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A Small But Auspicious Gun Control Victory: Facebook Is Cracking Down on Illegal Gun Sales


Nearly one year after Manchin-Toomey, the legislation to expand background checks for gun sales, failed to surmount a Senate filibuster, gun control groups announced a big step forward today. Its impact is nowhere near as big as Manchin-Toomey would have been, but it gives a pretty good indication of the strategy the gun control movement has adopted in the wake of that setback.

For months, gun control groups led by Moms Demand Action, a group that sprung up after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, have been agitating for tighter restrictions on the marketing of guns via social media. And today, they got their wish: Facebook announced new rules to clamp down on the use of Facebook and Instagram to market illegal firearms sales. The new rules bar any postings that advertise a willingness by the seller to evade laws by foregoing a background check in the 15 states that require checks for private sales, or by selling across state lines without going through a federally-licensed dealer, as is required of interstate sales. Facebook will also bar users under 18 from viewing any pages where guns are being marketed, and post notifications about applicable laws on the pages where guns are offered for sale. In a conference call announcing the agreement, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who helped lead the talks with Facebook, called the new rules a “really significant breakthrough deal” and “probably the strongest step taken ever to end [illegal guns sales] on social media sites.”

That’s not really saying much, given what an under-regulated free-for-all the online gun marketplace has become. There are an estimated six million gun sales made every year without the background checks required for sales by licensed gun dealers, and a rapidly increasing share of those are being made via online dealers, rather than at the gun shows that have traditionally been the focus of political efforts to expand background checks. (An undercover investigation by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg's group, found rampant willingness by online sellers to evade laws.) Even with the new rules, Facebook users will still be able to post notices about guns for sale on pages like “Guns for Sale,” which has more than 213,000 “likes” and includes, alongside dozens of pictures of guns for sale, charming images such as a poster of an AR-15 rifle with the words: “Ladies, if your guy doesn’t know how to shoot a gun…you have a girlfriend” and another showing a man jumping out of bed with a handgun over the caption: “Dads Demand Guns because its (sic) my ass that has to go see what that noise was at 2 a.m.” And even if sellers won’t be able to advertise their willingness to evade background checks in states that require them for private sales, the fact remains that 35 states do not require them, thanks to the failure of Manchin-Toomey, so the new Facebook rule only crimps so much. That’s not to mention that Facebook is hardly the only game in town for online gun sales. There are big clearinghouses like as well as countless smaller outlets with varying levels of vigilance when it comes to preventing illegal sales.

Still, the Facebook announcement shouldn’t be discounted. For one thing, any limits, however small, can have a real impact: among the recent sales traced to a Facebook posting was the sale of a gun by an Ohio man to a 15-year-old Kentucky boy who brought the gun to school.

More broadly, though, the Facebook agreement offers more evidence that gun control groups are making some progress in their post-Manchin-Toomey strategy, which is to focus on changing cultural norms while the legislative route in Washington remains bottled up. (It's an echo, in some regard, of the approach anti-smoking groups have taken to stigmatizing cigarettes.) There was last summer’s victory at Starbucks, which after much pressure from both gun-rights groups and Moms Demand Action announced that it was henceforth discouraging the open carry of weapons at its shops in states that allow open carry. And now comes Facebook. “Moms have momentum, and we’re moving the country toward a culture of gun safety one company, one legislator, one law at a time,” said Shannon Watts, head of Moms Demand Action. “We’re going to keep applying pressure to corporations and political leaders until they do more to reduce the gun violence that plagues our country.”

The most important reforms will still require legislative action, preferably in Washington. “I only wish Congress listened as closely as you do,” Bloomberg's chief advisor on gun policy, John Feinblatt, said to the Facebook executive who was on today's conference call. Of course, many did listen, and 55 senators were willing to back Manchin-Toomey. Perhaps another way of looking at it this: at Facebook, there's no filibuster.

Disclosure: The New Republic's Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Chris Hughes was a co-founder of Facebook and worked at the company through 2007.