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Obama’s Claims About Internet Gun Sales Are Completely False


Yesterday President Obama dramatically announced a handful of executive branch actions related to the sale of guns. The media event was comprehensively staged and included a social media push. Using the hash tag #StopGunViolence, the White House tweeted several dozen quotes and claims about guns. One in particular stood out:

This is so plainly not true that I tweeted:

In fact, it is illegal for violent felons to purchase guns. And no one can just order guns off the Internet without going through a background check. Far from it. Internet gun purchases are relatively rare, but when they happen, the purchased items aren’t sent directly to the buyer but first must be sent to a dealer holding a federal firearms license. Such gun transactions processed by a federal firearms license holder must include a background check, regardless of whether the sale is across state lines or not. Gun transactions across state lines must be processed in the home state of the recipient. So if you purchase a gun off the Internet from a different state, it will be sent to a federal firearms license holder in your state, and you would not be allowed to take possession of it until a background check is done on you.

The only exemption to the federal requirement for background checks applies to non-federal purchases: transactions between two private individuals who reside in the same state. It is against the law for anyone, regardless of whether they hold a federal firearms license, to sell or give a firearm to anyone who is reasonably believed to be a “prohibited person” (a full statutory list of prohibited persons can be found in 18 USC 922(d)). If an individual ran a gun commerce site, they would not be considered private but, rather, in the business of selling guns. As such, they’d need to have a federal firearms license. And even if there were an online shopping site that processed sales between private individuals, they would still need to be shipped. In order to ship guns to private individuals, you need to be licensed to do that. And this process is highly restricted as well.

No one can can just order guns off the Internet without going through a background check.

For starters, the U.S. Postal Service will not mail handguns. Only contract or common carriers (UPS or FedEx) are by law authorized to ship handguns. UPS will not ship a gun from a non-licensed individual to another non-licensed individual. They require shipments of guns to either originate or terminate with a holder of a federal firearms license. You must disclose to UPS that you are shipping a gun. FedEx will also not ship a gun from a non-licensed individual to another non-licensed individual. Just as with UPS, the firearm shipment, at a bare minimum, must either originate or terminate with an FFL. You must disclose to FedEx that you are shipping a firearm.

So no, it’s illegal for violent felons to purchase guns, and online sales and shipping require the involvement of a federal firearm license holder and the use of background checks.

Along the lines of my sardonic tweet about fact checking, another Twitter user was prescient:

Sure enough, PolitiFact did just that. What’s more, they said it was true!

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Even by the standards of PolitiFact, which is just hilariously awful at pretending to be authoritative, this fact checker, who graduated from college in 2014, stands out. Lauren Carroll once rated Martin O’Malley’s claim that 97% of Planned Parenthood’s services are preventive care and mammograms as “half true.” (Planned Parenthood doesn’t do a single mammogram and never has.) When Obama said that ISIS wasn’t gaining strength on the eve of the Paris attacks, she gave that one an unqualified “true.” It’s actually funny, in a way.

This particular fact check is of about the same quality as the rest of them. To begin with, it admits that felons buying guns is illegal but then brushes it away as no biggie. She writes,

(The grammarians at PolitiFact would note that Obama said ‘can,’ not ‘may.’)

I mean, anyone “can” do anything illegal at any point in time, so I’m pretty sure that was the important point President Obama was trying to put in people’s minds — not that violent felons can fill up their Amazon carts with AR-15s and have them shipped straight to the scene of the crime. Also true: A violent felon can go rob a bank at any point in time he desires. (By the way, I hope you also get a kick out of watching how fact checkers go from hyper-literal to relaxed and figurative depending on the political views statement being checked. )

The fact check, under the heading “a big loophole” then goes on to describe how private gun sellers (e.g., a widow selling her husband’s firearm after his death) can place classified ads on the Internet for all to see and how that means Obama’s statement is true.

Except Obama didn’t say that the Internet exists, and people communicate on it via email and the like. Of course people use this new-fangled Internet and its series of tubes to collect all sorts of information about guns. Just a few weeks ago, I myself used the interweb to research where I could take gun safety courses and find gun sellers. But had I “bought the gun over the Internet,” in the words of President Obama, it would have had to involve a federal firearms license holder. (Much more on this point from Mike Morrison here.)

PolitiFact happened to use the same item in its fact check that the White House pushed out — a New York Times report about online classified ads placed at Except that specifically says it does not process sales, which would be a key step in “buying over the Internet.” PolitiFact provides no evidence of any place on the Internet that will process gun sales without a background check, to violent felons or anyone else.

Private sellers are forbidden by federal law from running NICS background checks, whether or not they want to.

PolitiFact’s discussion of non-online (read: in-person) sales neglects to even consider shipping restrictions. It fails to show any evidence of online purchases of guns between private sellers, such as the names of sites that process such sales or the names of shipping companies that deliver such transactions. It also fails to note that private sellers are forbidden by federal law from running NICS background checks, whether or not they want to.

President Obama’s executive actions mostly reiterate what the law already says. And his own press secretary said that the executive actions (“legally meaningless” in the words of one legal analyst, helpful to “low-volume firearms dealers” from another analyst) were about political positioning. Fine, if that’s what he wants to do.

But this should have been an easy statement to check. The president said violent felons can buy guns online without a background check. That is unequivocally false. Online sales are processed through federal firearms license holders, which require background checks. And if a transaction doesn’t happen online, it’s not an online transaction. Even for PolitiFact, rating this statement “mostly true” is embarrassing.

Is it too much to ask journalists, much less young fact checkers, to have the slightest idea about how gun sales work in the real world? They could still push their politics, but they wouldn’t seem quite so ignorant while doing it.