Gun sellers are using a simple trick to do business on Facebook Inc. FB -0.05% ’s Marketplace at a time when more mass shootings in the U.S. have renewed the debate in Washington over access to firearms.
The Marketplace feature, which Facebook launched four years ago, enabled its more than two billion users to buy and sell almost any secondhand item by clicking a button on their home page. However, the private sale of many items, including guns, is specifically forbidden under Facebook policy.
To dodge the prohibition, sellers simply list gun cases or boxes at inflated prices. Those postings have become code for actual guns, while in many instances evading Facebook efforts to bar banned items. Sellers, via private messages, describe the more valuable hardware with would-be buyers and hash out a deal.
Earlier this month, one seller in Lincolnton, N.C., posted a photo of a hard, gray case on Marketplace under the title “Gun case” and asking $950. A similar case has a retail cost of $30. The seller, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal conducted over Facebook Messenger, said he was really offering an AR-15 style semiautomatic rifle.
He shared a photo of the rifle, laid out on a bed alongside more than 670 rounds of ammunition, six magazines—and the case. Within two hours of his “Gun case” posting on Marketplace, he said he received more than 30 inquiries, including at least one from out of state. The seller said he found an interested buyer in Charlotte, N.C., last week, but a meeting scheduled for the weekend fell through and he has yet to sell the firearm.
The disguised gun postings could raise fresh scrutiny over Facebook’s ability to police the growing e-commerce business, which founder Mark Zuckerberg hopes can boost growth as the company’s ad-selling engine has begun to slow. Facebook’s Marketplace is a giant among online outlets for secondhand goods, with one in three people in the U.S. visiting the site each month, according to the company.
Facebook has confronted the issue of gun sales before. In early 2016, the company said it would ban the private sale of guns on its broader social-media platform following controversy over users selling firearms through its “Groups” feature. Licensed sellers, such as gun stores, were allowed to keep Facebook pages. Later that year, Facebook launched Marketplace but in short order issued an apology as users started listing guns and drugs on the site. The company said at the time it would update its system to remove such postings.
A spokeswoman for Facebook said the social-media giant takes immediate action against individuals caught selling guns on the Marketplace platform and removes violating content. She said both humans and machine learning are used to screen content on Marketplace, but declined to go into further detail and didn’t comment specifically on the gun-case tactic.
“Selling guns on Facebook is a clear violation of our policies,” the spokeswoman said, adding that people buying and selling on Marketplace must comply with all local laws.
The company’s enforcement of its policy “will never be perfect, but we are always looking for ways to improve our policies and enforcement,” she said.
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Ease of access to guns has come under renewed scrutiny by Democratic lawmakers after the recent shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, that killed 31 people and injured dozens more. The Democratic-controlled House passed a bill earlier in the year to require universal background checks, but it is unlikely to pass the Republican-controlled Senate. There is no indication that the shooters in the recent massacres acquired their guns via Facebook.
While federal law doesn’t require background checks for private sales of firearms, many states do. Firearm sales across state borders are supposed to be funneled through federally licensed gun dealers, who must undergo background checks themselves, though prosecution for private interstate gun sales are rare.
Individuals barred by federal and state restrictions from owning guns have long turned to the internet, including exchanges, chat forums and social-media sites, to avoid checks and arrange one-on-one transactions. Facebook Marketplace offers a more mainstream meeting place for buyers and sellers looking to make such deals.
“It’s another internet platform that allows prohibited people to acquire firearms with anonymity,” said David Chipman, senior policy adviser at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a gun-control group.
An analysis of “gun case” searches on Marketplace earlier this month found dozens of overpriced cases across 10 major cities in the U.S. The prices were in the range of $300 to $2,000 for products that normally retail at $20 to $50. The analysis was conducted by Storyful, a social-media intelligence agency owned by News Corp , which also owns the Journal.
A search for the term “gun case” in Atlanta on Aug. 9, for instance, resulted in three matches within 100 miles. Facebook’s recommendations algorithm, which tracks products people click on to suggest new ones they might like, channeled many more “gun case” postings, from Georgia as well as Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky and Mississippi. The search in Atlanta also resulted in 21 of the first 24 recommended products in Facebook’s “You May Also Like” section being overpriced gun cases.
For St. Louis, 19 out of the first 24 products recommended by Facebook on the same day were overpriced cases.
A gun seller in Clyde, Texas, said in an interview over Facebook Messenger that he had received 70 inquiries over one month about his Marketplace posting of a Pelican-brand case representing a Remington sniper rifle. He said it had been viewed 2,000 times as of Aug. 14. The gun case, which retails new at roughly $270, was listed on Marketplace at $4,500.
A Marketplace seller in Toccoa, Ga., in mid-August offered an “Empty Lock Box.” It was priced at $20, but a photo of the box showed the logo for firearms maker SIG Sauer. In a private message exchange, the individual told the Journal he was selling a SIG Sauer P220 semiautomatic pistol.
Buying guns online is hardly novel. One of the biggest websites for listing privately owned firearms is Armslist.com. In theory, arms sellers could use all sorts of online marketplaces for selling guns including eBay and Craigslist, though both sites also ban gun sales.
The Journal didn’t do an analysis of either of these two popular secondhand marketplaces, but cursory searches of both didn’t bring up postings of expensive gun cases similar to those on Marketplace.
A spokesman for eBay said the practice of listing gun cases at inflated prices on its site, in the place of real firearms, “does not occur on eBay due to our enforcement efforts.”
A spokesman for Armslist.com said it requires all users to obey federal and local laws on firearm sales, and that it “frequently and prominently” provides contact information for the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives on its website for users who spot the rare illegal sale.
Craigslist didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Facebook’s recommendation algorithm can also snare shoppers who aren’t looking for guns. Rob Disner, a sound mixer in Atlanta, first noticed postings for empty boxes that cost hundreds of dollars earlier this year when he was browsing for guitars.
“I probably saw dozens before asking, ‘Why is a plastic case $650?’” Mr. Disner said. As he started clicking on the boxes out of curiosity, more started to appear on his Marketplace feed. “Now I see gun cases all the time.”
Mr. Disner said he alerted Facebook to the posts over the course of several weeks, and about half of them were taken down.
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