Facebook has decided that it was not good for business to become a conduit for illegal gun sales. From now on it will monitor and limit gun-sale postings to discourage criminal activity. It's a smart move that the company should have made months ago.
Moms Demand Action, an advocacy group founded after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting (and supported by Michael R. Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP), began pressing Facebook last year to adopt basic safeguards to block illegal gun sales that users were advertising on the site. Given the resistance the company put up, you'd have thought the moms were asking its employees to ditch their hoodies for suits.
Under the company's new rules, members can still post information about guns for sale, but Facebook will take down any offers that don't include a background check. Users younger than 18 will be blocked from viewing posts from unlicensed dealers, and all users will be allowed to flag posts that suggest criminal activity.
The Internet has become a 24/7 gun show, where unlicensed dealers offer firearms to customers who could not pass a federal background check. According to a 2011 investigation by Mayors Against Illegal Guns (co-founded by Michael Bloomberg), one in 30 buyers on Armslist.com, a major online sales forum, had a criminal record barring them from owning a gun. If one in 30 of your customers is acting illegally, that should be a major concern for your business. But not for unlicensed gun sellers, who — thanks to a feckless Congress and a timid White House — act with virtual impunity.
Armslist and similar websites have flatly refused to take basic steps to prevent illegal activity. Facebook initially resisted, too, protesting for months that it is not an e- commerce site and does not permit paid advertising of gun sales. True enough. But it was nevertheless facilitating an underground market that allows dangerous people — as well as troubled teenagers — easy access to guns.
In October, a 15-year-old was arrested in Kentucky for carrying to school a loaded 9 mm handgun, which he had bought through a man he met on Facebook. Two weeks ago, a felon in Iowa was arrested for attempting to trade an AR-15 military-style rifle for a handgun on Facebook.
The new rules are hardly an intrusion into Facebook's business. The website already polices other kinds of illegal and dangerous activity, including hate speech, bullying and graphically violent content. And sites such as Google+ and Craigslist had already taken steps to prevent illegal gun activity on their sites. Social media didn't create the online illegal gun market, but by ignoring it Facebook was feeding it and making a growing public safety problem worse.