gun Markets: Annual Review of Criminology.

Philip J. Cook / Sanford School of Public Policy, Duke University

Cook has surveyed convicted offenders in Chicago, who almost all say they got their guns through friends, family or social connections.

”But it is very rare indeed to say they made that transaction through the internet,” said Cook.

Way Around A Background Check?

So do we know anything about whether or not most private buyers could pass a background check?

“The answer, unfortunately, is no,” said Deb Azreal, who directs research at the Harvard Injury Control Research Center.

“It is really kind of astonishing that we have no good mechanism to ascertain where guns are,” said Azreal.

Many gun rights advocates don’t want that kind of system. If it existed, they argue, the government could come take peoples’ guns away.

“But it’s also reasonable to suspect that one reason you go to a private seller and get a gun without a background check is because you think you couldn’t pass that background check,” said Azreal.

She thinks the number of buyers like that is probably small, but points to a concerning possibility about who is left out of the inmate surveys that researchers rely on: domestic abusers.

“I don’t actually know this, but I suspect [that people with domestic violence misdemeanors] are less likely than someone with a prior felony conviction to be arrested later for a gun crime. That would be my guess,” said Azreal, careful to repeat that her suspicion is an educated guess.

Anecdotal cases of guns bought online in private sales being used to murder intimate partners abound.

“If you assume, which is reasonable, that the vast majority of people on Armslist are people of good faith, then what you really want to do is work on the sellers of guns, to insist on there being a background check like [John Pander],” said Azreal “The problem may be the buyers, but the solution has to lie with the sellers.”

Azreal said she and her research colleagues had found “striking” evidence about the difference between private gun sellers who live in states that regulate private sales and those that don’t.

“We found that 57% of transfers that took place in states that didn’t regulate private sales had not had a background check, compared to 26% of sales in places that did regulate,” said Azreal. “It is indeed true that if you are hell-bent on getting a gun and you’re not a qualified possessor, you can probably figure out how to do it. But the harder you make it, the higher the cost is. And there’s going to be some kind of demand curve.”

A SIG SAUER P229. The gun John Pander posted for sale online.

Lisa Hagen / WABE

‘Would That Guilt Be On My Conscience?’

21 states and the District of Columbia regulate private sales by requiring background checks or gun permits. Georgia, where John Pander lives, is not one of those states.

He believes people should voluntarily insist on background checks, though he’s not comfortable supporting universal background checks, which would apply to private sales.

“You can put the laws in place but at what point are you really going to get into infringing on the rights that you have?” said Pander, expounding on a common point of view among gun rights activists. But he then acknowledges it wouldn’t make much difference in his day-to-day life.

“If they want to get rid of [private sales without background checks] is it going to hurt me any? I can still go through a dealer and sell the gun. I’ve done that before,” said Pander. He added he wouldn’t want to lose the ability to quietly sell or give his own family members — his son, for instance — a gun.

He also points out that just because someone buys a gun legally doesn’t mean they won’t use it criminally. But when it comes to his own transactions, he tries to be careful.

“What happens if he were to use it in a crime? Would that guilt be on my conscience? If I went and saw, oh that’s the guy I just sold my gun to … so I don’t want to be any part of that,” said Pander.

He worries primarily about active shooters, though evidence shows such incidents make up fewer than 2% of annual gun deaths. A recent high-profile shooting that killed seven and injured 22 people in Odessa, Texas, is top of mind. Authorities there say the shooter, who was prohibited from possessing a gun, bought the rifle he used in a private sale. Shortly after, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott released an official recommendation that private sellers run background checks voluntarily.

The man who tried to buy John Pander’s gun circled around weeks later in another email. Pander said the buyer didn’t seem to realize they’d talked previously. The two ran through the same set of exchanges about the girlfriend and the lack of a weapons license, which the buyer claimed he was still working on acquiring. Like the first time, Pander broke off communication.

The buyer isn’t Pander’s problem anymore. It’s possible he kept looking for another pistol and someone willing to sell it to him, in a parking lot, late at night.

Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.

Copyright 2020 Guns and America. To see more, visit Guns and America.

Lisa Hagen is a reporter at WABE.