Facebook is caught in the gun debate

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Social network site Facebook is one of the world’s largest marketplaces for guns.

Facebook wants to unite the world so everyone can talk about everything. One of the big things people want to talk about, it seems, is guns.

The social network is one of the world’s largest marketplaces for guns. A DoubleStar AR-15 is offered for $650. A raspberry-colored Taurus pistol can be had for $239.95, a Bushmaster M4 “fresh from the box” for $1,200. “We’ve got over 550 guns and we need buyers!” posts a Louisiana seller.

Under pressure from law enforcement and advocacy groups, Facebook took steps this week to regulate gun sales on its site as well as on its photo-sharing app Instagram. Pages advertising guns for sale, for instance, will be shielded from minors.

Facebook does not want its growing prominence as a private gun mall to alienate users. Nor does it want to squelch free speech. But if the company hoped its announcement would satisfy everyone and make the issue disappear, the plan backfired.

Gun control groups applauded the changes. So did Michael R. Bloomberg, who is making gun control one of the most visible elements of his career after serving as New York mayor. But the National Rifle Association said the changes were so insignificant that Mr. Bloomberg had “failed.”

And Daniel Gross, president of one of the largest gun control groups, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said little had been achieved.

“I wouldn’t even call this a meaningful first step,” Mr. Gross said. “There’s a simple solution here. Facebook should be prohibiting any post that advertises the unlicensed sale or transfer of firearms in the U.S.”

Some large Internet sites have gone further. Craigslist, the informal community website for all sorts of transactions, prohibits the sale of weapons as does the auction site eBay. “We made the unilateral decision to ban all guns in 1999 as part of our commitment to being a responsible online marketplace,” Ryan Moore, an eBay spokesman, said.

Facebook and Instagram are not e-commerce sites, but with over a billion users they encourage a lot of conversations that establish a framework for offline deals. In some ways, the lack of an actual storefront promotes a willingness to believe there are no rules.

Eric T. Schneiderman, the New York attorney general, sent Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, a letter in November saying that “a recent review of Facebook found a number of groups in which users promoted the sale of assault rifles, handguns, rifles, shotguns and gun parts.” He noted that a new New York law requiring background checks could easily be skirted by Facebook users.

Facebook says it strives to be mindful of the needs of all its members.

“Our goal here is to balance people’s interest in sharing things that they care about while making sure our community is a safe and responsible one,” said Matt Steinfeld, a Facebook spokesman.

The specific changes Facebook is putting in place include deleting posts that seek to circumvent gun laws. It will restrict minors from viewing pages that sell guns. And it will inform potential sellers that private sales could be regulated or prohibited where they live.

But Facebook will be able to take action only when a member of its community alerts it. On Instagram, the process will be a little more automatic. Someone searching for a hashtag like #gunsforsale will get a “content advisory.”

Mr. Gross, of the Brady group, said blocking children was the “only tangible thing here.” Otherwise, he said, “I don’t think Facebook has delivered on what can be done, and what our supporters want to be done.”

Facebook’s changes came after it had been talking to gun-control groups for as long as a year. Among them are Sandy Hook Promise, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, Mr. Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns, Americans for Responsible Solutions and the Brady group. Mr. Schneiderman joined the discussion as well.

Mr. Bloomberg said, “We are grateful that Facebook was willing to listen to the Moms, look at the information and adapt its policies to help make sure that people who shouldn’t have guns — like minors, felons and other dangerous people — aren’t able to get guns via their platform.”

There are many competing interests. The group Moms Demand Action received 225,000 signatories to a petition asking Facebook to crack down on illegal gun sales. But the N.R.A. tried to frame its demands as a free-speech issue.

“Bloomberg and the gun-control groups he funds tried to pressure Facebook into shutting down discussion of Second Amendment issues on its social media platforms,” Chris W. Cox, executive director of the N.R.A.’s Institute for Legislative Action, said in a statement. “Bloomberg failed.”

Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia who has written often about Internet culture, said Facebook was “entering its adolescence facing all of these moral and political challenges about what to filter and what standards to apply.”

He added, “It will need a linguist and a roomful of lawyers to come up with a workable policy to allow some posts about guns to go through and some not to go through.”

Already, however, he could see the site taking on more responsibility for what happens on it.

“The moment Facebook gets into the business of blocking what it identifies as gun sales to minors, it is assuming responsibility if something horribly goes wrong,” Mr. Vaidhyanathan said.

That almost happened last fall, when a 15-year-old Kentucky boy used Facebook to buy a handgun from an Ohio man. Federal law prohibits the sale of guns across state lines except by licensed dealers, while minors cannot buy handguns in any case.

The youth was arrested with the loaded weapon outside his school’s homecoming football game. He said he had bought the gun to be cool. The seller was charged last month with transferring a firearm to an out-of-state resident.

Source:New York Times

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