For guns, the Web is a land of few rules

Michael Luo, Mike McIntire and Griff Palmer / New York Times News Service /

Published Apr 17, 2013 at 05:00AM

The want ads posted by the anonymous buyer on Armslist.com, a sprawling free classified ads website for guns, telegraphed urgency.

Feb. 20: “Got 250 cash for a good handgun something.reliable.”

Feb. 27: “I got 200 250 cashlooking for a good handgun please let me know what u got.”

Feb. 28: “Looking to buy some 9 mm ammo and not at a crazy price.”

The intentions and background of the prospective buyer were hidden, as is customary on such sites. The person posting these ads, however, left a phone number, enabling The New York Times to trace them to their source: Omar Roman-Martinez, 29, of Colorado Springs, Colo., who has a pair of felony convictions for burglary and another for motor vehicle theft, as well as a misdemeanor domestic violence conviction — all of which bar him from having guns. Yet he was so determined that he even offered to trade a tablet computer or a vintage Pepsi machine for firearms.

When questioned in a telephone interview, Roman-Martinez said he ultimately decided not to buy a weapon.

He also insisted that a 9-millimeter handgun he posted for sale on the website last month belonged to someone else.

“I'm a felon,” he said. “I can't possess firearms.”

The mere fact that Roman-Martinez was seeking to buy and sell guns on Armslist underscores why extending background checks to the growing world of online sales has become a centerpiece of new gun legislation being taken up in the Senate this week. With no requirements for background checks on most private transactions, a Times examination found, Armslist and similar sites function as unregulated bazaars, where the essential anonymity of the Internet allows unlicensed sellers to advertise scores of weapons and people legally barred from gun ownership to buy them.

The bipartisan Senate compromise under consideration would require that background checks be conducted through federally licensed dealers on all Internet and gun show sales. Gun control advocates argue that such checks might have prevented shootings like that of Zina Haughton, 42, who was killed in October with two other women by her husband, Radcliffe, even though a restraining order barred him from having guns. Haughton simply contacted a private seller on Armslist and handed over $500 in a McDonald's parking lot for a .40-caliber semiautomatic pistol and three magazines.

Seeking a glimpse into the largely hidden online gun market, The Times assembled a database and analyzed several months of ads from Armslist, which has become the dominant player in the arena, and examined numerous smaller sites.

Tens of thousands of ads

Over the past three months, The Times identified more than 160,000 gun ads on Armslist. Some were for the same guns, making it difficult to calculate just how many guns were actually for sale. Even so, with more than 20,000 ads posted every week, the number is probably in the tens of thousands.

Notably, 94 percent of the ads were posted by “private parties,” who, unlike licensed dealers, are not required to conduct background checks.

Besides Roman-Martinez, the Times investigation led to Gerard Toolin, 46, of Walterboro, S.C., who is a fugitive from the Rhode Island police and has two outstanding felony warrants, as well as a misdemeanor warrant — all barring him from owning guns. He was recently seeking to buy an AK-47 assault rifle on Armslist and was also trying to trade a Marlin rifle. He posted photos to his Facebook account of an AK-47 he had already purchased, along with a variety of other guns.

There was also Martin Fee, who has a domestic battery conviction in Florida and other arrests and convictions in Florida and New Jersey, including for drug possession, burglary and larceny. He was selling a Chinese SKS rifle on classified section of another website, BudsGunShop.com.

The examination of Armslist raised questions about whether many sellers are essentially functioning as unlicensed firearms dealers, in contravention of federal law. The law says that people who “engage in the business” of selling firearms need to obtain a license and conduct background checks on customers. While the definition of engaging in business is vague, The Times found that more than two dozen people had posted more than 20 different guns for sale in a several month span.

Among them was Joshua Lovejoy, 32, who since November has advertised more than 100 guns on Armslist, mostly in Canton, Ohio, ranging from AR-15 assault rifles to Glock 19 semiautomatic pistols. He once listed more than 20 guns in a single ad. He insisted in a telephone interview, however, that he had sold only a few.

Then there was Ron Metz, 49, who has advertised more than 80 guns from Anderson, S.C., since February. Metz said in an interview that he had needed money, so he started selling some guns and trading for others. He also bought other guns, which he turned around and sold as well. He said he had no real idea how many he had sold, guessing that it was more than a dozen. He never keeps any records and does not do any background checks, explaining: “I can just sort of read people.”

“You think I broke a law?” he asked.

'A gun show that never ends'

Armslist was the brainchild of Jonathan Gibbon and Brian Mancini, friends who attended the U.S. Air Force Academy and then transferred to the University of Pittsburgh.

Gibbon, who did not respond to requests for comment, said in a 2010 interview with Human Events, a conservative website, that he got the idea for Armslist during the summer of 2007 when he saw that the classifieds website Craigslist.com had decided to ban gun-related ads “because a few users cried out for it.” Gibbon, who went on to law school at the University of Oklahoma, where he founded the Second Amendment Club, said he had been inspired to “create a place for law-abiding gun owners to buy and sell online without all of the hassles of auctions and shipping.”

Mancini, who designed the site, recently left the company. Gibbon remains the site's owner, while also practicing law in Pennsylvania, according to his profile on LinkedIn. Armslist LLC, registered with the Oklahoma secretary of state, lists an office suite in Pittsburgh as its business address.

When asked by Human Events to describe the site, Gibbon said: “Imagine a gun show that never ends.”

Gun shows have long been a source of concern for gun control advocates and law enforcement officials, because many allow unregulated sales without background checks. Websites make such transactions far more widely available, with just a few clicks of a mouse.

