In a recently released report, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) revealed that for two and a half years, agents attempted to illegally buy guns on the darknet and clearnet. Unsurprisingly, the GAO found that illegally buying guns online proved more difficult than reports from the media—and that which Attorney General Jeff Sessions conveyed. Every clearnet attempt failed and only two darknet attempts succeeded.
At the request of Congress, the GAO started the so-called “performance audit” in July 2015 and ended it in November 2017. During the audit, agents attempted to illegally purchase guns on the clearnet on 72 separate occasions. All 72 attempts resulted in empty-handed agents. In 56 attempted purchases, the seller simply chose not to make the sale. Purchasing a gun online can be done legally through licensed gun stores and even through legal gun owners who live in the same state. The GAO wrote that for those types of transaction to be illegal, the seller would have to know that the buyer either lived in a different state than the seller or that the buyer could not legally own a gun.
The report also covered the ATF’s use of clearnet resources in darknet investigations. “For example, to identify an anonymous user on the Dark Web, the [ATF’s Investigations Center] works to establish the user’s “digital footprint” on the Surface Web,” the report explained. “In some cases, users might conduct illegal activity on the Dark Web but might then go to the Surface Web, such as a social-networking website with chat forums on a wide variety of topics, and discuss their illegal activity.” Analysts then used that information as a reference when identifying the darknet buyer or seller.
In 27 of the 72 clearnet attempts, the sellers refused to sell the agents a gun after the agents made it clear that they could not legally own a gun. In 29 cases, the seller simply objected to shipping a gun. This presumably referred to the Federal Firearms License regulations that permit online sale but require in-person contact for filling out forms. Five different attempts were shut down by the seller’s website—the GAO’s accounts literally got banned. All remaining attempts, the report said, were scams. Agents even sent money and never received a product in return.
For some reason, the GAO only made seven attempts on the darknet. Maybe they only found seven vendors that did not work for the government as undercover vendors. The GAO found some success on the darknet, though. In two of the seven attempts, agents ended up with a gun from a darknet vendor. (In fairness, USPIS actually pulled the guns from the mail stream and sent pictures to the agents.) The agents purchased an AK-47 automatic rifle and an Uzi submachine gun. The report cited a prior ATF report that found that the majority of weapon listings on darknet marketplaces are scams. Somehow, people keep falling for them.