Facebook is banning private sales of guns on its flagship social network and its Instagram photo-sharing service, a move meant to clamp down on unlicensed gun transactions.
Facebook already prohibits people from offering marijuana, pharmaceuticals and illegal drugs for sale, and the company said on Friday that it was updating its policy to include guns. The ban applies to private, person-to-person sales of guns. Licensed gun dealers and gun clubs can still maintain Facebook pages and post on Instagram.
Although Facebook was not directly involved in gun sales, it has served as a forum for gun sales to be negotiated, without people having to undergo background checks. The social network, with 1.6 billion monthly visitors, had become one of the world’s largest marketplaces for guns and was increasingly evolving into an e-commerce site where it could facilitate transactions of goods.
Photography by Dado Ruvic | Reuters
The ban thrusts Facebook into the center of another major societal debate. Discussions over gun control have flared anew after the mass shootings last year in San Bernardino, Calif., and a community college in Oregon, among others. In January, President Obama gave a speech promising to tighten enforcement of laws governing unlicensed gun sales. In response, some individual sellers said they would turn to sites like Facebook, which allowed them to freely advertise guns for sale.
Facebook said it would rely on its vast network of users to report any violations of the new rules, and would remove any post that violated the policy. Beyond that, the company said it could ban users or severely limit the ways they post on Facebook, depending on the type and severity of past violations. If the company believed someone’s life was in danger, Facebook would work with law enforcement on the situation.
Facebook will also rely on user reports of private gun sales that occur between members via Facebook Messenger, the company’s private messaging service. Facebook does not scan the content of those messages.
”Over the last two years, more and more people have been using Facebook to discover products and to buy and sell things to one another,” Monika Bickert, Facebook’s head of product policy, said in a statement. ”We are continuing to develop, test and launch new products to make this experience even better for people and are updating our regulated goods policies to reflect this evolution.”
New York’s attorney general, Eric T. Schneiderman, who has pressed for restrictions on illegal gun sales on Facebook and other sites, praised the company’s move.
”Today’s announcement is another positive step toward our shared goal of stopping illegal online gun sales once and for all,” he said in a statement on Friday.
Facebook plays host to scores of online groups that cater to gun enthusiasts, with members posting pictures and details about an individual gun, or a gun they might be looking to buy. Many of the groups are private, meaning that Facebook users may need to be approved by an administrator before they can see or write posts.
Unlike professional gun sellers, hobbyists who sell or trade a few guns a year are not typically required to be licensed by the federal government. Some, like Scott Schmoke of Florida, say that Facebook helps them sell just a handful of weapons a year. Mr. Schmoke said in an interview this month that he always insisted on meeting potential buyers face-to-face, to feel them out.
”I go to a secure location, and I say, ‘Can I see your driver’s license? Do you have a concealed-weapons permit?’ ” Mr. Schmoke said. If he gets a bad feeling, he does not sell, he said.
But as an unlicensed seller, Mr. Schmoke is under no obligation to perform any kind of background check. Federal authorities have expressed worries that the Internet has fueled the sale of guns to felons and others who might normally be blocked from buying firearms.
Facebook has taken some steps to regulate gun sales over the years. In 2014, it said it would limit gun sales on its site and on Instagram, including by shielding minors from Facebook pages that advertised guns for sale.
But since then, Facebook has been inching toward facilitating e-commerce transactions. In December, the company introduced a project that directs users to local businesses and services that are well-reviewed on Facebook. Facebook can also store users’ credit card information. And in recent months, Facebook made it possible to send peer-to-peer payments through Messenger.
Facebook’s progression toward on-site payments underscored the need to update the company’s content policy, a Facebook spokeswoman said.
The company has also been pushed by gun safety groups including Everytown for Gun Safety, an umbrella group that united the efforts of two separate organizations of mayors and mothers to promote gun safety. Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, one of those two advocacy groups, said she met with senior Facebook officials repeatedly over the last two years.
Everytown for Gun Safety presented Facebook with research connecting unlicensed gun sales on the site to gun violence. For example, Ms. Watts said, in December 2014, an Ohio man, Brian Harleman, shot and wounded his ex-girlfriend and killed her 10-year-old daughter before killing himself. Although prohibited from buying firearms because of a felony conviction, he was able to buy the weapon in an unlicensed sale on Facebook.
”We were saying, ‘Please stop the unfettered access to guns on Facebook,’ ” Ms. Watts, a mother of five in Colorado, said in an interview.
Because of Facebook’s tremendous influence, she said, its decision to ban person-to-person sales of guns will have ripple effects on gun policy nationwide.
”What they’re doing is sending such an incredibly strong, sentinel signal to the world that America is working in the right direction on guns,” she said. ”For them to take a stand and do the right thing gives cover to other businesses to do the right thing.”
–The New York Times’ Rachel Abrams contributed reporting.