A 2011 undercover investigation by the city of New York examined private party gun sellers on a range of websites, including Armslist, to see whether they would sell guns to someone who said that they probably could not pass a background check. (Federal law bars sales to any person the seller has reason to believe is prohibited from purchasing firearms). Investigators found that 77 of 125 online sellers agreed to sell the weapons anyway.

Armslist posts a disclaimer on its home page, urging users to “comply with local, state, federal and international law,” but it also makes clear that the site “does not become involved in transactions between parties.”

What the site does do is make it simple for anyone seeking to buy a gun without a background check, enabling users to filter gun ads in their state by ones being sold by private parties.

The loose online atmosphere was evident in the case of an Arizona gun dealer, Walter Young, who pleaded guilty last week to a federal gun charge stemming from an investigation into his sale of a .50-caliber rifle, dozens of gun kits and thousands of rounds of ammunition to an anonymous buyer who contacted him on Gunbroker.com.

Young — a tea party activist who posted a YouTube video in February suggesting that he was being persecuted for criticizing the government — told federal agents he had shipped everything to an address in Texas near the Mexican border, without even knowing the identity of the recipient, according to court records. After initially lying to investigators, he admitted looking the other way in his online dealings, records show.

“Young stated there was a general 'don't ask, don't tell' policy in the gun world when it came to wanting to know why a person was purchasing a particular item, and for that reason he did not question people he sold items to,” federal prosecutors said in a court filing.

Other cases have had deadly consequences.

In 2011, Dmitry Smirnov, a Canadian resident, contacted Benedict Ladera, from Kent, Wash., via Armslist, expressing interest in a Smith & Wesson .40-caliber pistol that Ladera had posted for sale.

Ladera, who had sold about 20 guns on Armslist over the previous year, agreed to meet at a casino but increased the price of the handgun to $600, from $400, because he was from out of state, according to court records. After buying the gun, Smirnov drove to Chicago, where he stalked Jitka Vesel, a woman he had briefly dated a few years earlier, and on April 13, 2011, shot and killed her. Smirnov turned himself into authorities and was later sentenced to life in prison.

Federal authorities also arrested Ladera, who pleaded guilty to making an illegal transfer of a firearm to a nonstate resident and was sentenced to one year in prison. Last year, the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Armslist on behalf of Vesel's family.

In the case of Radcliffe Haughton, the Wisconsin man who killed his wife, the person who sold him the gun on Armslist told federal investigators that he had checked Haughton's driver's license to make sure he was a Wisconsin resident. He also said he asked Haughton whether he was prohibited from having firearms, but he indicated that he was not.

Few Internet prosecutions

Despite these cases, it appears that prosecutions of people who illegally buy and sell guns on the Internet are relatively unusual. A review of nearly 100 court cases in which federal authorities seized guns over the last year found that in very few instances were Internet transactions the focus of the investigations.

Roman-Martinez spent a little more than a year in prison, getting out in 2010, after pleading guilty to second-degree burglary for breaking into a car with some friends, taking a key and an address, and then going to the person's house, where they made off with jewelry, a safe and electronics.

He had prior felony convictions for burglarizing an auto-parts store and for stealing a car from a car dealership, and a misdemeanor assault conviction for biting and repeatedly using a telephone receiver to hit the woman he was living with, according to court and police records.

The Times also found Martin Fee, of Vero Beach, Fla., while examining a listing for a Chinese SKS rifle on Budsgunshop.com. In the ad, Fee said he would not sell to anyone living in New York, New Jersey or “the People's Republic of California.” A Twitter account belonging to “Marty Fee” of Vero Beach is filled with vitriolic postings about President Barack Obama and liberals, including one that says the president and attorney general “should be chained n shot.”

Fee, 45, has an arrest record dating back decades, and it is difficult to verify which charges resulted in convictions. But a domestic battery conviction from 1999, resulting from a dispute between Fee and his then-wife that turned physical, appeared to disqualify him from possessing firearms.

Reached by phone last week, Fee said he had sold the gun and had it shipped to a licensed dealer. When a reporter asked him how he could own a gun with his domestic violence conviction, he backpedaled, insisting that the SKS rifle was not actually his, and that he “posted it up there for a friend of mine.”

“I never saw the weapon. I never touched the weapon,” he said, declining to identify the friend. He then ended the call.

Shortly thereafter, his ad disappeared from the website.

Gun votes — Senate leaders set up a critical showdown on gun control for Wednesday that will determine the shape of legislation inspired by the shootings in Newtown, Conn., and whether it will advance in Congress.

Under an agreement reached Tuesday evening, the Senate will vote on as many as nine amendments in an afternoon rush. Three are largely Democratic: a provision expanding background checks to firearms bought at gun shows or on the Internet, a reinstatement of an assault weapons ban and a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines.

Others are Republican: a mandate that any state permit for carrying a concealed weapon be honored by virtually every other state, a broad alternative gun measure aimed at mental health care and school safety, and another helping veterans clear their names to obtain firearms.

Two other measures are bipartisan, one to crack down on gun trafficking and another to bolster mental health treatment.

The outcome of the votes could determine the bill's fate. If Republicans prevail and the measure shifts too far in the direction of new gun rights, the Democratic-controlled Senate might end up killing its own bill.

Republicans are lining up behind an amendment that would effectively create a national conceal-carry law, a goal that gun groups have been pressing for years.

“You could actually expand the Second Amendment” with the bill, said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

Senate Democrats, trying to simply hold their ranks together behind a background check amendment written by Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., met for an emotional luncheon Tuesday. Manchin gave a tearful, impassioned appeal for his measure as former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., looked on. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., retold in detail the story of the professor at Virginia Tech who threw his body in front of a door to save students during the massacre there in 2007.

— New York Times News Service