Only a few days before the massacre in Uvalde, Texas, the 18-year-old shooter legally bought both rifles he used to claimed the lives of 19 children and two adults. Now that the ease of buying a gun is again back in the public eye, sites like Facebook find they have some ‘splaining to do as to why they don’t do a better job of policing gun sales on the platform.
Turns out, there’s not much penalty for you if you want to sell a firearm on the platform, according to reports. It’s also incredibly easy to get around Facebook’s outright ban on sales, as proved when Gizmodo took a look at the local Facebook marketplace.
A report from The Washington Post Thursday says internal guidance for Facebook has a rule that both buyers and sellers can be cited for selling firearms on the platform 10 times before their account is removed.
Perhaps even worse, the Post described a separate policy for accounts that regularly call for violence or have allegiances to known “dangerous organizations.” In that case, you can only be cited five times before you’re kicked off. Until 2020, the strike threshold was even higher for people who broke the rule on gun sales, effectively making it a non-issue. That’s compared to posting about violence or child porn, which only have three strikes for each.
Andy Stone, a spokesperson for Meta—Facebook’s parent company—pointed Gizmodo to a statement on Twitter which says they remove posts that violate its gun sale policies “as soon as we see it,” and that most who break the policy usually accrue less than two before they stop trying. The spokesperson added that they contact law enforcement “if we identify any serious violations that have the potential for real-world harm.”
Stone also pointed to Meta’s policies on restricting accounts, where one strike issues a warning, but two or more strikes equals a longer and longer ban on content posting. In a separate Twitter thread, Stone said the Post’s reporting “distorts” Meta’s approach, saying that there are instances where enforcement is “one-and-done.”
One unnamed source the Post quoted said the number of strikes was so large that it rarely makes a difference to either the user or site, and “the only ramification was that a seller’s post was taken down.”
At the same time, the site allows users to promote gun shows or firearm raffles taking place off-platform.
Facebook has publicly advertised that there’s no sale or trade of guns, ammo, or explosives allowed on the platform. It has a list of firearms that also includes antiques and airsofts. Firearm shops, both physical and online, are still allowed to sell and advertise “as long as applicable laws and regulations are followed.”
Though when this reporter took a cursory glance on Facebook marketplace, one of the first items up for sale in the area (that being Long Island) was an airsoft sniper rifle going for $150, though the item didn’t list how long it had been available.
Of course, an airsoft gun should be lower on the list of Facebook’s worries, but a Wall Street Journal report from 2019 showed gun sellers were getting around the issue by listing guns as “cases” or “boxes,” using gun makers’ logos to imply there was an actual firearm being sold. Back then, Facebook told reporters it was “always looking for ways to improve our policies.”
One listing on Facebook marketplace was for a gun case going for $315. When asked if the case comes with anything else, the poster sent a picture of a small pistol inside.
Of course, the strike systems are much more severe for child pornography or for posting hate symbols like the Nazi flag, or else any other image related to terrorism. Those violations have a three strikes, you’re out policy, according to the Post’s report.
The current regulations were implemented in 2016 after fierce backlash in the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and the 2015 attack in San Bernardino, California.
Apparently, there was some past disagreement internally about how Facebook should handle gun sales, according to interviews with unnamed sources from The Washington Post. Then-Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who just recently left her position at the company, wanted the platform to ban all gun sales. She was countered by Joel Kaplan, the VP of global public policy, who among other execs didn’t want to alienate the political right and its potential users. Kaplan and others at Facebook routinely went out of their way to court conservatives, as evidenced in leaked documents provided in the Facebook Papers.
It wasn’t until 2016 that Facebook actually banned its users from selling firearms after continuing pressure from external forces and internal demands. In 2018 the social site said it would stop showing advertisements for gun accessories and cases to minors.