Gun Control Meets the Dark Web

In a tearful speech that has yielded media attention and an outpouring of arguments, U.S. President Barack Obama outlined a series of new executive actions aimed at curbing the rampant gun violence in America.

U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch claims that Obama’s actions will help to regulate the increasing number of guns are being sold over the Internet, specifically those being sold on the “dark web”. The dark web refers to heavily encrypted virtual spaces where users can anonymously browse and supply websites, communicates with one another, and buy and sell goods.

obama cryingThe anonymity of the dark web has allowed for a black market to develop in which the proliferation of illegal services are bought and sold. The most notorious of these marketplaces, a website known as the Silk Road, was shut down in 2013. Of course, the hydra-like growth of the internet ensured that multiple copycat websites swooped in to take its place.

Accordingly, illegal weapons are easily traded online using bitcoins, an anonymous and non-government-regulated form of currency that has been around since 2008. The bitcoin has a tumultuous past of sky-rocketing and nose-diving in value, but the need for anonymous trading has kept the currency alive.

Nicolas Christin acts as assistant research professor of electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. He worked with a team or researchers in a recent deep-dive analysis of sales on 35 marketplaces from 2013 to 2015. According to Christin, weapon sales on the internet are not as prevalent as the Attorney General may think.

“Weapons represent a very small portion of the overall trade on anonymous marketplaces,” he claimed. “There is some trade, but it is pretty much negligible.” The dark web’s black markets are more focused on illegal substance, with marijuana and MDMA sales accounting for around 50% of all trades.

mdma silk roadApparently weapons are lumped in with a hodgepodge of products that fall under the “miscellaneous” category, a group composed of electronics, Viagra, tobacco, steroids and drug paraphernalia that together only make up about 3% of the dark web’s economic activity.

The Silk Road even attempted to launch a sister site known as the Armory in 2012. Only a few months passed by before the Armory was shut down again due to lack of interest.

So why the lack of interest? It turns out that purchasing a gun illegally can actually be more precarious and difficult than just buying one the old fashioned way. Guns are much more difficult to ship discreetly and there are plenty of dark web scammers that are likely to take buyers’ money without delivering the product.

“Why would you go through the hassle of purchasing Bitcoin, logging into an anonymous marketplace, purchasing weapons from an online deals, and potentially going through the further hassle of reassembling various weapon parts chipped in multiple parcels to your house, when you can get these weapons legally, e.g. at a gun show- without much of a background check?” Christin asked.

Nonetheless, Lynch believes illegal sales are a major issue: “The industry is shifting and growing… If it does stop one act of violence, this will be worth it.”

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