Most Guns Sold on the Dark Web Originate From the United States, Study Finds, Surprising No One

Photo: Getty
Photo: Getty

Roughly three-fifths of the weapons sold on a selection of dark web marketplaces originate from the United States, according to a new study examining the scope of the internet’s black market arms trade.

The first of its kind, a report from RAND Corporation details the ever-expanding role of the dark web in facilitating the sale of firearms, ammunition, and explosives. In addition to RAND, the report was compiled with the help of Judith Aldridge, a professor of criminology at the University of Manchester.

“While the use of these platforms as facilitators for illicit drug trade has increasingly been the subject of research by a number of academics, little has been done to conduct a systematic investigation of the role of the dark web in relation to the illegal arms trade, drawing on the insights offered by primary data,” the report says.


The study, conducted over a six-day period in September 2016, draws from data collected from 811 listings on 12 cryptomarkets. The findings suggest that the dark web is increasingly a source of “better performing, more recent firearms for the same, or lower, price, than would be available on the street or the black market.” (Generally speaking, firearms sold on cryptomarkets go for higher than retail price, the report notes.)

Cryptomarkets selling arms-related listings from which data was collected. (Source: RAND Europe)
Cryptomarkets selling arms-related listings from which data was collected. (Source: RAND Europe)

Of the 811 listings, 41 percent were for firearms; 27 percent were for arms-related digital products; and 22 percent were for ammunition. The most common firearms sold were pistols (84 percent) while rifles and submachine guns made up 10 and 6 percent of the listings, respectively.


The overall value of the arms listings examined by Rand was estimated at roughly $80,000, of which handgun made up 90 percent.

To determine the location from which firearms are being shipped, the researchers used 7 criteria:

1. The country of origin as specified in the listing description.

2. The self-attested ‘ship from’ of each listing.

3. The ‘ship from’ country on other listings by the same vendor.

4. The ‘ship from’ country of a vendor on other cryptomarkets.

5. The ‘ship to’ category, where a single destination country is specified.

6. The most prevalent ‘ship to’ destination, from the same vendor over many cryptomarkets.

7. Analysing the ‘supplier ID’ for an indication of the country of origin (e.g. ‘balkanweapons’, ‘dutchmarket’ and ‘USuser’).


The data shows that up to 59.9 percent of the firearms sold across the 12 examined cryptomarkets originate from the US—the world’s largest exporter of conventional weapons.

In contrast, Europe accounts for 23.6 percent of the gun sales, which is unsurprising given that most European countries have stricter gun-control laws than the US. In Germany, for example, anyone under the age of 25 is required to pass a psychiatric evaluation before buying a gun. In France, firearm applicants are subjected to rigorous background checks and sales are denied to those with criminal records. In the United Kingdom, private citizens aren’t allowed to own handguns.

Worldwide distribution of arms venders by region (Source: RAND Europe)
Worldwide distribution of arms venders by region (Source: RAND Europe)

“The dark web is both an enabler for the trade of illegal weapons already on the black market and a potential source of diversion for weapons legally owned,” said Giacomo Persi Paoli, a research leader at RAND Europe and the report’s lead author. “Recent high-profile cases have shown that the threat posed by individuals or small groups obtaining weapons illegally from the dark web is real. The ability to not only arm criminals and terrorists, who can make virtually anonymous purchases, but also vulnerable and fixated individuals is perhaps the most dangerous aspect.”


Last year, the Bavarian State Criminal Police concluded that Munich rampage-shooter David Sonboly, 18, purchased a 9mm Glock 17 through a dark web marketplace. Sonboly shot and killed 9 people, wounding 36 others, before killing himself.

“The arms trade on the dark web is a drop in the ocean compared to the legal trade of arms worldwide,” Persi Paoli said. “However, compared to other products traded on the dark web, the numbers are not necessarily the most appropriate indicator of how serious the issue is. A few people using illegally purchased weapons from the dark web can have severe consequences.”



Senior Reporter, Privacy & Security

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It’s a good thing the USA’s military is so incredibly powerful. If it wasn’t, I could see other nations declaring war on us just due to the sheer number of their people that are killed by weapons that originate here.

Sure, about 3,000 Americans died in the 9/11 attacks, but how many Mexicans are killed every year by the flood of American-made guns that flow into their country? Mexico doesn’t make many guns and their government doesn’t allow normal citizens to have guns outside their homes, yet because they share a border with the USA Mexicans are killed with our weapons by the thousand.

I know if I was a leader in Mexico’s government I would want reparations from the United States for all the lives lost due to their careless gun laws and law enforcement practices.