It’s been 50 years since Lee Harvey Oswald, using an assumed name, ordered an Italian carbine rifle from a mail-order catalog and fired it from a warehouse window in Dallas, killing President John F. Kennedy. The national trauma — and the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King less than five years later — led to some of this country’s first serious gun regulations, barring gun sales to minors, convicted felons, and the mentally ill. But one thing hasn’t changed: the unregulated private sales of deadly firearms through the modern era’s mail-order catalog, the Internet.

The Web is a disruptive technology, and it has clearly disrupted federal efforts to ensure that guns don’t fall into the wrong hands. The online marketplace for gun sales is vast and growing, with private sales between individuals particularly strong. That’s at least partly because federal law requires licensed gun dealers to conduct background checks on prospective buyers, but individual private sales are exempt.

Recently the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns issued a report about Armslist.com, one of the most popular national websites for matching gun buyers and sellers. The group analyzed 13,000 “want to buy” ads placed on the site, matching contact information against criminal records. The study only covered a small subset of the website’s traffic, since “want to buy” ads constitute just 5 percent of the listings, and of those only 1,430 included detailed contact information. Still, the results are alarming: One in 30 of the hopeful buyers had records that barred them from purchasing guns. They included convictions for domestic violence, possession of crack cocaine, robbery, and aggravated assault.

The Armslist site includes disclaimers and terms of use that ask customers to comply with all firearms laws. But there is no requirement that private sellers conduct any background checks on potential buyers, so long as they are not from out of state. Total strangers can meet in a parking lot and transact a gun sale, no questions asked. And there is no paper trail.


“We make it so easy to circumvent the law, so easy for prohibited people to get guns,” said Cathie Whittenburg of States United to Prevent Gun Violence, an umbrella organization of local groups in 27 states. The states are where the action has shifted to stop unregulated gun sales, because Congress seems incapable of passing the most modest reforms, despite overwhelming public support for background checks.


A bipartisan bill that would have required all online sales to be facilitated through a licensed gun dealer (thus including a background check) garnered a majority of votes in the US Senate in April, but not enough to avoid a filibuster. The bill, sponsored by Republican Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia, was narrowly drawn, with exemptions for sales to friends, relatives, neighbors, and co-workers.

It’s hard to see how this bill would be a burden on the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding gun purchasers, since most Americans live within 10 miles of a licensed gun dealer, and the average background check takes just minutes. But that’s the argument opponents used to stall the bill.

Since the unspeakable Newtown tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School almost a year ago, several states have tightened their laws, bringing the number that require background checks for all private handgun sales, including online, to 16. In those states the number of gun suicides, domestic homicides, and killing of police officers is much lower, according FBI statistics. Guess it’s just a coincidence.

The National Rifle Association opposes requiring background checks for all private sales, noting that “acquisitions from strangers are the exception, not the rule.” But even one sale to the wrong person is too many. In October of last year, Radcliffe Haughton killed his wife, Zina, and two other women at a Wisconsin hair salon where Zina worked, then turned the gun on himself. Zina had obtained a restraining order against Haughton, who had a history of domestic violence, which specifically prohibited him from buying a gun. He would have failed a background check at a licensed gun dealer, but he was able to get a .40 caliber Glock handgun through Armslist.


It took only one privately purchased gun to kill those three innocent women. And of course, it only took one gun to kill Kennedy.

Renée Loth's column appears regularly in the Globe.