Why Facebook Probably Can’t Stop Illegal Gun Sales

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Late last week, Facebook announced it was in talks with the gun control group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense to end illegal gun sales on Facebook and Instagram.

If gun sales on social networking sites are news to you, here’s a quick primer.

OK, back? Here’s why I’m skeptical that an outright ban could work, and why I suspect no one involved in this story expects it to.

For starters, it’s very, very hard to imagine a technical system that would do what Facebook says it wants to do.

To understand why, you need to understand how these gun sales work today. If I want to sell my pistol on Facebook, I post a picture of it to a gun sales group, and then wait for someone to leave their contact info in the comments. Technically, the sale doesn’t even happen “on Facebook,” it happens on the phone or email.

That obscurity and informality makes the sale tough to monitor. If Facebook builds an algorithm that flags any references to guns, it’ll inhibit a lot of conversations that aren't illegal. If Facebook uses in-house censors, they’ll miss a lot of sales, and the details of most sales will be opaque to them. Like with internet piracy, we can expect that there’ll be whack-a-mole enforcement, but that the market in some form will likely persist.

So if we probably can’t rid of guns on social networks, why are we spending so much time talking about selling guns on social networks?

Well, the less cynical explanation is that if you don’t think guns should be casually sold online, then reducing those sales, particularly the illegal ones, is valuable.

The more cynical explanation is that this is an internet story that’s not about the internet. Gun laws in America are a crazy patchwork, and for activists, highlighting the fact that our laws are lax enough to allow guns to be sold on Facebook evokes that laxness vividly. If that’s the real reason for all this pressure, then it’ll eventually shift from Mark Zuckerberg to Congress, who, you’ll remember, can actually change gun control laws. That conversation feels like a more serious one.