NYAG announces collaboration with social media companies to curb illegal online gun sales


New York, NEW YORK--Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman held a teleconference Wednesday afternoon to announce new policies that will help curb illegal sales of firearms on two of the world's most popular social media platforms, Facebook and Instagram. Schneiderman teamed up with representatives from both companies, as well as some of the nation's leading gun and safety organizations to develop these policies. "Again and again we have seen the terrible consequences of letting people who should not have guns have access to guns. And gun violence has taken, and continues to take a great toll on our nation," Schneiderman said, noting that many of the guns used in infamous shootings like Columbine, Virginia Tech and Newtown are being advertised, though not explicitly sold, on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram.

Under the policies announced Wednesday, Facebook and Instagram will prohibit users from posting offers to sell or buy firearms that indicate intent to evade or help others evade the law. This will include such posts that advertise “no background check required.”

Monika Bickert, Facebook’s Head of Global Policy Management announced Wednesday the company's plans to implement a series of educational and enforcement efforts for individuals engaging in the private sale of firearms online. During the teleconference, she shared the details of the company's approach.

"Facebook and Instagram are really about connecting people," Bickert said. Facebook hopes to achieve its mission successfully while protecting users; this approach will include raising awareness of goods that are regulated by law, helping people educate themselves about laws that might apply to them, restricting a variety of content to people over the age of 18 and removing content that suggests an intent to evade the law. Bickert added that Facebook never allowed advertising that promotes the sale of weapons or ammunition, and that this will continue to be the case.

Schneiderman repeatedly thanked and congratulated Facebook and Instagram for taking "essentially common sense steps" in preventing gun sales on the internet, as well as "our great friends in the gun safety community." He mentioned organizations in New York and across the country, including Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, Americans for Responsible Solutions and Sandy Hook Promise that "provided critical assistance in advocating for and developing policies that would curb circumvention of laws regulating the sale of firearms."

"Law enforcement offices like mine, and advocacy groups...are going to have a direct pipeline to Facebook to flag posts that may facilitate or promote potentially illegal activity so they can be reported," Shneiderman said. He added that the policy has been carefully planned "to ensure that Facebook can do the right things without crossing any lines--no one is having their First Amendment rights violated."

Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, an organization that began as a Facebook group the day after the Sandy Hook massacre that took place Dec. 2012, has gained the support of 150,000 moms across the country with a chapter in all 50 states. The organization's founder, Shannon Watts, called the new online initiative "a major step forward," but noted that there is "so much more that needs to be done by corporations, by Congress and by local leaders."

Though New York has one of the strictest gun regulation policies in the nation, there are no strong federal gun safety laws. As of now, sixteen states, plus the District of Columbia require background checks.

John Feinblatt, Chairman of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, hopes this recent initiative will send a cultural signal to Congress, state capitals and other platforms to adopt stricter policies regarding the sale of guns. Feinblatt said his organization conducted three undercover investigations that shed light on this problem. In one investigation, two-thirds of private online sellers were selling to people that couldn't pass a background check. “Our campaign exposed how simple it is for dangerous people to get their hands on guns, no questions asked--not only on Facebook and Instagram, but across the Internet," he said. According the Feinblatt, gun show sales "pale in comparison" to the online sale of rifles.

Schneiderman, who admittedly goes to gun shows "all the time," affirmed that nothing in this policy prohibits people from conducting legitimate commerce online. He believes that gun buyers (sportsmen, enthusiasts, etc.) desire these background checks to ensure their own safety, as well as that of police officers and the general public. "This is an opportunity for those of us who care about this issue to engage with the companies in searching for questionable content," he said.

The EST asked General Shneiderman whether he sees this policy leading to tighter regulation for communication platforms like email and text messaging. Though Shneiderman was unable to provide details regarding future plans to collaborate with other companies, he confirmed that efforts have been made to extend the cause beyond Facebook and Instagram.  "We think this is a big step forward and Facebook is showing leadership that we're going to seek to have other companies follow," he said.