Want to Buy a Gun Without All the Paperwork?

Go Online.

New York City has some of the toughest gun laws in the country. Residents are required to get a permit to purchase and own a gun, and all buyers – whether they shop at a store or arrange a private sale – have to go through a licensed firearms dealer and get a background check.

For unscrupulous buyers, however, the internet can provide a quick and easy way to get around the restrictions. On websites like Armslist.com, prospective buyers can browse through thousands of ads for guns and ammunition and contact the sellers directly. A New York state law passed in 2013 requires sellers to ensure that all buyers undergo a background check through a federal firearms dealer even if they arrange to purchase the gun online, but there is no oversight to make sure they do so.

“Websites like Armslist.com make it far too easy for dangerous people who want guns to do harm or who want guns to traffic,” said Lindsay Nichols, a senior attorney at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence in San Francisco. “It makes it way too easy for them to get guns and to sell to people who want to get guns.”

In 2011, investigators in New York City found over 25,000 guns for sale online, and the Department of Justice has estimated that there are at least 4,000 websites offering firearms. Gun control advocates say these online sites provide ample opportunities for criminals to obtain weapons.

NY City Lens decided to see just how easy it would be to purchase a gun online without a permit and without going through a background check. A reporter set up an e-mail account on Sunday, April 24, and posed as a prospective buyer on Armslist.com.

Of the 22 sellers who responded to the reporter’s inquiries, the majority refused to sell the reporter a gun without going through a licensed firearms dealer. Most sellers also refused to sell the gun when the reporter asked if she could buy it for someone else or have a friend buy it for her, which is known as a “straw purchase” and is illegal under federal law.

Within four days of setting up the e-mail account, however, NY City Lens had arranged to purchase two rifles in a way that would have violated New York law, and had been told how to get an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle without a background check. The reporter agreed on prices and meeting places with the sellers, but did not continue the conversation beyond that.

Just three hours after the reporter set up the e-mail account, one seller had agreed to sell the reporter a rifle in spite of being told that the reporter was “a little concerned about the background check” and in spite of the reporter’s suggestion that she have a friend buy the weapon for her.

Initially, the seller seemed skeptical. “[Y]ou dropping these little hints of maybe being a felon, but trying to buy it any ways, sounds like some bull shit law enforcement trap,” the seller wrote. After the reporter responded that she was not a law enforcement agent, the seller agreed to sell her a hunting rifle, even though the reporter said she did not plan to use the weapon for hunting. “If you’re a serious buyer I will sell the rifle,” the seller wrote.

The seller suggested meeting in the parking lot of a store in Watertown, New York that sells hunting equipment and other outdoor gear. For $910, he promised to hand over the gun and pay for the background check for “who ever is getting the rifle.” NY City Lens did not go through with the purchase and stopped corresponding with the seller after they agreed on a meeting place, but before agreeing to a date and time for the purchase.

Some upstate New York sellers that responded said they were unclear about the laws in New York City. Outside city limits, restrictions on rifles and shotguns are looser and buyers are not required to have a permit to purchase these types of firearms. Many of the sellers encouraged the reporter to research city laws or contact the police for more information. But other sellers suggested ways the reporter could get around city and state regulations.

One seller suggested a loophole that would allow the reporter to buy his Remington 700 SPS Tactical rifle without registering it. “I bought this rifle before New York started the Firearms registration deal for rifles so it was never registered to me so technically if I sold it to somebody they could just keep it and not register and pretend they bought it before the law went into effect,” the seller wrote. When the reporter responded that she would “prefer to not register it and just say I got it before the law went into effect,” the seller agreed. “[L]ike I said there’s no way for them to tell. It could have been sold 50 times before the law changed.” He suggested exchanging the rifle at a T.G.I. Friday’s restaurant near Woodbury, New York because “I guess the mall isn’t a smart place to do that.” NY City Lens did not go through with the purchase.

A third seller was not willing to directly sell the reporter his AR-15 semi-automatic rifle – the type of gun used by the San Bernardino shooters – after she said she was concerned about the background check. Instead, he suggested another way to get the weapon.

“[W]hile I AM NOT RECOMMENDING THIS,” the seller wrote, using upper case letters. “[W]hat a lot of us do who have background issues, we have a close friend of family member who is willing to play the game purchase something for us.”

When the reporter asked if she could have a friend buy the AR-15 for her, the seller responded:

“I guess it works like this, I can’t know about that in any way, otherwise I’d be committing a felony […] I’m going to have to say no, I can’t sell to your friend knowing this information. However, the gun will remain listed on Armslist and anyone who contacts me in the next few weeks with the clear intention of buying it only for themselves will have the opportunity to purchase the firearm.”

He added, “Once I sell to a private party and I have [no] reason to suspect otherwise, I think whatever she does is her business.”

NY City Lens attempted to contact Armslist via an online form because Armslist does not have a phone number listed on its website. Armslist did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

— Staff